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Make a Personal Connection in Your Online Classroom

personal connection in online classAdvice to post a faculty bio and develop online presence are not uncommon, but when I look out at my class roster in the school's learning management system (LMS), on a sea of new names at the beginning of each term, my focus has increasingly become direct instructor-student exchange with each person.

It's always been a challenge to get to know the members of my classes, especially with enrollments of 20 or more students. But in these situations, making sure I connect with each of them is even more important. Online classes can be a lot like traditional classrooms in which a few students do most of the talking and others never say a word. In an online class, you don't have a visual on the latter, who may be sleeping, doing other work, confused about the material, or absent altogether. When a course is 100% online with no face-to-face meetings, how can you make personal connections happen?

Explore One-to-One Communication Options

Online educator and consultant Jill Schiefelbein lists "establish genuine connection with students through mediated communication" as one of the "five ‘musts' [to] strengthen student relationships with you as an instructor, deepen student engagement with course content, and increase their level of participation" in an online class. Establishing these connections on an individual level takes some effort. The following techniques are recommended by veteran educators:

  • Introductions: Most online courses include some sort of introductory activity such as a discussion forum that requires students to post something about themselves, as a way to get to know each other. You may post your introduction, too, but instructional designer and online professor Josh Murdock also suggests that you "personalize your reply to each student, instead of just a cookie cutter response." This is a helpful strategy to get off to a good start with the class as a whole and your students as individual learners.
  • Discussion Boards: It may not be feasible to respond to every student's post, every week. This approach is not necessarily desirable either. As the University of Wisconsin-Madison's learning technology consultants point out, these forums can be an effective option for "facilitation (without being the ‘sage on the stage' … without dominating" the discussion. Discussion boards may provide another way to focus on different individual learners each week.
  • Email: Throughout an academic term there are multiple points at which you or your students might initiate an email conversation. This can be a great way to check-in with a student when you notice there's been no recent activity in the course site or he/she starts missing assignments. The Illinois Online Network's tips for facilitating every student in an online course include, "don't be afraid to send a student email asking if anything might be interfering with his/her participation in the course."
  • Progress Meetings: The Sloan Consortium's faculty development advisory board recommends "personal interviews or phone calls with each student or with small groups so they feel personally connected with you and with each other." Whether this is through a phone call, chat within the LMS, or videoconference via a tool like Skype, live interaction can enhance one-to-one communication.
  • All of the Above: You don't have to connect with everyone in the same way. While some students will reach out to you, it will be up to you to connect with others. I sometimes struggle with trying to take the same actions across the board, but one size may not fit all.

Making yourself available and making a connection, though both are critical components of online teaching, are not the same thing. Whether it's synchronous or asynchronous, individualized communication is just one way to build positive relationships with your online students.

Track Your Progress and Student Preferences

For me, making these connections is a semester-long project. I have made a conscious effort to connect with each student, but wasn't sure how close I was coming to meeting this goal, so last Spring I actually created a spreadsheet.

This was a simple Excel file with the class roster copied over into the second column and notes about how I made a connection with each in the first column (see a sample with changed names in the screenshot below). I regularly use a similar system to back up my Gradebook (I always struggle with the Gradebook in Blackboard), so this was an easy modification to that file and gave me a place to start.

On this first trial, I counted everything – email, discussion boards, virtual office hour attendance, social media – and ended up having one-to-one interaction with all but two students. Obviously, while I only tracked one point of content per student, you're likely to directly connect with some learners multiple times over the semester.

Tracking Spreadsheet

There's definitely room for improvement in the Fall, and I want to add the concept to my mid-term evaluation to find out more about student perceptions and experience with interpersonal connections in the context of my courses. A much larger survey of online students conducted by The Learning House in 2012 found that "online students view the lack of direct interaction with instructors and other students as the greatest disadvantage of online study." Their expectations and preferences should inform our decisions about class activities and requirements.

Make it Meaningful and Manageable

James Madison University's Best Practices for Online Course Delivery manual [PDF], advises online and hybrid instructors that "a personal connection with students is more important than the technology used." Everyone is busy with responsibilities of work, school, and family, so adding requirements to communicate, just to add them, isn't helpful.

  • Consider class size and duration. Be realistic about what you can accomplish given the number of students in your course and the amount of time you have to work with them. Large enrollments and/or accelerated terms make individual connections next to impossible. Adjust your expectations accordingly and think about what you might be able to do with small groups to foster a similar kind of environment and communication.
  • Plan ahead. A Faculty Focus interview with eLearning consultant Tony Bates emphasized the need to prepare for changes in online courses in advance. Bates recommends the SECTIONS model – Students, Ease of Use, Cost, Teaching Interaction, Organizational issues, Novelty, Speed, and Security – for assessing the use of specific technologies with students. How "could you reach who you aren't reaching already?" Think about learning curves for both you and your students and proceed with specific communication strategies in mind.
  • Practice. Challenge yourself to make these personal connections, but allow time for trial and error. Start slowly with new techniques to see what works for you and your students, and don't be afraid to ask them about their preferences and expectations along the way. Just as you fine tune your content and materials each semester, you can also try new approaches to communication.

From the instructor's perspective, particularly those of us teaching online, it's important for each student to have the best learning experience possible in our courses. A personal connection between instructor and student can affect not only levels of student engagement, but also achievement and retention. Make the most of synchronous and asynchronous opportunities – in the course site or via social media, one-to-one or in small groups – to recognize them as participants in the process.