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Making Connections in Virtual One-Shots

February 16, 2021

One-shots are always challenging, but perhaps especially so in the virtual learning space. While I have not yet been stuck teaching class as a cat, for about two weeks I couldn’t deactivate a wonky virtual background in Google Meet. And instead of half the students going to the library building and half to their usual classroom, we now have people lost in the wrong Zoom room! But overall, I’ve found my virtual one-shots to be a surprisingly good experience.

Years ago I decided that one of my learning objectives for every one-shot session, whether I actually typed it out in my formal “objectives” list or not, was “Students will remember that the librarians are friendly and helpful, and they will be able to explain at least one method of reaching a librarian to get research assistance.” They might forget where I told them to click, but hopefully they will remember that we want them to succeed and are there to help them do just that.

Forging that kind of connection with a roomful of people is one thing, but in a virtual classroom, it feels a little different. I was nervous about whether I would be able to develop a rapport with the students when we were all little talking heads on each other’s computer screens. I’ve found, though, that it’s not so different from what I do in the physical classroom. Usually the course instructor and I are the first to log on, and we chat with each other as the students trickle in. This lets the students relax a little and to get to know both of us as people.

In one memorable Monday-morning class, I was telling the professor about my comedy-of-errors camping weekend, which we’d had to cut short because the parking lights on my car wouldn’t turn off and we didn’t want to be stranded in the mountains with a dead battery. One of the students jumped in and asked if my car is a Subaru (it is). It turned out that her fiancé is a Subaru mechanic and that Subarus all have a parking-lights button on the steering column due to parking regulations in Japan. Who knew?! (This student and her fiancé, apparently.) That exchange set the tone for a relaxed and enthusiastic class session with lots of student participation and great questions.

In another class, the professor surprised me by explaining that they opened every class with everyone sharing about a pre-arranged topic. For this session, students were sharing something that had meaning to them and why; when they finished, they “tagged” a classmate to go next. Internally, I rolled my eyes (isn’t this college, not second-grade show and tell?). But I soon realized that this was a fantastic way to get the students talking to one another and to build real community even among people who might never meet face to face. I was working from home that day and I didn’t want to feel left out, so I carried my laptop over to show my dog!

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a virtual Teaching & Learning Summit hosted by Gannon University. A diverse group of educators shared the tactics they’ve been using to connect with their students in a virtual space. Dr. Karen Fetter at the University of Pittsburgh has employed scheduled moments of downtime to allow students to settle into the learning space and mindset. Dr. Leighann Forbes of Gannon University shared how she deploys her Bitmoji to put smiles on her students’ faces while also conveying important feedback and course information. Many of the summit attendees use a rotating slideshow to welcome students to the virtual space. Some play background music during the “trickling in” time at the beginning of class.

How are you finding ways to build rapport with students in your one-shot sessions? Are there any new tactics that you want to try? What has been working best for you, or what have you found particularly challenging about forging a connection over the internet?

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