Offering Compassion and Care in Online Courses

Student engages in online class with cat in lap

Because I teach online courses, I hoped—foolishly—that my own students would not suffer too much from the destabilizing effects of COVID-19 on higher education. I knew them to be well-versed in Zoom, familiar with the nature of asynchronous discussion, and experienced with, what for many other students and instructors was, an entirely new modality.  For us, there would be no sudden shift to a brave new world.  Our job was to simply stay the course and complete the learning—to do that which we had already been doing. But in the wake of stay-at home orders and economic collapse, the burden of the pandemic’s related stresses have become apparent—not academically, as I expected, but emotionally.

Many of my students are adult learners, now saddled with child care and jobs that demand extra hours and shifts to cope with the crisis.  In spite of this, they have doubled down.  They complete rigorous work on time, assuring me they do not need extensions or assistance.  They work at their day jobs and then come home to be students and parents and spouses—all at once.

But the strain is starting to show.  Every experienced instructor can read the mood of a class, even online, and it is impossible to miss the overwhelming sense of exhaustion and burnout among my students.  Even in the best of times, it is difficult for students to maintain enthusiasm and passion about their learning.  In our era of coronavirus, it is now almost impossible. 

I don’t necessarily worry that my students will struggle with their academic work, though I am prepared to deal with those circumstances as they arise and will be there to offer the necessary flexibility and assistance.  But I do worry about their emotional well-being, and in order to express the necessary compassion and care from a distance, the following practices have been most critical to my online instruction:

Invite sharing.  In a face-to-face course, students often chat about their own lives and experiences in the moments before and after a class starts and ends.  This watercooler talk serves as a valuable release valve for students, and helps them to relate and receive support from their peers and their instructor. 

Mimicking this sort of informal sharing-space in an online course is vital.  This might look like starting a Zoom session 15 minutes earlier or creating an ongoing course chat.  All of these methods create an unstructured time and space in which students can share day-to-day struggles and triumphs with others who can relate and respond.  On a consistent basis, this practice can help students feel a little more connected and a little less alone in their struggles.

Be vulnerable.   Instructors focused on cultivating a sense of stability for their students must also remember that it is acceptable to acknowledge the shared strangeness of this experience with them.  While there are absolutely limits to what one can and should share in the classroom, it is possible, even necessary, to acknowledge the uncertain, tragic, and at times even absurd aspects of this time of self-quarantine.  When my students express their worries about the world and their lives, I acknowledge that what we are all facing together is unprecedented.  We share stories about toilet paper scarcity.  And on the rare occasion that my two cats slip in and wander into view during a session, I laugh and let everyone say hello.  Students can benefit from knowing that their instructor is experiencing this new world alongside them.   

Share resources.  While many instructors habitually make students aware of the resources available to them, now might be a time to re-share or collect that information in a more meaningful way.  Make sure students are aware of who to call for financial assistance and psychological assistance.  Creating a first-aid kit of information that students can consult as need arises is invaluable.  If a particular student need becomes apparent, do not be afraid to reach out on an individual basis.

Create warmth.  Now more than ever, creating a sense of instructor warmth and presence within a course is paramount. The key to doing this well is to be authentic, to be consistent, and to be student-focused.  I enjoy sharing lighthearted stories and bits of advice in my emails to my students, or reaching out to them individually with encouragement if they are struggling through a particularly rough patch.  Some of my colleagues share memes, create silly polls, and hold additional office hours.  How an instructor creates warmth depends on personality, mood, and context.  But creating that warmth week to week, reaching out continually, and treating students as individuals rather than as a monolithic class helps students feel acknowledge and supported in a trying time.

In this era of uncertainty, instructors cannot tell their students when shelter-in-place restrictions might end or the economy might stabilize.  However, even in online courses, they can tend to their students’ emotional well-being along with their learning. Offering compassion and care during a course can combat some of the discouragement, worry, and exhaustion students experience—and give them the boost they need to keep striving. 

Dr. Brandy Bagar-Fraley is a doctoral faculty member at Franklin University, where she is also the manager of faculty development and support at the Center for Teaching Excellence.  Bagar-Fraley oversees the design and administration of faculty development courses and related programs and events, manages the Faculty Services team, and assists in overseeing instructional quality and support for external global partnerships. She teaches doctoral English courses at Franklin University and has 15 years of experience teaching freshman composition at Ohio University, Ohio University Lancaster, and Marshall University.