Whether they’re together in a classroom or attending class remotely, everyone in your flex-hybrid course is sharing “space” of one kind or another. Thus, you need to make all the spaces in your course as safe and welcoming as possible.
Here, we’ll focus on the virtual spaces in your flex-hybrid course.
First, we should address the common misperception that the virtual spaces of your course are somehow less desirable than the physical ones. This might be true for some – but it’s not the case for everyone. In fact, with all the stress of masks and social distancing in in-person classrooms, virtual classrooms might feel more comfortable and welcoming to some students than physical classroom spaces right now!
There are four principles for making the virtual spaces in your course pleasant and conducive to learning:
- Keep them psychologically safe
- Make them simple and familiar
- Add visual appeal
- Pay attention to physical comfort (yes, really!)
Although virtual classrooms are definitely physically safer, they are subject to forms of disruption that are unusual in physical spaces. It is vital to keep video classes psychically safe by preventing unwanted intrusions by outsiders.
If you are using Zoom, you should take advantage of recent security upgrades to prevent “Zoombombing”. Zoom’s blog offers an excellent explanation of these features and explains how to use them.
Google Meet has many of those security features (access by invitation only, etc.) built right in. These may make Meet preferable to Zoom for class meetings. (Also, Meet is free and unlimited for all Champlain users, while free Zoom cuts you off at 50 minutes, and Google is planning to roll out a variety of features, including tiled view for up to 49 participants, breakout rooms, Q&A, polling, video presentation with audio, low-light mode, and noise cancellation, to bring its functionality to parity with Zoom.)
Simplicity and Familiarity
One important way to help your students feel comfortable and welcome in your virtual learning spaces is to make those spaces simple and familiar.
That’s why the Center for Learning and Technology has developed the Canvas Template. The Template is designed to ensure that all instructors’ Canvas courses use the same basic navigation and organization system.
Your students will really appreciate your taking the time to import the Template into your course and use it. Here’s how to do that – and here’s a more detailed explanation of why it matters.
Using the Template doesn’t mean that you can’t make your course welcoming, appealing, and personal.
If you’re not sure how to make your Canvas shell visually appealing, ask yourself what makes a physical space comfortable and welcoming. (Yes, this means that you can now take a break to watch some HGTV and call it “research for work”!) You can also examine the layouts of websites, books, and magazines that you enjoy and find attractive.
Here are some suggestions for how to translate the features of a welcoming physical space into a virtual classroom space:
- Treat the homepage of your Canvas shell like a front door. Like the entrance to our home, the homepage of our courses is an opportunity to send the message to students that the course is safe and well-maintained. The homepage can also show your personality as an instructor.
The Canvas template comes pre-loaded with the “front page” of your Canvas pages as the homepage of the course. You should keep this setting, and you shouldn’t mess with the table that links to all the modules, but you will need to change the image and the title of your page to make it your own (in both the shell and template, the current title and image are placeholders students will find confusing). In fact, some instructors do this frequently to keep things interesting. Here’s a quick explanation of how to edit a Canvas page.
Instead of an image, the homepage of your course could even include a video – one that stays the same all semester long or one that you change up periodically.
- Show your students around. When guests arrive at your home, you probably give them a quick tour to show them where the important stuff is – the bathroom, the refrigerator, etc. Guiding students around your Canvas shell on the first day of class, and giving quick updates at the beginning of each class session (you might think of it as the equivalent of a note on the fridge) – will help your students settle in and feel comfortable.
- Tidy it up. Before others come into our homes, we usually tidy and declutter the space. Likewise, our Canvas shells should be free of clutter – that is, links and navigation should be clear, orderly, and consistent, and there shouldn’t be too many of them. (If you use the Canvas Template, you’ll be 90% of the way there – but you also want to follow that rule when you’re formatting assignments and any sub-pages you choose to create, and remove any components of the template that you will not use.) Oftentimes, clear visual organization also improves accessibility for students who do not interact visually with the course, such as those using screenreaders.
In case you didn’t notice last spring when we all transitioned to remote learning: working on a computer can be pretty uncomfortable if you do it for long periods of time.
That’s part of why functional simplicity is important – you don’t want your students to spend extra hours at their computers just trying to figure out how to access the content in your course.
Also it’s important to be mindful of “Zoom fatigue” and the eye strain that comes from reading on a screen.
“Zoom fatigue” is a real thing – it comes from the additional cognitive load imposed by trying to parse interpersonal interactions in a space where you can’t see a person’s full body and other physical cues that you get during in-person meetings.
Fortunately, there are some simple ways to mitigate Zoom fatigue.
There are also some simple but extremely effective ways to help mitigate the effects of eye strain and promote concentration during screen reading. These methods are based on extensive “eye-tracking” studies by web usability experts.
Why does promoting everyone’s physical comfort help build community? Because the more physically comfortable your students are, the more they will come to synchronous class meetings, and the more opportunity there is to create connections with and among them.