Working from home? Some ways to communicate synchronously with students

Living near Seattle during COVID-19 has been… interesting. While as of this writing, my college is open for face-to-face courses, our college president wrote, in part, “In accordance with King County Department of Public Health 
guidance, we encourage supervisors to provide telework options to employees whose job duties can be performed remotely without hampering operations or instruction.” This means that faculty have the option to continue to meet their classes on campus or to take their instruction online. “Online” means either an asynchronous course—think of your typical online course—or through some sort of synchronous webconferencing, such as Zoom or Bb Collaborate, or synchronous webcasting, such as Panopto.

For those who are exploring the adventure known as telework, there are some challenges in working with students at a distance. Our course management systems and email are certainly perfectly fine tools for asynchronous communication. It’s the synchronous communication that is challenging.

Whichever you route you choose, please start with your institution’s faculty development office, instructional design office, or your institutional technology office. Your institution may have a contract with Zoom or Bb Collaborate. Whichever one they are with, they will be able to support you and your students with that particular technology.

General guidelines for moving a class online

If you’re facing a campus closed to face-to-face courses, you’re stressed. Your fellow faculty are stressed.

If you’ve never taught a typical, asynchronous online course before, now is not the time to start. Anyone who has tried to pick up a face-to-face course and drop it into an online format knows that it’s not that easy.

If your class meets at 10am MWF, then meet synchronously at 10am MWF using whatever webconferencing tool your institution recommends. Practice in advance. Get a feel for the basics—how to turn your mic/webcam on and off, how to share your screen to show a PowerPoint, how to see questions when students ask them. Don’t worry about all of the other features. Deliver your lecture as you normally would. Are your in-class activities something that can be replicated via video, if so, go ahead and do it. Some tools, like Zoom, allow you to send students to breakout rooms. If small group discussions are an essential part of your face-to-face teaching, don’t be afraid to use the technology available to you to do that.

From the student side

Students are stressed, too.

Most of our students don’t know how to use this new technology, either. Many of our students don’t have good Internet access. Quite a few of our students are doing all of their work on their phones.

Find out what resources are available to your students. If you move to synchronous delivery, can students participate from, say, a campus computer lab or the library? If so, do they need to bring their own headphones?

One-on-one communication

If you’re not in your campus office for office hours, you’ll probably be at home.

Home/cell phone

The easiest way to communicate with a student one-on-one is to call them from your home/cell phone. If you’d rather your student not have your phone number, dial *67 then the student’s number. This will block your number from your student’s caller ID. If you do that, warn your student that that’s what they’ll see, otherwise they may not pick up.

Google Voice

You can use a Google Voice phone number. After you select a new phone number, you can place and receive calls to that phone number. And you can send texts from and receive texts to that phone number.


For those of you who are feeling more adventurous, try out Slack. Slack is like the old Internet chat rooms. On steroids. Try it out with a small group, first, such as the members of your department, a research team, a seminar class. Use Slack both on your computer and your phone. It’s made for more conversational communication with a group or with individual or select members of a group.

It’s new for everyone

It’s okay if you stumble. It’s okay if your students stumble. Let’s all give ourselves and each other a break. You are doing the best you can.

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