By taking advantage of modern technologies, Dr. Marie Mallory offers distance learners more face time than they would get in some on-campus classes.
Assistant Professor of Communication,Presentation College, Aberdeen, SD
PhD in Communication: Media Effects, MAEd in Secondary and Elementary Education, MA in Secondary Education, BA in Mass Communications/Media Studies
Online learning still feels new and revolutionary, even in a time when anyone with a smartphone can livestream the Super Bowl. The truth is, since pioneering colleges and professors began using it in earnest 20 years ago, the medium has not changed much—until very recently.
“Online learning, to this point, has been independent learning,” says Marie Mallory, PhD, assistant professor of communications at Presentation College in Aberdeen, South Dakota. “As a student, you just go on, read your stuff, watch your videos, read the materials, type in your answers, write your papers—do whatever you have to do—and submit it, and you’re done for the week.”
But Mallory was not OK with that. “It’s not how I want to teach my online classes,” she says. “Not only is that approach incredibly boring but I don’t think students learn much that way.”
So she began searching for ways to bring the interpersonal nature of the brick-and-mortar classroom to screen-and-keyboard learners.
“I wanted to figure out ways to create a live classroom experience online,” says Mallory. “Not because I’m some sort of technical genius, but because I wanted to make my online classes as impactful as my face-to-face classes.”
Teaching interpersonal communication in an online forum
Because Mallory is teaching Interpersonal Communication—a class that addresses conflict and relationship communication, negotiation, and even nonverbal types of communicating—an interactive format is almost a necessary part of teaching and learning. She felt the course cried out for teaching approaches that matched the spirit and subject matter of the coursework itself. “Seventy percent of all our communication is nonverbal,” she adds. “If you lose that, you have only a 30 percent chance that they’re going to get the right message.”
Mallory was concerned that students taking this class online would never actually experience interpersonal communication. Simply relying on email and web pages to deliver information resulted in a one-sided class experience, she says. “If students aren’t communicating back to you, then it just becomes words on a piece of paper or on a screen,” she says. She wanted to find a way to make her communication classes a two-way conversation.
Though Mallory began with livestreaming her lectures (more on that below), that is not the only approach that she uses to interact with her distance learners. She offers her top four strategies here, along with the specific technologies she uses and her tips for making the most of them.
“I believe that education, at its core, is an invitation to relationships. I think we learn from people that we like and who we think care about us and are invested in us. The more we feel that, the more we are open to those people and to what they have to say. I think that’s true from the time we’re two until the time we’re 100.”
-Marie Mallory, PhD
Course: CT233 Communication Skills I: Interpersonal Communication
Description: This course goes beyond the basic verbal communication offering by developing the skills of critical listening and by emphasizing the wide range of nonverbal messages as they influence the speech communication process. A combination of activities is designed to provide insight into the relationship between perception of self and success in the communicative/interactive process.
5 ways to turn online courses into two-way conversations
These approaches also allow Mallory to provide a patient, listening ear.
1. Bridge the digital divide with livestreamed lessons
In her quest to find a more interactive strategy—one that ideally that would occur in real time—Mallory turned to Webex, an online meeting and videoconferencing assistant. This platform enables her to deliver a lecture to the class as if she were face-to-face with every individual student. Simply put, she can livestream each lesson and have the entire class tune in at once.
“Anybody can come to class, and they can ask questions in real time,” says Mallory. “So it’s like ‘being there live’ but not being there live. And they love that.”
Restructuring her online course this way involved some intense scheduling with her students. (She asked them to block out three or four times per week when everyone could “attend” class.) For students who still cannot tune in at the agreed-upon time, Mallory saves a Webex recording of the lesson so they can watch it when they are free.
2. Fire up some serious group chats
To enhance the content of her livestreamed lectures, Mallory also hosts a series of interactive group chats on Moodle and Facebook. These allow her students to ask questions and explore topics that relate directly to a specific topic. As with the lectures, she saves a recording of the chat sessions for students to refer back to when studying or writing papers. (Mallory uses Moodle’s “save” function to retain those chats; for Facebook chats, she turns on Panopto to record the session and then upload that to Moodle. These platforms are further discussed below.)
These chats often last well beyond the intended block of time, she notes. “We’ve been online and done chats where we’re going over how to address conflict, and I’ll type in a scenario, and they’ll all start coming back at once with how they would respond,” she says. “Then, we all talk about each other’s responses because that’s how you make it relevant to them—by putting them in those situations.”
3. Keep the fire going with informal “jams”
Along with the more formal chat sessions, Mallory also hosts informal semiweekly Skype discussions, scheduled based on a class survey of her students’ availability. “This isn’t me lecturing or anything like that. Instead, we all sit around and chat about what happened that week [at home or in the news] that was relevant to what we’d been talking about in the chapter,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t even talk about class. We just all sit around and talk.”
Mallory recalls that many students hesitated to participate at first, thinking that nobody else would actually show up to the jam sessions. But before long, those sessions became more popular than any other element of Mallory’s course. “It’s nuts,” she says. “But, apparently, they want that sense of community, and when you give it to them, they show up. It’s amazing.”
4. Create community with Facebook
Mallory creates a Facebook group for each of her classes. She says all the students love it, “but the online class—[for those students] it has been amazing! They weren’t interacting at all at first—I mean not at all.” So Mallory started putting humor on the page, including links to fun and “crazy” articles, adding silly comments on a day-of-the-year section, and more. “They are all over it!” she says. “It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done with an online class. I think it was their first opportunity to actually see my personality and feel like they ‘knew’ me.”
5. Provide feedback with voice and video memos
Mallory still sticks to the time-honored ritual of editing students’ class papers online with conventional word-processing software. (Students may use Google Docs, or Word documents that Mallory then edits with tracked changes visible.) But she also sends voice and video recordings of herself talking to each student as she is going through their paper. This, she feels, makes the editing experience more useful and engaging.
When Mallory first began sending voice memos, she used the Moodle collaboration software platform. But today, by using Panopto, a video platform, she is also able to add continuous video of herself as she edits. Then she emails the entire package—the Panopto video plus the edited paper, all uploaded to Moodle—to the student to access at a time of his or her choosing.
“When they open it up, they see and hear me talking as I’m highlighting the paper, which they can also see at the same time,” she says. “So, it’s about as close as I can get, at this point, to having them walk into my office.”
Mallory also records and sends simple voice memos through the Moodle platform to provide feedback on other assignments, such as students’ recorded oral speeches.
Mallory notes that student responses to her innovations have been overwhelmingly positive, especially for the voice-memo feedback she gives for speeches the students must prepare, deliver, and submit to her online. “They just felt better afterwards when they could hear somebody say, ‘OK, look, this part still needs work, but I think you did a great job,’” she says. “Overall, hearing that, as opposed to just seeing a grade or reading it, there was some encouragement there. And they got it. They felt it. They knew it. It resonated with them.”
Based on data drawn from course evaluation surveys, Mallory’s voice-memo strategy has earned her a two-point jump on a five-point scale that covers numerous aspects of the course, including the quality of instruction, the online experience, the relevance of the course, the students’ feelings of connectedness to the instructor, and more.
“I think opening up that relationship just multiplies the opportunity to teach,” Mallory says. “Not to lecture, not to upload to a database, not to just throw it out there and hope they catch it.” She wants to continue to explore every way possible to build a stronger relationship with her students, so they take in all the information she has to give them.
“I’m not throwing information at a brick wall,” she adds. “They’re actually reaching out for it. And for the first time in my career, I’ve had five of these online students drop by my actual office just to say hi because they felt like they ‘knew’ me. They came in and hugged me!”