6 Ways to Promote Empathy & Flexibility in Online Class

online class
(Image credit: Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay)

Holly Owens, who teaches graduate instructional design classes at Touro College and hosts the EdUp EdTech podcast, recently wrote on LinkedIn about how her teaching has evolved to incorporate more empathy and flexibility. 

“It's a fact that our learners are human and are going through a lot!” she writes. “(Before) & Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, I have changed some of the ways I approached due dates, grading, and communication with my learners.” 

One of my previous conversations with Owens caused me to rethink my approach to strict due dates, and the new approach has been a huge success with my students. Last semester it helped decrease student stress in increase their success. So I listen when Owens shares advice on best practices she’s found to be effective. 

Here are six ways she promotes student flexibility and empathy in her online courses.

1. Due Dates 

“I post due dates and encourage my learners to follow scheduled times, but I DO allow my students to submit work late,” Owens says. “I don't take off points unless the assignment is super late 14+ days, and even then, the deduction is minimal.” 

To accomplish, this Owens keeps assignments open all semester -- so students have a chance to catch up -- and allows rewrites and resubmissions, which reduces stress for students and helps them improve their skills.

This may seem radical to many –  it did to me at first as well. However, after having a difficult time getting some of my grad students to submit assignments in a timely manner in the Fall of 2021, I decided to give it a try and learned that it works, and you can still have structure and accountability with increased flexibility. 

2. Grading (Part 1)

“I include both complete/incomplete and specific formative and summative (rubric-based) assignments,” Owens says. “This lessens the stress of all assessments being a make or break your grade scenario for learners.”

3. Grading (Part 2) 

“I write and/or record audio notes to my students targeting what they are doing well and where they may need to improve,” Owens says. “AND I get responses to these comments from them!” 

Owens says this two-way communication during the grading process helps build community, a worthy goal for any class and something online teachers need to pay specific attention to. 

4. Communication 

Owens uses her LMS to communicate with students about missing assignments and also takes time to offer positive reinforcement to students that are doing well. This all helps with engagement and community, which again is important in any class but is particularly important for online teachers to actively foster. 

5. Edtech Tools

“I evaluate (this means research and trial and error) and use edtech tools that both promote collaboration and community as well as provide meaningful learning experiences for all,” Owens says. Some of her favorite tools for her online classes include Yellowdig, Nearpod, Kahoot!, Hypothesis, and Parlay Ideas

6. Authenticity/Vulnerability

“We're not robots, nor are our learners. If I make a mistake, I own it and move on,” Owens says. “Creating a safe space for learners to interact is a top priority! I share positive and negative professional experiences to provide insight into daily life as an Instructional Designer.” 

This is a key piece of advice, especially for new teachers, who often feel they need to have all the answers and be perfect. Students appreciate when you share with them and I have found that authenticity can be a particularly valuable tool in the online environment. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.