Humanizing Communication & Collaboration
in Online Learning Environments

Online learning environments offer unique opportunities for interacting with students, as well as challenges. In this interactive session, we explore how tutor-markers (TMs) and Teaching Assistants (TAs) might facilitate communication and collaboration in online education platforms, such as Canvas.
— Humanizing CODE: Communication and Collaboration in Online Learning Environments workshop description

TA/TM Day is Simon Fraser University's (SFU) most comprehensive orientation event for new or veteran teaching assistants and tutor-markers. My colleague Emma MacFarlane and I have participated in TA/TM Day by hosting a workshop entitled: Humanizing CODE: Communication and Collaboration in Online Learning Environments.

At SFU, we use the online open-source learning management system Canvas. We recognized online learning platforms can pose unique issues when fostering interpersonal connections with students. Drawing upon our experiences of facilitating online undergraduate courses and our passion for teaching, Emma and I thought there was a need to have a workshop to help future TAs/TMs regardless of their discipline on how to foster positive learning environment through online platforms.

On this page, you will find the presentation slides that we have used to facilitate activities and discussions. Below is an aggregate of answers and tips from our workshop participants. We hope that by sharing these resources, we will help inspire teachers in asynchronous learning environments to start thinking about strategies of mitigating impersonalness of online learning platform.

Our intended learning outcomes:

  • To explore various issues/concerns that may arise for TMs and students in online learning environments.

  • To discuss techniques to maximize the accessibility of an online course to a diverse range of students.

  • To identify forms of communication that facilitate and enhance student-instructor and student-student relationships/interactions in an asynchronous learning environment."

Issues and Concerns in the Online Learning Environment: Brainstorm of non-technical issues/concerns that might arise in Canvas for students and Tutor Markers (TMs) answers from the September 2018 TA/TM Day workshop.

Issues and Concerns in the Online Learning Environment:  Brainstorm of  non-technical  issues/concerns that might arise in Canvas for students and Tutor Markers (TMs) answers from the September 2018 TA/TM Day workshop.

answers from workshop participants

Student-TA/TM expectations

  • More announcements and communication in general from the TM, especially in first year courses.

  • Referring students to the syllabus early as a guide and often in the course.

  • Supplying additional resources that may aid in student learning e.g. media, campus resources, etc

  • Be explicit with TM expectations and the instructor’s expectations need to be clear, so the students receive conflicting information.

  • Asking the course supervisor or a student for an example of their work that demonstrates excellence, as an example for other students.

  • Speak to the previous course TM and collaborate/share resources.

  • Encourage students to approach you with questions.

  • Set clear expectations regarding email turn-around.

Accessible language

  • Using clear and simple language for giving instructions to students.

  • Use other forms of communication when needed e.g. verbal communication via Skype/telephone.

  • Clarify instructions and expect that students will not understand everything, especially if the TM finds them confusing themselves.

  • Word questions clearly and rigorously, but do not give too many hints for the assignment.

  • Remember that students come from a variety of backgrounds, and they may not understand disciplinary “jargon,” therefore; define terms in lay terms.

Geographical location

  • Understand that a student’s location may influence accessibility and stability to internet connectivity.

  • Be patient with waiting for replies from students from abroad.

  • Consider different time zones for deadlines/extensions/examinations; however, students should note this ahead of time.

  • Consider cultural differences amongst students and their communication styles.

  • Be mindful of the job responsibilities of some students.

  • Be mindful of the availability of the course materials e.g. the geographical location of a computer’s IP may affect the accessibility of course materials, like a third party video.

Accessible rubrics

  • Attaching the grading rubric to the assignment on Canvas.

  • Ensure there is clear language in the rubric in order to mitigate any confusion.

  • TMs should be explicit with their availability to go over the rubric.

  • Use examples from previous sections of the same course if the course supervisor does not provide one.

  • Using announcements to remind students on how to find them.

  • Be careful to not limit students’ possibilities with rubrics, e.g. if a rubric penalizes students heavily on grammar and does not account for originality and critical thinking.

  • Making your own guidelines or rubrics for marking when none is given or when they are vague.

Best practices

  • Encourage students to have a profile photo if they are in a discussion-based online course.

  • Include a brief description of yourself in the first-course announcement and/or in your Canvas profile.

  • Remind students about your availability. Encourage them to contact you regarding any questions, as the TM you are the first point of contact.

  • Encourage students to consider meeting each other in person to discuss course materials/study. Most online students take in-person courses in their semester.

  • Remind out of town students to find an examination proctor through CODE as soon as possible. Note it may take students a few weeks to secure a proctor depending on their location.

  • Remind students who need accommodations to register with the Centre for Accessible Learning as soon as possible.

  • Be explicit with your sick/extension policies, consult the course syllabus/course supervisor.

  • Remember that students may be taking an online course due to a variety of reasons: accommodates with their busy/changing schedule; health reasons; mental health reasons; geographical location; and preference. Encourage students to let you know if they foresee any difficulties meeting a deadline, and discuss whether you can be flexible with the late penalty.

our real online announcements

We have provided some examples of announcements we have used in our online courses.
Feel free to integrate them into your online teaching practices.