Those of us who haven’t taught online before often assume that unless we can see our students’ faces, we can’t connect with them. Although it’s true that some people require a physical presence to feel genuinely connected, there are many ways to bond with students online – and it all starts with the instructor.
The best way to encourage engagement and connection in an online class is to be present yourself. Of course we show up to our face-to-face classes, and I assume we smile (at least a little) while we are there. I’m sure that we praise students for good responses and high-quality work, and I’m equally sure that we provide them with encouraging feedback when their work misses the mark.
Is this to say that the instructor has to be available 24/7, as we often hear about online classes? Absolutely not! As long as you have a communication plan for the class, let students know what it is, and stick to it, students will know what to expect from you and when.We need to do the same in online classes. Whether in writing, videos, or audio clips, whether directed toward individual students, groups, or the entire class, the instructor is responsible for setting the standard by checking in and commenting frequently and by providing encouraging feedback. Keep the students engaged and checking back into the class by giving them reasons to do so. An instructor who is seldom present in an online class doesn’t encourage students to be present either. And then no one is communicating with one another.
You might surprise yourself and your students with the connections you are able to create. As one student recently commented at the end of an online class, “Even though I have never seen or met you in person, thanks for making my first online class so enjoyable!”
“There are many ways to bond with students online – and it all starts with the instructor,” states Beth Brunk-Chavez. I can attest to this from the experience of being both a student and an instructor in online classes. As an online student, my experiences of instructor involvement have run the gamut from a non-existent presence to an over-involved presence that shut down discussion among the students – an online version of “helicopter parenting.” Those experiences have made me especially interested in finding the right balance for my online classes.
Communication isn’t solely about posting discussion responses or responding to emails. Consider the tone and style you adopt in assignment instructions, announcements to the class, introductions to material, and even the syllabus with its plethora of required university information. These largely text-based items set the stage for how students view your approachability and presence; do they create a cold, authoritarian distance or a welcoming “we’re all in this together” environment? Adopting a conversational tone goes a long way to helping students feel they are part of a community of learners as opposed to disconnected individuals plodding along on some isolated quest for the finish line. I remember a student who took one of my face-to-face classes after having taken an online class with me. She told me at the end of the first class that my in-person behavior was exactly what she’d envisioned when reading all the materials I’d posted for the online class. Put your spirit into all the resources you share with your online students, and, as Beth says: “you might surprise yourself and your students with the connections you are able to create.”