7 ways to support learner-teacher interaction

At the recent ALT-C Conference in Nottingham (which I couldn't attend) a very good question was asked  by Renee Filius on Twitter: How can we enable true two-way interaction between lecturers and students that is not too time consuming?  This is a perennial question, one that often exercises the minds of many higher education lecturers. It's vitally important that lecturers and their students maintain dialogue throughout the academic year, but often it doesn't happen, or is sporadic, due mainly to the great time pressures lecturers (and students) are under throughout the year. Compounding this is the large size of student cohorts - how can one lecturer individually address the needs of 300 students? If you don't have the space or time for face-to-face meetings, what can you do? Does technology provide any realistic, sustainable solutions?

Here's a few ideas for you to consider:

1) Lecturers can make sure they maintain dialogue with their students through participation in social media sites. But be careful. It's not as simple as 'going where your students are'. That never worked in the student bar and it won't work on Facebook. In both cases I wait until I'm asked before joining students. The last thing they want is their lecturer hanging around like Dad at a disco when they want to talk frankly and openly about their courses, assessment results or what they got up to in the small hours of the night. Student groups tend to set up their own Facebook groups anyway, without any prompting from their teachers. When I'm invited in to a Facebook group or Google Hangout, I tend to lurk until asked a direct question. Then I wade in, give my advice or opinion and join in with the conversation.

2) One popular social media site - Twitter - is a different proposition entirely. It's more public, more succinct (messages are limited to 140 characters in length) and more appropriate for brief conversations between students and their tutors. Interactions can be managed around a specific hashtag related to the course, or can be private between the tutor and students using the Direct Message (DM) option. Hyperinks and other media can be sent as tweets. I have managed many meaningful conversations with students about their work through this method, both during lessons and also post-lecture, but it's clearly not for everyone.

3) Your Managed Learning Environment (or VLE) - in whatever flavour your organisation has chosen - is a walled garden that allows conversations to be protected from outside eyes. However, bear in mind that most VLEs have online discussion threads that all of the group can see and read. Use your discretion about whether your intervention, coaching and other contributions should be publicly available or should be confidential between you and a specific student. Openly discussed topics on a VLE can escalate into valuable, wider discursive events depending on how many students decide to contribute, and how long the conversation is sustained.

4) Set up (or get your students to set up) a group blog (or wiki) which only you and your student group can see and contribute toward. Encourage everyone to let the group know how they are getting on with their studies, project work, placement experiences, and so on. Often, students solve each other's problems long before lecturers can respond. I have used these to great effect with smaller groups to enable them to document and share their progress during project work. As above, use your discretion and professional judgement as to whether you discuss student issues in this kind of semi-open forum, or take them to a one-to-one personal and/or completely confidential level.

5) Mobile phone Texting is always a useful option, but not everyone wants their mobile number to be accessible by academic staff. Decide with your students whether any of them want to choose this option - on the proviso that you are also willing to be reached at odd hours on your own mobile phone. Some lecturers have a second, dedicated mobile phone (or one that is owned by the organisation) that can be used for the purpose of student - teacher interaction. Texting is ideal for sending a quick message, but it's usualy advisable to then move on to another platform to continue a more protracted interaction.

6) Using Skype or another videoconference tool enables tutors and students to interact in a visual mode. Some research suggests that seeing the person at the 'other end' of the conversation improves interaction. The claim is that seeing the other person's expressions, coupled with their body language, vocal tone and posture makes it easier to understand social cues and ascertain meaning. Some are put off by these affordances, and prefer a simple telephone or Twitter conversation instead, so choose wisely with student preferences in mind. Take care with Skype however, as unlike all of the above methods, there will be no record of what has been said, agreed or highlighted, unless you contrive to record it.

7) Finally, if all else fails, resort to e-mail. It's not something many students like to use when they are chatting informally, but most get the idea that e-mail is a formal communication tool. Bear in mind if any students do e-mail you direct with a request for help, a question or a comment, it is best practice to answer as quickly and as comprehensively as you can. They may be relying on your advice to complete an assignment before a deadline, and your rapid considered response will be appreciated.

I'm certain there must be other methods out there that lecturers use to support greater interaction with their students. If you know of any, or have had experiences (good or bad) you would like to share, please do so in the comments box below.

Photo from Search Engine People Blog

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7 ways to support learner-teacher interaction by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Lenandlar said…
Hi Steve

Thanks for a good post, as usual. Here at my Uni we have no formal learning environments. However, over the last 4 years or so i believe i have successfully managed to use FB/Facebook groups to stay in touch with my students. It has worked because of at least 2 reasons i think (1) that we don't have another system and therefore this option is better than none, (2) most of my students are very "fluent" and frequent FB users - they are always there, and perhaps there is a 3rd reason (3) i am always on FB. Of course this is at the expense of doing other things. However, i do have the advantage that i write a bit about using Facebook in Education.

gingerblox said…
How about the use of e-portfolios to have an interactive discussion about work in progress.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for that Len - these are issues we all need to consider when launching into social media use. What can we advise those lecturers who do not frequent social media sites such as Facebook? There must be one or two left ;)
Steve Wheeler said…
Great addition to the list Judy - thanks! btw I did think about eportfolios (honest I did Guv) but forgot to put it down as an option - and 7 is a better number than 8.

Do students use eportfolios in great numbers in your experience? I'm asking because although in my university we purchased over 30,000 PebblePad licences, one for each student, there seems to be very little uptake that I'm aware of.
Lenandlar said…
Hi Steve, important point. What do we say to those 1 or 2? I am not entirely sure. One of the things i try to do is ask my colleagues about their issues and try to demystify those that needs to. For example, just the other day i had to remind some students and staff that they don't need to be "friends" to engage in a FB group.
On the other hand, we need to help educate about real issues.

Even since i started using FB and speaking, writing a little bit about it, i have seen almost 10 colleagues from across campus on the bandwagon. It makes for an interesting study.

Steve Wheeler said…
You're a great evangelist for the cause Len! Wish there were more like you ;)
Sound advice about using students's online social spaces. When FB first made its appearance, I advised colleagues against intruding and likened it to siting chatting to a colleague in the Senior Common Room over lunch and a student butting in uninvited. On the other hand, I've set ip a hugely successful PGR FB group by starting it and then immediately handing admin rights to several interested students. For the mist part, I remain in the background and only post when asked or if some useful info comes to the fore. This has generated a supportive environment to connect students and is particularly valuable for P/T or remote students.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your affirmation Maggie. I would imagine that most lecturers are singing from the same hymn sheet and make sensible and considered choices about their participation in what is essentially student territory. On another related note, there are some lecturers (I have seen this in my own experience) who 'friend' their students on Facebook. Is this crossing the line, do you think?
Lenandlar said…
Steve, important question on "crossing the line". Even though i say to students you don't have to be my friend on FB to be in the groups, i do get invite requests from a small percentage. I have generally found that those who became my friend, remain my friend, and in a very professional way. I think intuition guides me. Of course i had the cause to clean up my FB friends list but generally no problems with professional issues.

PS: i do not post too many personal things on FB so not so worried if they see what i share. In fact, nowadays my FB is semi-formal.

I know there are other views on this.
Steve Wheeler said…
I think that's the bottom line Len - where teachers separate their public (professional) and private lives on social media platforms. Too many have fallen foul of private or unguarded comments and images being available to students/pupils. Provided it is managed intuitively and professionally as yours is, I see no problem arising. What do others think?
Lenandlar said…
Found this accidentally while looking thru the blogroll of a course by Prof. Alec Couros (i think) http://mcclisablog.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/should-teachers-be-friends-with-their-students-on-facebook/

from a teacher.
This is very necessary that how can we learn something through our teacher. This must be a quality of a students.

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