Communication, Collaboration, and File Storage Tools
While a lot of the communication for a course happens in the classroom itself, including through a printed course syllabus and handouts, and in office hours, GSIs and students also have access to an array of 24/7 digital tools.
Though bCourses offers other ways to correspond with students, email is perhaps the most commonly used tool for one-on-one contacts. Therefore, GSIs will be well served to think through how they will manage email correspondence in their instructional role. The volume and frequency of student messages can be daunting.
- Setting an email policy with students at the beginning of the semester makes the flow more manageable. This policy could indicate that the GSI will respond to emails within 24 hours, or that they will only check and respond to emails at set times during the day (at 9 am and 4 pm, for example).
- Reducing the hours during which you will respond to student emails can relieve pressure to respond as soon as you see a student message. It can also consolidate your work, for example when you find that over a period of hours several students ask the same question. Rather than repeating essentially the same information several times, you might want to respond once and send or post the response to the entire class.
- While a student may write emails in a very informal way, GSIs as instructors need to maintain a professional tone and professional boundaries in their correspondence.
- Some GSIs have also found it useful to set up an email account specifically for their GSI responsibilities or to interact with students exclusively using the Announcements and Inbox tools in bCourses. This allows GSIs to keep their personal email account private, and it also makes it easier to enforce their email policy.
Whatever medium you may use, be sure to clearly explain your communication policy and how students should contact you at the beginning of the semester and, if applicable, include it in your section syllabus.
Uploading your files directly to bCourses means that students will be able to easily find them. You can also link Files to relevant Pages, Assignments, etc. An additional benefit of storing files in bCourses is that the Ally tool will automatically score them for accessibility. For example, it will check a document’s compatibility with screen readers used by students who rely on assistive technology.
UC Berkeley has adopted Google Apps for Education, which are accessible through the University’s bConnected site — click on bDrive to gain access using your CalNet ID. bDrive is a cloud storage service that also acts as the access point for Google Docs, a collection of web-based applications that allows users to generate documents (Google Docs), spreadsheets (Google Sheets), presentations (Google Slides), forms (Google Forms), and drawings (Google Jamboard). bDrive is perhaps the easiest way for students to collaborate on a shared document, spreadsheet, or presentation. Google Apps allow multiple users to edit and comment simultaneously, making them useful for both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.
The University also partners with Box, which can be used to store and share files. For example, if a project requires multiple components or the ability to add tags to files, Box might be the best option. For an in-depth comparison of bDrive and Box, see this article.
Discussion forums are great for getting students to read and build off each other’s ideas. The Discussions tool on bCourses has a number of features that are helpful for instructors. Certain topics (such as introductions) can be pinned for easy access. Posts can be locked for further comments, and they can also be opened in SpeedGrader if the discussion is meant to be graded.
Another discussion platform that integrates well with bCourses is Ed Discussion. Some of its features include threaded discussions, embedded media, attachments, runnable code snippets, and LaTeX formatting. Posts can also be organized by tags such as exam, homework, lecture or logistics. To learn more, check out Research, Teaching, and Learning’s (RTL’s) webpage on Online Discussions.
For more casual discussion, or projects that require extended collaboration, in consultation with the Instructor of Record, consider setting up a Slack workspace for your course. Organizing channels for specific projects or assignments can be helpful for students. However, be wary of asking students to use too many different tools for a course and consider how students who don’t participate will be affected if the tool isn’t mandatory.
Some students also enjoy having a space for discussion that is free from course staff. Consider asking a student to volunteer to set up a Discord server or similar chatting platform for your course. Having an informal environment can foster more interaction among students. Encourage students to bring up common questions and concerns to you. If relevant, share your answers in ways that are accessible to all students.
It’s nearly impossible to schedule face-to-face office hours on campus that don’t conflict with any of your students’ schedules, and making individual appointments can be cumbersome. Student questions emailed to an instructor can also take considerable time to answer — far longer than a conventional office-hour conversation, in fact. A virtual office hour can provide a solution that is helpful for a lot of students and instructors. (Please note that you should check with your department to make sure it’s okay to hold some of your office hours remotely.)
Zoom video conferencing is integrated in bCourses; instructors can schedule regular office hours meetings within Zoom or use their “personal meeting room” for ad hoc appointments with students. bCourses also offers a Chat tool that can be used for office hours. Because a chat is open to the whole class simultaneously, you would not be able to interact confidentially with a student in this medium. However, you could address students’ course content or logistical questions that can be shared with other class members. Some GSIs have found it useful to utilize virtual office hours before an exam or assignment due date, when students often ask very similar types of questions. Since all activity in the chat room is recorded, even those students who were not able to log on during office hours are able to read over the transcript and see which questions were and were not addressed.
As an alternative to scheduling a time to meet, consider recording short video messages.
Kaltura is the video management platform that is integrated in bCourses. It allows for direct video uploading and editing through bCourses, as well as analytics to show how students are engaging with videos. For more information, see RTL’s Kaltura How-To and Best Practices Guide.
Loom is an app that makes it easy record a screencast, which includes sharing your desktop, audio, and webcam at the same time. Additionally, Loom videos are easy to share. Links take the viewer directly to a YouTube-like viewer where students can react and comment at specific timestamps or send their own video in response.