Getting to Know Your Online Students Requires Effort
Jun 16, 2014 E-Learning/CALL 2000 Views
In a traditional college class instructors will likely have a fairly predictable group of students and they can be visually assessed, even though perceptions may not always be accurate. For online students there can be a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, and the traditional definition of a college student no longer applies. That's why the phrase non-traditional students has been used to describe the online student as it represents a group of students who have different needs. It becomes imperative for online instructors to learn who their students are and their present capacity if they are going to be able to assist them and support their development.
Within an online class it is possible to have every variety of student and this is inclusive of learning disabilities, physical disabilities, mental impairments, and the list continues. There is a saying that you should not judge a book by its cover and with online students there is no visible cover to assess. Even the phrases used to describe learning within a technologically enabled environment are not very encouraging. The phrase online learning sounds mechanical and the phrase distance learning sounds far away. But at the heart of teaching in any environment, especially relevant for the online environment, is the instructor and student relationship. If that relationship can be developed it will improve student success and retention.
Online Students and their Identity
At first an online instructor may view their students as one type because they all appear to be the same when represented by a printed name or number. From the students' perspective there are generally some who are reluctant to share any personal information, some who want to share too many details, and others who want to hide behind their anonymity. When a student believes they are anonymous they are more likely to express their thoughts freely and seemingly without the chance of any consequences. In my experience some students have even felt empowered from the perception of freedom and talk without a filter to other students and their instructors.
Behind every name listed in the classroom is someone who wants to complete a goal but they may not be able to express themselves, especially if they have identity issues. An identity is developed as a result of their internalized self-beliefs, which have been maintained over time and will not change easily or quickly. When students enter the classroom they bring with them all of their prior problems and challenges related to their identity, whether it is a strong sense of self or negative self-image. An instructor can help them discover their authentic self through the use of supportive communication, interactions, and feedback.
Students cannot be forced to interact with their instructors beyond what is required of them, such as involvement in the discussion board. However, through the development of strong working relationships it is possible to gain their cooperation. Sometimes a student's reluctance is the result of their perceptions or prior negative experiences, and that requires extra effort on the part of their instructor to change that mindset. Students can either be coaxed out of anonymity or they may retreat further into their shell. There are steps you can take to get to know your students and encourage the development of their online personality. For example, you can utilize different options for posting their introduction, including the use of a recorded voice or visual introduction. As their instructor you cannot control how students will respond to you but you can make an effort to work with them and get to know them.
Why Online Relationships Matter
The most important reason why it matters is that you must work with students to help them succeed. A positive relationship with your students helps to avoid the online environment from becoming mechanical and it humanizes the learning experience. You become "real" to students and in turn they become "real" to you. At the basis of the word relationship is the word relate and while it can't be forced, you are able to nurture it. For example, you can personalize students' feedback rather than used all canned comments. You may never get to know your students but you can still work with them. Be sure to closely watch your communication and do your best to always assist them. Every class is full of students that rely upon you and this is a reminder that teaching involves more than managing the mechanics.
Develop Meaningful Relationships
When you asked students to post an introduction at the beginning of the class that resents an ideal ice-breaking activity and you can guide them with what you want them to share. While fun facts are entertaining, consider the value of what you ask them to post. The goal is to begin to learn something about them that will allow you to understand their developmental needs. In addition to the introduction you can also offer multiple sources of availability, such as the use of email and instant messaging. For email, be sure to check it frequently to reduce students' frustration and anxiety. Instant messaging can be used to hold office hours each week. This makes you accessible and approachable, and helps to establish an open connection.
All of the interactions that you have with students can further impact your relationship with them. If you are able to develop rapport with students you are more likely to be viewed as approachable. If you are proactive instead of reactive they will find that you possess emotional intelligence. It is up to you as their instructor to make the initial and ongoing attempts to develop meaningful relationships. While superficial responses to students' questions and discussion posts is adequate, the ultimate goal is to develop engaging communication so that students will work with you.
Visibility and Credibility
When you develop a strong virtual presence it lets students know you are engaged in the class. It is similar to seeing someone present in a room; the more you are seen the more comfortable students become. You cannot manage a class from afar and with your presence you begin to bridge that distance gap. With the discussion board take time to engage students in a conversation and as they respond to you be sure to follow-up with them. It is an effective practice to acknowledge all students at least once for each required discussion question as it shows students you acknowledge their presence and contributions.
Trust is also a significant issue within online classes. As students interact with you they begin to assess your credibility. They will likely trust you if they believe you and if you are both firm and fair when addressing their issues. Getting to know your students requires both effort and time beyond managing the classroom and your required facilitation duties. But the outcome is that the time spent working together is enjoyable for everyone, students feel connected to the class, distance is minimized, and students are fully engaged in the learning process.