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5 Ways to Build Positive Relationships with Your Online Students

After you’ve finalized your syllabus, uploaded course information for the next term, and received your student roster, “what might still be missing?” This question begins educator Kelley Clark’s recent article titled “Five Practices for Building Positive Relationships with Students” for Education Week Teacher. Her answer? “A strong positive relationship with your students, the kind of connection that makes them want to go above and beyond in your class.”

Clark’s focus is on best practices for K-12 classroom teachers, but this step is equally important at all levels of education. As we quickly approach the next academic term, there are key components of the title that helped me frame the tips that follow, with online higher education in mind:

  • Build is an action verb. The relationships, especially the positive ones, don’t just happen.
  • Positive approaches focus on providing support and encouragement to the learners in your online classroom.
  • Relationship indicates a personal connection and interaction among students and between students and instructor.
  • Online means we have to accomplish all of this with the aid of technology, and often in asynchronous ways.

What do you need to do to build positive relationships in your classes? Here are a few suggestions designed to help you connect with your online students.

  1. “Actually use the information you receive” from your students. Clark recommends creating a “first-day student survey” that includes questions such as “do you like to study alone or with a partner?” An online survey is a great idea, but most of us already ask students to post some kind of an introduction during the first week of class. What if you tweaked the introduction assignment to include a few questions that would not only help students get to know each other, but also make it easier for you to organize groups later in the course? Ask students to identify when they study, their geographic locations and time zones, and preferences for the use of technology.
  2. Develop your presence in the course. How are your students getting to know you? Providing a clear and thorough bio is an effective way to introduce yourself to the members of your class and tell them more about your experience and academic areas of interest. Consider going beyond the typical text and photo introduction to include audio and/or video. Washington State University’s Distance Degree Programs office produces recorded “course previews and faculty bios” and is an example of the possibilities.
  3. Be an active course participant. Think about how and where you can interact with individual students and the class as a whole within the course site, to make connections and build working relationships. From your participation in discussion forums to posting announcements and providing feedback on assignments, develop your role as a member of the class who is engaged with others in the learning experience. Howard Rheingold writes about the positive results of becoming a “co-learner” with his students and demonstrating that he is “attuned to learning from them while they are learning from [him].” Being present and active in your course also allows you to model the kinds of polite and respectful interaction you are expecting from your students.
  4. “Give students permission to communicate directly with you.” This advice is from educator John Savery whose VOCAL* approach to online teaching [PDF] includes the C for Compassionate. He reminds us that “many adults choose an online format because of the conditions they face in the real world,” such as work and family obligations. Your communication frequency and tone can go a long way in creating a place where everyone feels comfortable enough to engage in conversations, discuss issues that are causing problems, and ask questions when they have them. (* Visible, Organized, Compassionate, Analytical, and a Leader-by-example)
  5. Know the capabilities of the communication tools available to you. We tend to lean on the things we are most familiar with, whether it’s email, class announcements, or even text messaging. Learning Management Systems (LMS) offer a full range of options for connecting with your students to provide feedback on assignments, as well as updates on schedule changes. Where (virtually) are your students spending time in the course and how are they using other technologies? Consider conducting your own trial with a new-to-you social media platform or LMS feature that you haven’t used before. Check with your institution’s faculty development group for more ideas and training on school-sponsored systems. They may also have guidance on institutional policies about how various technologies are used in class.

There’s no denying the power of a strong student-instructor relationship. Taking advantage of opportunities for interaction requires a commitment of both time and effort for instructors and students alike. But purposeful participation that is encouraged from the first day of the term can alleviate concerns and promote communication that makes a positive difference in the learning process.

What’s your favorite way to kick-off a new online class? What do you consider the most important relationship-building task in online learning? Share your tips and activity suggestions with us here.

Image credit: Ryan Tir, Flickr, CC-BY

August 15th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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