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Episode 22 Transcript
49 MORE Tricks for Retention & Success in Online Courses
Kevin Patton: Bill Gates once said, “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”
Aileen: A few minutes to focus on teaching Human Anatomy and Physiology with host Kevin Patton.
Kevin Patton: In this episode I briefly talk about syllabuses. I then continue the conversation from the last episode about improving online retention and student success.
Kevin Patton: In the opening there you just heard me say, “Syllabuses,” and you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Why do I even listen to this guy? He can’t even get the simplest terminology correct? Doesn’t he realize that the plural form of syllabus is syllabi?” Well, it’s true that I often get things wrong, especially pronunciation of terms. An issue I’ve brought up before with y’alls. Wow. I just said, “Y’alls.” I picked that up when I briefly lived in Galveston and it hardly ever pops out anymore, but there you go. I can’t even get the proper and correct form, you all, out there. Getting back to syllabus. I didn’t know until recently that in English the correct plural form of syllabus is syllabuses and syllabi. Either one is correct. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone actually say syllabuses, and maybe before listening to this episode you haven’t heard it either, or either. Turns out that the English word syllabus was coined way back in 1650 from a modern Latin word that was itself formed sort of by mistake by several misreadings and misinterpretations of some similar sounding Greek words.
Kevin Patton: Once it appeared in Latin it then took on a Latin plural form syllabi, but remember, we’re speaking English not Latin. While it’s true that in academia in general and the life sciences in particular we like to use the Latin plural forms. When it comes right down to it we’re still speaking English, right? So, it’s syllabi if you want to preserve the Latin flavor and who doesn’t? It’s also perfectly fine to use syllabuses as the plural form, both are okay. Really. Hey, if you’re ever confronted with this choice in a game of Jeopardy you’re on your own with the judges. The reason I was even thinking about the word syllabus in the first place is that I’m planning a future episode with tips on tweaking our syllabuses. Yeah, I’m not sure I can get used to that. Syllabuses. Nah, it just doesn’t sound right to me. Anyway, I was putting together some ideas on simple and effective ways to make our course documents, there you go, course documents more useful to students.
Kevin Patton: I know that y’alls have some good ideas about that so I’m asking you to pass them along to me now so that I can add them to mine and put them in a future episode. I’d sure love it if you’d call in to 1-833-LION-DEN. That’s L-I-O-N-D-E-N. 1-833-LION-DEN with your ideas, or just send me a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kevin Patton: This episode is 49 more online more teaching tricks, really? 49 more? Well, if you listened to the last episode then you know that that number 49 is kind of really fuzzy anyway, and they were all intended to go into one episode but it just got way too long so I broke it up into three episodes, and so this is the second of three episodes. If you haven’t heard episode 21, the episode just before this one, which is episode 22 then I recommend you go back and listen to that because it kind of sets the stage. For those of you that did listen to it just to kind of bring you back up to speed, because it’s been a while possibly since you’ve heard it. A couple of the main points that I made is number one, I’m calling these tricks, not strategies, so we’re kind of ditching the academic lingo temporarily. I kind of tend to that anyway. Each trick is a strategy and I don’t know how many there are but lots of them obviously because we’re breaking it up into multiple episodes.
Kevin Patton: Another thing I want to mention is, you know, this is all about ways of doing online teaching better and you might be thinking, “I’m not teaching anything online. This is a waste of time for me to listen to it.” If you don’t teach online now, someday you will. That’s just the way things are shaking out. You will be doing that some day, or at least be doing a hybrid course where some of it’s online. Besides that a lot of these tips, probably all these tips you can use just as easily in a face-to-face course. You might have to adapt it a little bit, maybe not at all. Yeah, I think we’ll probably all learn something from this.
Kevin Patton: Now, to quickly review what I was talking about last time. I mentioned that it’s all about connections and my main focus is on making sure that our students feel connected to us, the instructors, because that is really important for their retention in the course. That is, for them to stay in the course, their motivation to stay in the course but also has a lot to do with how successful they’re gonna be. I mentioned that a way to do that was to develop the right kind of online teaching persona that really gives some thought to that to be intentional about forming maybe a friendly persona, informal supportive teaching persona that we’re always consciously portraying in any communications we do within or even outside of our online course.
Kevin Patton: I also mentioned that it’s important to express empathy with students, not just have empathy, but actually express it to them and we can do that by using what most people think of as customer service skills. You know, the way that we’re treated by customer service agents who are really good at what they do, who really make us feel heard, and make us feel like they really are going to help us solve whatever problem we called in with. I also mentioned that we can use our own pain points and our own frustrations to tap into how our students might feel when they’re frustrated, and so that’s gonna help us execute those customer service skills. That’s gonna help us express the empathy that we need to be expressing to maintain those connections.
Kevin Patton: I’m gonna continue that discussion in this episode and what I’m going to be doing is talking about oh, some ways we can literally make our online course more of a face-to-face course. Now what do I mean by that? Well, just stay tuned. I’m also going to talk about how we can use those faces, and voices, and even scheduled course announcements to enhance those connections necessary to retain students and promote student success. Here we go.
Kevin Patton: Another kind of trick I want to mention is faces. You know, that’s the thing that’s missing from online teaching, right? When you walk into a classroom you bring your face with you, don’t you? All the students, they’ve brought their faces and now we face one another. We’re all facing each other and we’re interacting. In an online environment that’s not automatic. That’s why I insist on profile photos. Even though a lot of my students in the programs I teach in have had other online courses before they still, in a learning management system, have a little gray shadow generic profile there where their profile picture’s supposed to go. I don’t let them do that. I keep insisting.
Kevin Patton: I will even get to a point where I’m emailing them individually and say, “Hey, your profile photo’s not there yet.” I have a little sheet of stuff I can cut and paste into an email that walks them through the process of how to create the photo and get it into their online profile. It’s not that hard to do, and say, “Look, you’ve got no excuse. Here’s how to do it. You don’t have to go find a 12 year old to show you, but if you’ve got a 12 year old handy have him show ya and put your profile photo in there.” You know, you gotta emphasize. I’ve been there, done that, made this mistake before. You can’t just say you want a profile photo. You need to say, “We need to be able to see your face.”
Kevin Patton: You’ll get in there and they’ll put up a photo of a woman and her sister. Now, which one of those is Mary? I don’t know. I want to know which is which. Not only that, say, “Okay, well, here’s a picture of just me.” There they are standing in front of the Statue of Liberty and they’re this tiny little dot. That doesn’t help me. I need to be able to picture in my mind’s eye an actual person. I need to plug that into that part of my brain that I use when I’m doing a face-to-face class when I see these faces in front of me. These are actual people. They make them more real to me because I think our brains are kind of built that way. That people are more real when you see their face, when you hear their voice. The more kinds of interaction you can have with them the more real they are.
Kevin Patton: Oh, another thing that I found out that hard way too is encourage them that their profile picture should be, I don’t know, some time within the last 10 years, not like 20, 30 years ago. I think a lot of returning learners tend to do this more. Mainly because they have that one favorite photo where they looked really great 30 years ago and have always gotten compliments on that photo, but they don’t look anything like that anymore. I don’t necessarily mean it in a bad way. Sometimes, you know, they look really good but that photo just doesn’t look like them anymore and so, you know, try to get them to get something kind of recent. One other thing about the photos is that some people are shy about doing that and you have to really just kind of encourage them and say, “Look, it’s gonna work out better for every one of us that this is just a thing we do in this class.” I’ve never had anybody push back very hard on that.
Kevin Patton: Oh, another thing I tell them too. Some people like to put their dog up there for their profile photo and stuff like that. We don’t want to make fun of people doing that because, I don’t know, maybe … I don’t remember ever doing that, but maybe I’ve done that at some point on social media or something like that, or put a cartoon character up, or a heroic figure, or who knows what? Tell them, “Look, okay you want to do that for a day or two, or maybe even for a week? Okay, fine. Your dog just died and you’re really sad about that. Okay, I empathize with that. Go ahead and do that, but then put your own photo back up after a few days.” You might, while you’re sort of in that realm, encourage them to maybe add a little bit of personal info to their profile. Most learning management systems allow you to list interests and hobbies.
Kevin Patton: Something I like to ask my students to put in there is, “Tell me why you’re in school right now,” or, “Tell me why you’re taking this course.” I’m not asking for sensitive, private information here, like the names and birth dates of all your children or your siblings, or whatever. No, no, no, that’s not what I mean by adding personal info. What I mean is just tell us something about yourself. Tell us something that’ll help us connect with you as a person. I go and I look at those, and I found out some very interesting things about my students. That makes them more memorable to me, easier to remember, and therefore easier to connect with. Something that I always do that has worked out really well in my courses, and maybe you’re already doing this, I think this is pretty common is I have something that we call The Student CafÃ©. That is its own discussion forum. That’s just open ended, it’s not required or anything, and they can go in there and discuss things with each other or whatever.
Kevin Patton: I usually have an initial assignment that’s not graded but I ask them to do this, to go in and introduce themselves. I tell them, “Look, some of you already know each other. That’s fine, but I don’t know you yet so tell me something about yourself and put that in the Student CafÃ©.” I post usually the first one to kind of give them an idea of what I’m looking for and tell them, you know, where I live, and what I do in my spare time, and things like that. Some introductions there and then just open it up and say, “Look, this is for informal chats throughout this semester.” Another thing that kind of overlaps this … I told you there’s a lot of overlap, is that as an instructor we need to keep our faces out there too.
Kevin Patton: You know, I’ve mentioned a number of times that I’m an introvert. My natural tendency is not to put my face on a billboard, but if I was selling real estate or insurance I might have to put my face on billboard. You know why they do that? Well, you know why they do that. So that we recognize them so when we meet them in person we’re like, “Oh, yeah. I know you. You’re the guy from the billboard. You’re the lady from the billboard. You’re that couple from the park bench or the bus stop bench. You’re the person on the side of the bus,” and so on. You know, it seems silly, but that forms a connection. We instantly feel more connected with them, or if it’s somebody that you know and then you see them on a billboard it’s like, “Oh, my gosh. I know them.” My backyard neighbor, he’s a TV weather reporter so I sometimes see his face on the side of a bus and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I know him. I know that guy. He’s my neighbor.” Same thing with the real estate agents that live up the street.
Kevin Patton: There’s a couple up the street and I see their pictures all over the place. That forms an instant connection. Even though it may not be our own personal style it needs to be our professional style if we’re teaching online, and that is keep your face out there a lot so that people can connect with you. If you’ve gone to my website, theAPprofessor.org you’ve seen my picture in a few places. Why? Because I want to have that connection with you so that you can connect a person with that website. It’s now not this disembodied digital beast out there. It’s Kevin’s website and you can feel some connection to me through that website because my picture is here and there in another place. We need to do that as instructors.
Kevin Patton: Another way of doing that I almost forgot to mention is that I use a lot of video intros and announcements. Not a lot but I pepper them in there so that I will either just take a straight video or I’ll use some platform like Camtasia or I usually use iSpring software, which is a plug-in for Power Point. I’ll have a few little points on a Power Point maybe to introduce a new topic and there will be Kevin’s little talking head up in the corner and I just did that one time because it was a new feature in the software. I thought, oh, I’m just gonna see if it works. I have a webcam so why not, I’ll try it. Oh, my gosh my students just fell over one another saying, “Oh that is so great. We feel so much more connected to this course.” I’m like, oh, really? I’m glad I did it and now I just can’t stop doing it because I always feel like my students are missing something if I don’t add a little bit of video, a little bit of Kevin’s talking head every once in awhile.
Kevin Patton: Not only in announcements but in lectures and maybe if there’s a new discussion I’ll have a little discussion starter with just a couple minute video of me saying, “Hey, look here’s what we’re discussing today, or this week,” or whatever it is, “in this module.” Sometimes I even use not so much videos of my talking head but I’ll use a narrated video and I’ve talked about this before, a narrated video of a screenshot walking through like, here’s how you get to that resource you need in this course and I walk them through step-by-step.
Kevin Patton: Besides faces, voices are important. I’ve already kind of mentioned that. You know, a face and voice is best but just voice alone like you’re hearing right now, that works okay. I mean, don’t you feel a little bit connected to me? You know, you’ll probably, you know, when you run into me in some place in person and you hear my voice coming within earshot you’ll think, “Oh, I know that voice. Where is that voice?” I can’t tell you how many of my students, I’ll run into them somewhere and start talking to them, and you know, one of their little kids will walk up and say, “You’re mommy’s teacher aren’t you? I can tell because you sound just like her teacher when she’s listening on the computer.” I mean, there’s that connection. You’re even connecting with other family members when you’re using your voice. Use your voice.
Kevin Patton: A lot of LMS’s have that recording ability on an announcements just built in. You don’t have to do anything separate and then port it in. You can actually record the audio in a discussion response, or in a news item, or announcement posting in your Learning Management System. I think the good thing about either the video or the audio alone is that it’s a really good way to convey tone and really project that kind, friendly, supporting kind of online teaching persona that you want to have because sometimes in written communication, especially when we don’t have time but we want to get the answer out there and we’re very terse, and it comes across as being snippy and that’s not what our intent is. Tone is hard to do in a purely written form and so sometimes we can get beyond that. If it’s something that you really want to be especially careful about conveying tone, think about using video and/or voice to portray that tone.
Kevin Patton: That leads us into textual ways of communicating with our students to maintain that connection with our learners that we need to really make the online learning environment supportive and to help retain our students, and help them be successful in our course. Text, it’s an easy method but it can be very powerful. As I just mentioned, conveying tone is more difficult with text so we need to be careful of that. We need to be careful not to be too terse, to always throw in some niceties there like, “Hey, wow. What do you think about this weather,” or, “I’m really looking forward to this day off that we’re getting soon, or holiday,” or whatever to personalize it a little bit. To make it a little more friendly than it would be. It’s like, “No. I said no before. I still mean no.” That’s not a good way to keep our students engaged and have a positive feeling about their learning and about you.
Kevin Patton: One bit of advice that I have is if you’re a little concerned about the tone of something like you’re responding to something or, you know, every once in a while you run across these cases of plagiarism, or cheating, or something like that and they’re just uncomfortable and you want to come down on the student but you want to do it in a way that’s not gonna rip them totally to shreds either, or maybe something less serious than cheating but it’s just like, “If I’ve told you once it’s a million times, look in your syllabus.” You want to be careful about that so my advice is re-read, re-read, and then re-read it again before you hit send. Did you notice I used three re-reads, so there we go. Three times I really mean it is to keep re-reading it. As a matter of fact if you’re not sure whether it’s the right tone or not it probably is not the right tone so re-write it. It might not be a bad idea to ask somebody else to read it if you’re not sure.
Kevin Patton: If there’s a colleague nearby that is used to dealing with students ask them to re-read it. I often ask my wife to re-read it because I work from home mostly and don’t have a colleague nearby to read that. I do sometimes, will send it to colleague and ask them to read it first but I’ll ask my wife. She’s a nurse, she had dealt with clients and so on, so she’s had to develop some of those same skills so she’ll look at that and give me some input like, “Oh, it sounds a little snippy to me here. Maybe is that really what you want to convey?” Now is a good time to remember those customer service skills. You know, when you’re replying back to something and pull out those phrases like, “Yeah, I can understand how frustrated you must be,” or explain some rationales like, “Well, you know, that is my course policy and I’m gonna stick to it.”
Kevin Patton: You might want to take a moment to say, “Look, it has to be that way otherwise this or that could happen,” or, “You won’t understand that this or that could happen as a result if we don’t stick with that course policy or that course practice,” or whatever it is. Sometimes rationale’s are good. Sometimes they sound like over rationalizing something or rationalizing something that’s not rationale but sometimes there’s a reason that a student may not be able to see that they have to turn something in by a certain date or whatever, because otherwise this, and that, and the other thing are gonna unravel. Yeah, you gotta get it done by then.
Kevin Patton: Another way that we can use text to stay connected to our students is through scheduled announcements. What I mean by that is using the Learning Management System, although you don’t have to, there are ways you can do this by way of sending out emails to your students too, but I think it’s easier in a Learning Management System where there are tools built in where you can create messages in and schedule them ahead of time. Right before the mid-term exam you might want to say, “Hey, remember the mid-term exam’s coming up. Make sure you’re ready for that.” Just a short little note. Maybe remind them, “Hey, remember there’s tutors in the Learning Center at the college” or, “Remember this advice that I gave you,” or, “Here’s a link to some advice on how to prepare for an exam,” and so on.
Kevin Patton: Just something to remind them while at the same time letting them know that you care about their success. You know when some of those points at least are gonna happen so you can schedule them ahead of time and not only that, with the Learning Management System you can then take all of them and import them into your next time you offer that course. You just massage the dates a little bit so they’re coming out at the right time in there, you have them all over again. See how easy it is to do? Yet the student is hearing them or reading them for the first time. By the way, they might be hearing them because you can weave in some audio and video messages within those kinds of announcements as well.
Kevin Patton: You might want to consider a very brief just checking in type communication. I do that in one of my courses that is self-paced. I’ll have a regular checking in type thing like, “Hey, you know, it looks like everybody’s continuing to work on things. Don’t forget if you need any help let me know. How you’re hanging in there,” and so on, just to keep them connected so that they know that somebody is sort of keeping an eye on them and somebody is concerned about their progress, and it’s a good way to kind of goose them a little bit because, well especially in a self-paced course, but I think online courses in general students tend to get away from it. It’s hard for them to come back to it. It’s like my garage that needs to be cleaned out. I keep thinking, “Oh, man. I gotta clean that out,” and then I forget about it once I’m out of the garage. It’s only when I’m in the garage that I think about it. Same thing with online learning, I think. Especially when there aren’t specific times and days that we need to be there.
Kevin Patton: I would emphasize, I need to remind myself of this all the time, to not be nagging when I send out those reminders. Like, yeah, we need to stay on task. Yeah, we need to watch the due dates, but you know, don’t nag. Although I will tell you that I did recently send out an email where a whole bunch of people didn’t turn in something that they were supposed to turn in on time, or at least when I wanted them to turn this in. It wasn’t something that was for a grade but it’s something that they needed to do in order for another graded item to take effect. I really wanted them to do it. I really wanted them to do it right away. I said, “Okay, you know,” I just kind of made a joke of it like, “Okay, I’m nagging you. I admit it. I really need to get everybody to do this. Can you please just do it?” At the end I just stuck on there, “And by the way, can you pick up the socks off the floor and put them in the laundry, please?” You know, because is that a typical way that we nag our family members or our household members, or they nag us and so on. Just kind of make it a little bit humorous. Kind of take the edge off of the nagging. Admit to the nagging a little bit and say, “Look, we gotta do this.”
Kevin Patton: Another thing about these announcements is okay, you can pre-schedule them but one really important thing about them is you need to make sure, I need to make sure. This is a reminder to myself because I’m really bad about this. I need to make sure that I spread them out, because if I’m sending them, boom, boom, boom three times in one day that’s too overwhelming because the students aren’t gonna read them as soon as I send them out, or have them scheduled to send out. They’re gonna let them collect there maybe until the end of the day, or maybe for a couple of days and now they’ve got six of them they need to read and they’re not really gonna have time for each one of them to really sink in, to really be meaningful before they get to the next one. We need to avoid that cognitive overload that machine gunning those announcements, and news items, and reminders, and so on can have.
Kevin Patton: We also, you know, if we spread them out more than they’re less likely to be an annoyance. They’re more likely to be perceived as a helpful connection other than this annoying pestering like, “Oh, my God. It’s him again sending another message.” Boy, I tell you, this is really hard for me especially at the beginning of the course because there’s so many things I want to let them know to be careful about in this course. Things that I know are probably new to them, a different way of doing things, and so on. I really need to make sure that I stretch those out over the first couple of weeks rather than the first couple of days. Yeah, okay, sometimes I get somebody telling me, “Well, I wish you would have told me this two weeks ago.” Yeah, okay, but you know, if I explain, “Yeah, I know that but when I try to dump it all on everybody the first couple of days nobody really truly hears it and processes it.”
Kevin Patton: Usually people understand when I tell them that, that they’re just expressing frustration. When I explain that I’m giving rationale and when I also say, “Yes, I understand how frustrated you are by not getting it two weeks ago and only getting it today,” then I’m using my customer service skills and kind of diffusing it a little bit and … but also, helping them realize that in fact, they wouldn’t have heard it if it had been part of a rapid fire barrage of announcements.
Kevin Patton: Some day, some day I’ll have found that perfect sweet spot. I’ll know exactly how far apart to space which announcements go where and how far apart, and so on. I’m not there yet but I’m getting there and as General George Patton always used to say apparently, I don’t know, I was never around him. I’m not related to him even though we have the same last name. General Patton used to say, “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.” I’m gonna stick with my good plan of spreading them out and maybe some day it’ll be a perfect spacing of planning out those announcements.
Kevin Patton: Wait, wait, wait. That’s not the end of this conversation. Don’t forget that was part two of a three part series so wait for that next episode and we’ll finish up our discussion of 49 million tricks we can use to improve retention and student success in our online courses.
Aileen: The A&P Professor is hosted by Kevin Patton. Professor, blogger, and text book author in Human Anatomy and Physiology.
Kevin Patton: This episode is 100% fat free and no sugar or other sweeteners have been added.
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