One of the challenges of the online classroom is finding ways to connect with students, to build relationships as you might in a face-to-face environment. To achieve this, you might want to look beyond your LMS to some tools that can engage, connect, and inform.
There are many free apps available, and it's important not to overwhelm yourself or your students with too many communication options or ones that are difficult to use or have high technical requirements in order to use them.
In an interview with Online Classroom, Lindsay Leach-Sparks, a music instructor who teaches at the North Carolina Virtual School, University of North Carolina-Pembroke, and Rutgers University, talked about how she selects and uses apps for her classes, which range from online to blended and from high school to graduate level.
When Leach-Sparks selects apps to use in her courses, she does so with one goal in mind: to facilitate the “best contact possible with the students.” The following are a sample of some of the apps she uses and how she uses them.
- GroupMe (https://groupme.com/)—This app enables users to send text messages to up to 50 people simultaneously. Leach-Sparks might use this in her graduate courses to draw students' attention to an online essay and ask them to respond to the group, and it often becomes a conversation. The advantage of this app is that students have access to it outside the learning management system, and texting seems to be her students' preferred means of communication. “I don't know exactly why. I guess it's just the mind-set of the current students. They've grown up with texting,” she says.
Leach-Sparks typically texts students as a group once or twice a week to introduce a topic, send out reminders, or celebrate students' success. In addition, students, particularly at the graduate level, use GroupMe to ask each other questions. Whether she or a classmate answers the question, it's similar to what might occur in a face-to-face class: A student asks a question (perhaps one that others have) and everybody benefits from the response.
- Edmodo (www.edmodo.com/)—This app is a social learning space that is similar to Facebook groups. It provides the ability to post assignments, poll students, and embed video, among other functions. One way Leach-Sparks uses this app is to have students comment by writing three sentences about what they learned from a discussion.
- Smore (www.smore.com/)—This is an app that is essentially a class blog that can be pushed out to students in various formats, such as email and text message. Sparks-Leach uses this to create newsletters that congratulate students for their successes inside and outside the course. “The newsletter works really well with high school students. It also happens that I teach 100 students, and I can put a bunch of names in there. I can highlight them and do different things to make the newsletters visually appealing,” she says.
- LiveBinders (www.livebinders.com/)—This app provides a place outside the LMS that enables users to organize resources on a specific topic. Leach-Sparks uses this tool to curate source materials on certain composers or music from a certain time period so that students don't simply go to Wikipedia as a first step in their research. “It's a good way to get students started on topic,” she says.
Apps come and go, and keeping track of what's available can be difficult; using too many can be counterproductive. To help in your selection of apps, Leach-Sparks recommends the following:
- Coordinate with technical staff. Some apps can be incorporated into an LMS. Check with technical support staff for a list of apps that are compatible with the institution's servers and LMS.
- Know your students. The ways in which you communicate with your students will depend on their technical abilities. “I always gauge at the beginning of the course whether students can handle all the extras. If students indicate that they are really not into the apps and finding the information in all different places, then I bring the information to them so they don't get lost. The danger is that students will get lost if you overdo it. It's all about finding the right balance, which has a lot to do with a student's age, academic level, and social and cultural environment,” Leach-Sparks says.