Student Engagement and Support

In this section we will focus on how to set your students up to succeed by helping them learn the online platforms that you'll be using.

Though remote learning and isolated living have now been our reality for quite some time, your students are still living through a uniquely challenging moment in their lives, just as you are. It will be harder to see this in their presence and in their work because of the lack of in-person contact. In order to keep the lines of communication open between students and instructor and among students, we recommend pinning an open discussion to your Canvas page. This can be a safe place for students to post questions, crowdsource answers to technical and organizational questions, and build a bit of community.

Additionally, we recommend  creating not only explanatory materials, like a detailed syllabus with explicit information on assignments and expectations, but also an orientation module that will serve as an anchor for your students to guide themselves through your Canvas site, whether for the first time or for the tenth time. This can include your syllabus and a link to your open discussion (see above), as well as an activity or an assignment that will prompt students to navigate their way through your course materials, answer questions, find information, and, ideally, use the technologies and tools that you will be using in your class activities and assignments. Especially in the "forethought phase" of your course, it's best to encourage your students to cultivate an understanding of their own time-management skills and get a sense of what they will need to work on most throughout the course of the semester; this article from Faculty Focus makes an excellent case for prioritizing this in the beginning of the semester: "At the forethought phase, students must create an effective learning plan. Educators can help students do so by helping them identify their learning goals. Learning goals should be specific—challenging but attainable, proximal, and hierarchically organized with larger overarching goals." During this phase, low-stakes assignments that prompt students to really engage with the kinds of tasks they'll be asked to do throughout the semester will also teach them how much time they will need to allocate for such tasks (and you, the instructor, will learn which things take longer than you expected them to and vice-versa).

Distant learners have varying expectations of access to you; some will anticipate immediate, or near-immediate responses to their questions.  Establish a communications policy early; what should they expect in terms of response time from you? What are the means of communication that you will use with them?  Canvas can be a good central point for pushing out information. We suggest asking your students to download the free Canvas Student app, available in both the Android and Apple stores.  When they install it on their smartphones, they should be sure to enable push notifications. That way, your announcements and other messages regarding available content will reach them without them having to go looking for the information.  

Especially if you haven't used Canvas extensively in your classes up to this point, students may need a refresher (see Orientation Module suggestions, above).  If you are creating new structures in Canvas, such as Modules or Assessments, they very likely will. As you build out your Canvas shell, make sure to let students know what’s coming -- where to access materials and assessments, how to view videos being streamed, where to ask questions, how you’re going to communicate with them.  Screencasts are a great way to walk them through the changes that they will see over the coming weeks. To check their understanding of the course's layout and the location of new elements, consider building in a quiz at the end of your introduction; it doesn't have to be high-stakes, or impact their grade at all, but all of them should demonstrate that they know how to access tools, materials, and interactions.

It's important not to introduce a lot of new technologies into your course when moving to remote instruction; try to make use of applications and programs with which you and the students are already familiar. In addition, the students need to feel like they can offer feedback and report problems in a timely manner; open lines of communication will be essential.  Putting a pinned Discussion (see above) in your Canvas shell for this purpose will allow them to ask questions and for the responses to be preserved, should others need them.

Communicating with students:

We encourage you to use a service like Calendly to book remote appointments with students. Students can schedule meetings with you (of a duration of your choosing) and these meetings will integrate automatically with your calendar software (after you set it up).

Students may not yet know how to use Zoom, although the majority of them are familiar with videoconferencing/communications apps like FaceTime, WeChat, or WhatsApp.  Remember to proactively provide your students with some Harvard Zoom user guidance at the beginning of the semester; set the precedent that they should expect to do some troubleshooting on their own. We’ve also put together a guide for them under the “For Students” tab on this page.  Please point them to it as you find it appropriate and useful.

Keeping ahead of student issues:

This is going to be a new and challenging experience for our students.  Although they are talented and smart and driven, some of them will not yet have the necessary time management skills or the current mental space to work effectively in a remote environment.   If you are using Canvas to deliver material and receive assignments and quizzes, you can click on a student’s name under People, choose Analytics, and view that student’s participation in the course, measured in a few different ways.  We encourage you to check this data frequently -- it may help you discover that a student isn’t thriving in the remote environment before they reach out to you.

If you do use Canvas’ quizzes and assignments extensively, SpeedGrader can make the evaluation process faster and more efficient

Please contact the Language Center staff at language@fas.harvard.edu with your concerns or questions. We’re here to help.