This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle and with the author’s approval.
I’d been teaching online courses for 10 years — and, I liked to think, had become quite efficient and effective in the format — until the day it dawned on me that I was treating my online students as if they weren’t actually people.
Most of my university’s courses, in normal times, are offered in buildings, not online, and I teach in both realms. My epiphany came in March 2018, when a student I’ll call “Lori” emailed to explain why she hadn’t followed directions on an assignment. I’d required students to submit a quick video of themselves, but she’d posted an audio with her photo attached. In the week before the due date, she explained, she’d been beaten up by an ex-boyfriend. With a swollen and bruised face, she’d been too embarrassed to post a video. And without knowing the back story, I’d docked her grade.
Clearly, my well-intentioned effort to “create community” online — by requiring students to show their faces so we could get to know one another — had backfired. I realized I’d been treating my online students as names on a screen, grading tasks on a to-do list, rather than as people with varied life circumstances. I subsequently changed the assignment to encourage but not require students to show their faces in videos. And I changed my thinking about how I interact with online students.
As higher education prepares for a fall semester that will be entirely or partly online, amid Covid-19, many of you are taking the opportunity to improve your online–teaching skills. Helping you do that is the aim of this series. Today’s topic is among the most crucial: how to connect with online students as people.
Why is that so vital? Three reasons:
- Because those connections won’t happen by accident. In a physical classroom, you use “immediacy cues” — eye contact, smiles, tone of voice — to welcome students and support their contributions. Compare that with the isolation experienced by online learners. You are not there in person to convey all those nonverbal messages of support. Nor can students draw on the physical presence of other learners for the social support so essential to learning.
- Because teaching is about relating. An appropriately critical 2019 report, “Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise?,” emphasized “the critical role of frequent and meaningful interaction between students and instructors for increasing the quality of the online educational experience and improving student outcomes and satisfaction.” Such interactions are especially important for practicing inclusivity and equity in online classes.