A few weeks ago, I had to accompany my husband out of town for a week of medical tests. That meant my presence was required in two places at once: in my classroom and at the hospital. I didn’t want to cancel classes, so I decided to try something new. I arranged to meet with each of my students online for about 15 minutes to discuss the first draft of their first composition paper.
The set-up was simple. Students submitted their drafts via Google Docs the week before my trip. In class, I went through step-by-step instructions to ensure that they knew to simply open their Google Docs submission a few minutes before their assigned conference time and wait for me there. I showed them how I would meet them there to use the commenting and chat feature. Before their conferences, I spent time commenting on their drafts. When they met with me in the Google Docs during their assigned time, we discussed the comments and the revisions they should make.
By Tuesday afternoon, when I had met with more than 20 students in this manner, I e-mailed my colleagues with a quick message: “I cannot wait to get back and tell you all about online conferences!”
I’m excited to report that it went so well that collaborating online with my students is going to be part of my regular teaching curriculum from now on. Here’s why:
- My students were at ease in the online setting. Google Docs allowed me to make comments in the draft and use the chat feature. Even students who are poor typists seemed comfortable with the concept of communicating through a screen—far more comfortable than sitting in their professor’s office.
- Students were comfortable asking me questions about their drafts that they rarely ask in person. I was asked a lot more thoughtful questions than when I meet with them face-to-face. I’m not sure of the psychology behind their willingness to ask more questions online than when we are together, but I definitely sensed a difference.
- They had a record of everything that we discussed. They could look back on our conversation without having to rely on memory alone. When I went back to grade their revisions, I could see exactly what we had talked about.
- Time management and flexibility. I was able to schedule more students in each block of conferences than usual. If one student needed another 10 or 20 minutes, I could easily keep that student occupied revising their paper while I started the next student’s conference. If a student was there early, we could start early.
- Engaged students. I love talking with students in my office, but sometimes they are so quiet and passive, listening instead of joining in a conversation. Online chat has a natural flow to it. I ask a question. They have time to think about their answer without worrying whether they look confused or stumped. Once they answer, we work on that issue or move on to the next one. The average engagement level seemed to be much higher than when I meet with students in my office.
There were a few drawbacks to work around:
- As the instructor, you have to be a very fast typist to make this work. If not, it would be easy to get bogged down in the process of typing comments. It also helps to be fluent in Google Docs and other relevant applications.
- Students can easily delete comments and conversations from the document, even accidentally. I had to remind students to start with a completely new document for their revision so that we could refer back to our comments.
- I didn’t get the benefits of face-to-face interaction. I like getting to know the students a bit better, and chatting online doesn’t accomplish as much as I’d like in that regard. I have to make up for this in other ways.
- Technical difficulties did cause a few problems. One or two students had poor WiFi connections and kept disappearing from our chat. Google Docs failed to allow another student and me to chat successfully.
After a week of meeting and collaborating with 50-plus students in this manner, I am excited to try this again. I probably won’t require all students to meet with me online in the future, but will provide opportunities for students to sign up for either face-to-face or online conferences, depending on what makes them more comfortable.
Liz Boltz Ranfeld in an English instructor at Anderson University.