Why and How to “Handhold” in an Online Classroom–For Students’ Sake and Yours

This post is part of an ongoing series to help you prepare an online course thoughtfully but, if needed, quickly. If you begin at the beginning, I’ll take you through the major decisions you need to make to launch a class as quickly as possible while still doing a great job.

Today’s post is about what you may initially complain about as “hand-holding,” but I hope you will come to see as offering basic support for student learning.

To begin, I want to acknowledge the resentment that we sometimes feel when we, as teachers, are asked to “handhold”–basically, to frequently remind students of their obligations as students. At the college level, we are trained first in our discipline and second, if at all, in pedagogy. We are not micromanagers, nagging parents, personal secretaries, or digital planners. Given how many excellent apps there are to help students manage their time, you’d think that we would have to do less of this than ever, but if feels like we have to do more of it than in the past.

There is good news, though: students who are disciplined and successful at online learning already do this well. They often don’t need reminders because if they did, they wouldn’t have chosen online learning. They are highly motivated and organized. The bad news is that this summer and fall will involve teaching a lot of students who didn’t choose to be online students but had it foisted on them, so they won’t have these skills developed.

Think back to kindergarten. What did you learn? Probably your ABCs and 123s (which kindergartners nowadays are expected to know upon entry) were less important that the discipline of being a student. (I am not defending this.) How to stand in line. How to pee on a schedule. How to not eat glue, at least when other children were looking. How not to stab an irritating child with the safety scissors. How to turn in work in a basket. What a sticker meant. What a 10/10 meant.

Students who are new to online learning are more disciplined into school than are kindergartners, of course, but they still need help learning about the structure of the classroom.

Help them out.

It will take less than 1 hour to do the “Before Classes Start” tasks below. You may grumble about doing them, but you will save yourself far more than 2 hours if you do them, because you will have a higher rate of success (so fewer student alert reports to file), you will have less late work (so fewer extensions to approve, fewer excuses to evaluate, and fewer instances of having to enforce your late work policy, whatever it is), and you will have fewer last minute emails asking questions that make you want to say “It’s in the syllabus!” You will also save Future You time because you will make fewer mistakes that you have to clean up in a future class. Oh, and you’re likely to get positive feedback on this in course evaluations, which are baloney but we until we get rid of them, let’s at least make them work to our advantage when we can.

Here is your to-do list:

BEFORE CLASSES START

  • Create a syllabus quiz that covers every policy in your syllabus.
  • For each upcoming due date, schedule an announcement to be posted on your LMS. (This is another great reason to have only one due date per week.)
  • Make sure that students get scheduled announcements as an email. Check with your LMS to see if this is automatic or if students need to enable it. If students must enable it, make an early assignment that they must submit a screenshot of an announcement that you scheduled within the first module. DO NOT state the due date on the announcement, and DO NOT list the assignments that are due, as if you do, in future semesters, you will need to revise the announcement. Instead, say, “You have work due in our class soon, so be sure to complete it. As a reminder, here is the late work policy:…” I set mine for Wed or Thurs before Sunday due dates.
  • Put due dates in only a few places, and do this for every class, so that you don’t have to change due dates throughout the LMS from semester to semester. Put them on the syllabus. When you set up an assignment in your LMS, always set a due date. These are the ONLY places you should put the due date. Once you put the due date on the assignment in your LMS, it will show up on students’ to-do list or Calendar (depending on how your LMS works). Students RELY on these to organize their work. They open up their LMS and find a to-do list or calendar of due dates for all their classes at a glance. This is central to their success. Rather than griping about it, recognize that students are taking responsibility for their learning by using the LMS’s functions.
  • Schedule an announcement for a few days before the end of the drop and withdraw deadlines.

AFTER CLASSES START:

  • Use the “Remind” function in your LMS to contact students who have not yet turned in work due that day the day that it is due (or the day before). In Canvas, you can personalize these messages, so assure students that they are not late with their work. Something like, “I see you haven’t yet turned in this assignment. [You don’t need to specify, because the subject line will state what it is.] As a reminder, it is due today. Be sure to turn it in  order to to eligible to earn full credit for it.” [2 minutes per week]
  • Schedule a time (I do it every Friday) to review who hasn’t logged in lately or who hasn’t turned in more than one assignment in a row. Email them now with explicit directions for what they should do. (“The quiz is now closed and cannot be reopened, but I encourage you to submit your comments to discussion board, where they will be awarded up to half credit, as explained in the late work policy. More importantly, if something is preventing you from doing your best in this class, including turning in your work, please let me know so I can help you get the  most out of this class and make your best contribution here.”)[10 minutes per week]
  • If they haven’t logged in within the first few days of class, you may be able to administratively drop students. Please, please, please do yourself and the student and your registrar a favor by doing this if you can. Otherwise, students later end up with an F on their transcript for a course they never attended, and you may hear about it years later when they finally look at their transcript as they are applying for a transfer. [10 minutes]
  • When the drop and withdraw dates near, contact students who cannot pass the course, even if this means calling them at home using the phone number available to you from the registrar’s office. [Time varies according to number of students, but plan on 5 minutes per student.]

Above, Claude Monet’s Street in Sainte Andress (1867) shows a woman and child holding hands as they travel down a slightly inclined cobblestone street, toward a church. A man faces them, and small groups of people stand further down the street.

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2 thoughts on “Why and How to “Handhold” in an Online Classroom–For Students’ Sake and Yours

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  1. I was just at a website where [quote]…[/quote] is used to set off a quotation in some visual way. Evidently, that doesn’t work here as well.

  2. At Arizona State, we are told to “maintain a presence”, with a guideline of two or three emails per week for online courses (with more at the beginning of the semester). More than that, and it sounds like nagging.

    Now, a few comments about the post:

    [quote]What did you learn? […] How to stand in line. How to pee on a schedule. How to not eat glue, at least when other children were looking.[/quote]

    Not to drink isopropyl alcohol …

    [quote]Put due dates in only a few places, and do this for every class, so that you don’t have to change due dates throughout the LMS from semester to semester.[/quote]

    And as per Murphy’s Law, there will always be somewhere that you’ll forget to change it, and the students WILL find it.

    It would be nice to have a feature in LMSs where you could change one piece of information, and it propagates to the rest of the website; for instance, you could write $FINAL_EXAM_DATE in your documents, and somewhere in the LMS, you could set this variable equal to whatever the date is. This would also be useful if you have the same basic policies in all of your online classes, so that you don’t have to copy, paste, and modify. (These can also change from semester to semester.)

    [quote]Once you put the due date on the assignment in your LMS, it will show up on students’ to-do list or Calendar (depending on how your LMS works).[/quote]

    And also depending on how *their* calendar works. There are several applications out there (and probably more by the day), so all I that I do is point out the list of due dates, and then tell them to put them into their calendar program.

    [quote]When the drop and withdraw dates near, contact students who cannot pass the course, even if this means calling them at home using the phone number available to you from the registrar’s office.[/quote]

    Isn’t that a violation of FERPA and/or privacy rights, though?

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