Meeting in person is not always an option, especially for students who commute to campus, who have obligations outside of school that impact scheduling, or who have disabilities or other physical needs. Academic and student service office hours are limited; rarely are these resources accessible in the evening and never on the weekends. The opportunity to reach a knowledgeable person online increases student access to information and success by expanding the hours in which a professor, counselor, or student service representative is available. Virtual meetings also provide more flexibility for those answering because they can also phone in from a remote location. Being able to reach someone more immediately during off-hours allows student to progress when they’re ready, rather than having to wait for the next available time, and generally makes their lives more manageable by removing the barrier of coming to campus in person.
Facilitators of virtual meetings can also host groups of students for greater efficiency and to maximize resources. If a group of students are having a similar challenge in a course, hosting virtual study groups can help with scheduling and give students an opportunity to learn from each other. All the students who need a particular set of information can sign up for one of several offerings, say a webinar series, and now the host can share that information with the entire group rather than each student waiting in line at the office individually. Often, a student will ask a question that another student can answer.
Successful virtual meetings take practice. Many best practices from traditional meetings or meetings cross over, such as having a shared agenda and making sure participants are collaborating and problem solving rather than reporting out, but virtual meetings also have unique best practices. Below are five tips for facilitating or hosting a virtual conference, whether that’s with an individual student or a group of students.
Make sure your webcam is working, that the virtual platform where you’re meeting is working, that the virtual space is set up, and confirm details, especially if students have time zone differences or are working in multiple courses. Let the student know the date and time in their time zone, where to meet, what to “bring” (their coursework, paperwork, questions, goals, etc.), and include any links associated with the conference. Provide your phone number or email or making it easy to find in your email signature can support students in the moment if any issues arise.
Allowing students to see you online—as well as seeing them—goes a long way in building trust and rapport. Ensure an organized, appropriate background that represents you and potentially your role, particularly if it’s space in a home office, so that students can see your interests and professionalism. Books, quotes, school gear, and art can all reflect your values and commitment.
Based on the content and needs of the students, have resources ready to go. Reference titles, journal articles, links, and models that you can share when needed will lower stress during the conference and make follow-up easier. Having phone numbers available for support services is also helpful; if a student needs the writing center or accessibility services, you can provide contact information right away.
Meetings can utilize many modalities, including discussions, workshops, content practice, and partner or small group work. For one-on-one meetings, you can use drawing and note-taking tools to support student learning and/or have the student contribute or lead the instruction. A “parking lot,” a designated space where students can submit questions to be addressed without interrupting the session, captures students’ thoughts without detracting from the current activity. Unless you are hosting an information webinar, value listening and find opportunities to support and encourage the student(s).
Best practices in coaching and instruction tell us that participants should walk away with clear next steps; we would want the same for a virtual conference. Ending the conference with that discussion ensures students know what to do, what to study, or when to come back for additional support. Sending an email with a summary of what occurred and what happens next clarifies instructions and provides students with something to refer to later on. Timely follow-up continues the line of support; the facilitator can share additional resources or initiate a quick check-in to see how the student is doing.
Virtual meetings, especially at a traditional campus, can be an awesome tool for engaging students and connecting with them when they may not otherwise be able to do so. Most of my meetings with students are on an individual basis, but the potential for study groups, student discussions, and more webinars have my mind whirring around ways to get more students involved and reach greater numbers of them. I’ll meet you there!
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