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Building Relationships with Online Students

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For the past 11 years, I have been working with a company whose sole focus is helping people build relationships, both personally and professionally. I have helped hundreds of business owners develop a strategy for communicating with their customers in a way that creates long-term relationships. The secret lies in appreciation.

People want to be seen and heard; we want to be known. With the simple act of sending out appreciation to those in our life, celebrating their successes, empathizing with them when life gets hard, we tap into that core desire to be known.

Here’s the interesting thing–we don’t have to be physically present with a person to build a relationship with him/her. We can use our words to reach out in kindness to the people in our lives, and you never know what the result might be.

I try to keep this in mind when interacting with my online students. In the online forum, we don’t have facial expressions or tone of voice to convey concern, so we have to be extra careful in our communication.

In my online classes…

  • I try to be more personal than I might be in my ground classes. I have an About Me page that gives them an introduction to me, keep my profile picture current, and respond to discussion posts frequently.
  • In my interactions with students, I allow myself to reveal a little bit more about who I am than I typically do–this helps students to see me as a person. This means that I try to make connections with their experiences (Oh, I have a toddler, too!) or share stories from my life to illustrate points.
  • I use their names in my responses (both to discussion posts and e-mails) and sign off with my name.
  • When students send me a message with a challenge they are having, my first response is empathy, instead of suspicion. I’m so sorry for your loss, I’m sorry you aren’t feeling well, I’m sorry you’re confused…all of these statements help students to feel heard and known.
  • I try to include videos of myself or tutorials with my voice whenever possible–this allows students to see me and hear me. It is amazing what a difference just having a glimpse into a person’s personality can make. And our online students don’t have any other way, really, to see us or to learn anything about us that meeting us in person might tell them. (The style of our clothes, the way we do our hair, our dialect–these things give clues about our personality and identity that online students miss out on!)
  • In some semesters, I have even sent my students a series of cards–one welcoming them to the class, another encouraging them mid-semester, and a final card congratulating them for completing the semester. Not only does this provide additional encouragement, but it creates a tangible point of connection.
  • When I’m on campus, I invite students to join me. Last fall, I gave online students extra credit for visiting me in my office in costume on Halloween. I extended invitations for students to join me at a presentation on campus–again for extra credit. Not only does this help build relationships, but, even if students don’t participate, it creates a culture of connectivity in the online classroom.
  • Even using Zoom to do office hours or hold live Q & A sessions can help students feel supported and connected.

The point is that online students need us to be real people–and they need to be seen as real people. When we make the effort as teachers to connect to our students, it pays off. Students may not be buying anything from us, but they are still our customers in a way. Their success ensures the continuing success of our colleges.