Making Online Teaching Work: Insights from American University in Cairo Faculty

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s Note: The following article is the first in a series offering insights from faculty members at the American University in Cairo on how to make online classrooms more effective. The articles are adapted from faculty comments in New Chalk Talk, a newsletter published by the university’s Center for Learning and Teaching.

This year has been an exceptionally challenging one for students and faculty alike, with disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the abrupt pivot to online education worldwide. The New Chalk Talk newsletter has been sharing faculty members’ experiences and tips and inviting their feedback throughout the period of online instruction with the goal of improving the student learning experience as well as supporting faculty in their efforts to enhance the online class experience. (See newsletters from earlier this year: April 29July 14July 21 and September 29.)

We continued this conversation in a recent special edition by asking faculty members from across the university for insights on this challenge inspired by student feedback the institution had been soliciting: How might we find simple strategies that work well for faculty and enhance the student learning experience? Nearly 20 faculty members from multiple schools responded to our questions about student stress and anxiety, engagement, and online instruction practices. Key focus areas in their responses included:

  • Maintain a social connection with students: Check in on students and provide different paths for them to interact with you (such as WhatsApp groups) and each other (effective use of breakout rooms).
  • Offer students different options for participating in your class—orally, via chat, Padlet, Google slides, etc.—and the main room as well as breakout rooms.
  • Listen empathetically to students and discuss your plans with them.
  • Help students manage their workload by estimating workload, reducing email load, helping them manage their time, and helping reduce their stress and anxiety in ways that reduce your workload as the teacher, too
  • Make effective use of pre-recorded lectures, if applicable.
  • Consider multiple modes of giving feedback (for example, audio as well as written).
  • Create a sense of continuity via using a common “anchor” for students to refer to, in order to reduce cognitive load.

In this article, we will explore a couple of ideas related to student engagement. Later articles will take up issues of student stress and anxiety, and online instruction practices.

Create Social Connection

We know most faculty care about their students, but it can be harder to demonstrate it online. Showing students that we care can go a long way. Several faculty members regularly check in with students at the beginning of class, and occasionally make extra time for “heart to heart” discussions if needed. This may seem like wasted time that could have gone to covering content, but if students are distracted by a major life event, they probably weren’t going to focus anyway, right? The long-term effects of doing these discussions can motivate students and help them perform better.

Magda Mostafa, department of architecture:

“Do mental health check-ins and share your own experiences. I often instruct my students to take a breath.”

If you can’t dedicate class time to this kind of discussion, having a semi-synchronous backchannel like WhatsApp or Slack can help create space for airing anxieties and won’t take up class time.

If you can’t dedicate class time to this kind of discussion, having a semi-synchronous backchannel like WhatsApp or Slack can help create space for airing anxieties and won’t take up class time.

Magda Mostafa
Department of architecture

Iman Soliman, department of Arabic language instruction:

“I use a WhatsApp [for] group informal communication which revealed to me how lost and disorientated they were despite all milestones and scaffolded course design. They informally asked about where to find this or when to submit that or where is the link to such and such, or why the course calendar was not showing on their browser. It also showed me that these students did not get enough sleep. they would communicate at 4 a.m. and come to class at 10 a.m. tired. This made me more understanding of the mess they were in and consequently I became more understanding of their problems.”

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WhatsApp/Slack groups have an additional advantage that students can respond to each other before you do, and reduce everyone’s email load.

Ramy Aly, department of sociology, Egyptology and anthropology:

“I’m asking students how they are feeling and coping at the beginning of each class and if there are any issues they want to raise in private or the context of the course and group.”

Sophie Farag, department of English language instruction, uses Google slides to check in on students:

“I share a Google Slide with the instructions, and ask students to create a new slide and write their name. I give them 5 to 10 minutes to write their feelings and reflections. I have also done this when I want to check in with students to see how they are feeling, especially mid-semester when I could sense a slump in their energy levels.

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“Using Slides instead of individual Google Docs means I only have one document open. By clicking on Grid View (at the bottom left of the Slides), I can see all the slides at the same time.”

Sophie Farag  
Department of English language instruction

“Using Slides instead of individual Google Docs means I only have one document open. By clicking on Grid View (at the bottom left of the Slides), I can see all the slides at the same time. This allows me to monitor the students’ progress as they work, and I can easily leave them comments on their slide.

“My students have given me positive feedback about this activity and they enjoy changing the background color of the slide to suit their mood, and adding images and GIFs to better reflect what they want to say.”

Firas Al-Atraqchi, department of journalism and mass communication, offers this useful reminder:

“When faculty seem to show that they do not care enough to meet with their students, how can we expect students to care about their courses? Morale will drop, as will productivity, ultimately leading to a disconnect between students and their institution. … They need to know that we care. And we do care. I know dozens of faculty who really are doing their utmost and bending over backwards to accommodate students as best they can. It isn’t easy, to be sure.”

Streamlining and Continuity in the Classroom

Using a common “anchor” such as a Google Slides deck or Google Documents can help focus a student’s attention during class on the activities at hand, both in the main room and in any breakout rooms you run during your session. Sticking to one method is always best so that students know what to expect and can adopt a rhythm for your class.  This can also lessen confusion and stress.

Alyssa Young, department of rhetoric and composition, explains:

“One tip that I’ve found helpful for the Google Slides activities: I create one slide deck called the “Class Whiteboard” and use it all semester. That way students can bookmark the link and I can easily link it into any of my materials. I just add each new day at the beginning of the slide deck with a “section header” slide to distinguish between each day.”

Magda Mostafa, architecture, suggests consolidating all information:

Find a setup that works for you and that can be a one-stop-shop for students with all the multiple spaces that they get information about classes from: Banner, Blackboard, AUC portal, Google Drive, Zoom, email, etc. Try and create one or two clear places where everything is.”

It’s also important to create a go-to place for students who miss class sessions.

Yasmine Motawy, department of rhetoric and composition, reminds us:

Not everyone can watch the Zoom-recorded lecture later. Perhaps assign a class blogger for each class to take notes of the most important things said in the class that are not in the text, the valuable ideas and comments made by colleagues, etc., and post it on your learning-management system. This can be a quick read for those who missed the class, and blogging can be graded as part of participation.”

This article focused on student engagement. Stay tuned for future articles tackling student stress and anxiety, and online instruction practices.

This commentary was curated by Maha Bali and Hoda Mostafa. If you cite the article please also include all of the authors: Magda Mostafa, Iman Soliman, Ramy Aly, Sophie Farag, Firas Al-Atraqchi, Alyssa Young and Yasmine Motaway.


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