This article was originally published in Net: An eJournal of Faith-Based Distance Learning.
Many cannot imagine that real character formation can be achieved in any format other than in the traditional brick-and-mortar model of residential education with in-class face time. Profound character formation, however, can and has happened through quality and effective learning in online education. Good pedagogy toward fostering character formation begins with an understanding of the heart and soul and their relationship to one another. Allowing this knowledge to inform the creation of well-framed questions and prompts while fostering mutual engagement between students and between students with their instructor provides not only higher levels of learning but also lasting character formation in the student. This article addresses a foundational approach to character formation in online classes and some practical, user-friendly techniques to facilitate deeper learning and character formation. These are applied to various features of a learning management system, particularly discussion threads, video conferences, and collaborative documents.
The content for this blog series is drawn from my book, Character Formation in Online Education:A Guide For Instructors, Administrators, And Accrediting Agencies (Zondervan 2015).
A growing number of instructors are experiencing the benefits–and dispelling the anxieties—of incorporating video conferences for significant engagement with their online students. In the last of this 3-part series, video conferencing as a collaborative tool is introduced. A brief conclusion follows.
Video Conferencing: Lights. Camera. (Inter)Action
Learning Management Systems (LMS) continue to make video conference sessions more user friendly with clear, strong connections conducive to conversations without video or audio delays. Many LMSs have this feature built into them, thus eliminating the need to use a program outside of the learning platform that instructors and students would have to download and install separately on their computers.
Video conferences are preferably not used for teaching purposes but rather for following up or offering personal perspectives on previously viewed video lectures or completed assignments. When used between individuals or with small groups, dialogue is encouraged and community is furthered. Participants’ names appear along with their real time images, so instructors do not have to memorize students’ names ahead of time or be anxious about addressing a student by an incorrect name.
When scheduling video conferences, seek the most opportune and convenient time for all involved. Half-hour time slots held during morning and evening hours appear most practical. It may help to know that the most difficult night to get good sleep is Sunday, due to social jetlag; the easiest is Thursday. Friday morning video conferences, therefore, may be more profitable than Monday morning ones.
The venue for video conferences ranges from the comfort of your own home or office to any place a strong Internet connection is available, preferably with little or no background noise, music, or other people. Using different rooms in a home (e.g., living room, dining room, kitchen) can give a personal touch and let your students feel like you are inviting them into your personal space.
You are not alone when it comes to initially feeling uneasy using video conferences for a class. Students, too, can feel uncomfortable, even when they are in their own familiar environment. Yet, within some sessions one can serendipitously meet parents, siblings, roommates, and even pets as they appear on a student’s screen (although pets are never as impressed or inquisitive as human viewers). Seize these opportunities; they contribute to the ease of growing a safe and engaging learning community.
And, of course, a professor can use video conferences as virtual office hours, too, for students with questions or situations that require attention. The students as well as the professor can request these.
Leading a group video conference
Introductory video conferences establish the welcoming and friendly tone for subsequent sessions. Informing students that they are being prayed for allows them to begin seeing a depth of care and trust found in an interactive learning community. As you grow more familiar with the students and they with you, it becomes easier to converse over course-related challenges, reflections, and assignments. Where vulnerability is embraced, conversations can be directed toward heart and soul matters by sharing your own stories and brief observations on life matters or asking how their learning is intersecting current life situations. Your students face the challenges of thinking about and living out truth. Meet these challenges with empathy, concern, openness, and prayer.
As you progress with video conferences, address any present issue students might have. It helps to then answer any questions they might have about the course such as written or reading assignments, discussion threads, or LMS issues. If you as the professor have made observations about a group’s participation in that week’s discussion threads, for example, take the opportunity to offer your verbal comments. Suggestions to help students foster their learning community, to approach a particular assignment, or to better understand a difficult reading assignment are greatly appreciated by students. This makes them feel as though they have an inside track from the professor and provides additional points of contact and relationship building.
Being mindful of directing attention toward character formation, consider the following ways to involve students in dialogue as participants in a video conference:
- Listen for the challenges that your students are facing. Challenges in our lives are God-ordained opportunities to give evidence of God’s Spirit working in us. What challenges are your students experiencing in or while taking this course? How can they rely on God even more?
- What difference do your students see in themselves since the beginning of this course? What puzzles them about what they are learning from God? What truth has them pondering a few minutes longer than usual? How has their love for God grown? How has their love for people grown?
As you approach the close of your live video sessions, consider giving your students a “heads up.” If the coming week is going to be challenging, tell them so. If there is something you want them to pay even closer attention to, let them know. You are offering lifelines to them as the rigors of your course mount. An easy way to remember what should be addressed in a video conference is: “Past, Present, Future.” It is that simple.
Lastly, take the opportunity to pray for the students. Knowing the tasks they have at hand and having listened intently to their concerns, close the video conference with a short prayer. Your modeling the importance of bringing others and their concerns before God is impactful for all. Prayer, discussion thread responses, video conferences, and the way technology is used in a course are just a few ways the heart of the instructor comes through. As an instructor, you have a critical role in impacting transformation in the lives of students.
Great professors inspire students. Now they get to do it in their online classes. They facilitate student learning and reflection using a number of features in a learning management system. Students in online classes can experience a real sense of community and never feel that it is just them and the computer screen. Both professors and students take ownership and responsibility for the work of engaging and participating in a learning community.
As students are inspired toward character formation, their souls are impacted, their hearts are transformed, their lives are changed, and their impact on others becomes boundless. Character formation is important and all the more as our world needs knowledgeable men and women of integrity and virtue.
The growing number of online courses provides strategic intersections between learning and character formation. Future research in these areas would serve to further equip educators with best practices for effective growth in character formation in their students. Character formation in online education is a reality well worth the investment. There is nothing quite like witnessing lives being transformed before your very eyes (even if it is on a computer screen).