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Mission “Impossible”: Building Relationships with Online Students

The EvoLLLution | Mission “Impossible”: Building Relationships with Online Students
Supporting the success of online students requires faculty to engage with these learners in a far more proactive way than face-to-face learners would require, but this engagement is what makes the accessibility promised by online education a reality.

The goal of every postsecondary institution is to educate its students. In order to do that with an online population though, the primary focus must first be relationship building.

Student engagement is just as important, if not more so, with online delivery than with in-seat classes. Without the usual physical and verbal cues that come with a face-to-face class meeting, it is difficult to take the pulse of each student and his or her response to course content. With a lack of direct personal contact, what should student engagement look like? Generally speaking, active interaction with the instructor and fellow students and significant involvement demonstrated by the frequency and timeliness of interaction, as well as the quality of work submitted, will provide the best indication of student engagement.

Built-in barriers that prevent active student participation in online classes occur in generally two areas: social and organizational/technical.


Online instructors must be especially proactive in doing outreach to students in their courses. It is their responsibility to not only be fully invested and present in the class, but also to develop a heightened sensitivity to student issues that arise. Students may come to an online class being fearful and self-conscious as the class environment and other students are both unknown factors. They are concerned that other students are smarter, more experienced or more advanced in the class. It is the instructor’s job to “talk them off the ledge” and ease their transition into full involvement with the class experience.

How do you do that? Make contact before the course begins and include an ice-breaking/introductory task for students to complete. Use video to make your message more personal. Encourage students to upload pictures of themselves, and ensure that there are multiple opportunities for comparable sharing throughout the span of the course. To the extent they feel comfortable, have students share their difficulties with the class—sometimes they may feel they are the only ones struggling with a specific concept or assignment. For students who are particularly nervous, have them contact you directly and privately. Reach out individually and make each student feel welcome and “heard.” Ask them what their goals are, as well as their background and prior knowledge related to the subject. If appropriate, have students share their work experience and avocations in order to personalize each student’s learning. Show presence continually in the class by posting new material and adding meaningful comments to the discussion threads. Provide clear and frequent feedback on graded items.

Additionally, find areas to praise and identify areas needing improvement. Rewards are especially important if a student cannot see or hear the instructor’s response to his or her work. Your email, text or discussion may be the only way to communicate your response to them. Comments perceived to be demeaning or intimidating in any way have no place in the conversation with students.

The bottom line is that you need to get to know your students and strongly encourage them to get to know each other early on in the class.


The rules in online activity differ from those of the traditional classroom. Recognize not everyone will be on the same page or at the same level of familiarity with online classes. Because the course is delivered online, students may have technical issues at times, either with the learning management system itself, some bolt-on application you have uploaded into the content area or with their own hardware/online connection.

How to manage this? First, you need to clearly define preferred contact methods and hours. Highlight the best times to reach you directly and provide email, phone, and text options. Provide an immediate response to queries as much as possible. Know that students will have the most questions when assignment deadlines are approaching. Create and share a “frequently asked questions” document, which covers important aspects of managing the class, including how often to log in, how much time to spend on homework, which tools in the learning management system will be used, important due dates, exam proctoring requirements, any other unusual expectations, and of course where to get immediate technical support when needed. Develop some synchronous as well as asynchronous methods of contact. Schedule some time each week for virtual office hours when students can contact you via phone, text, email or even online video chatting.

Remember that group projects are difficult to manage with folks from different time zones. Strive to create the online experience in some bite-sized chunks, so students using their mobile devices can still feel they are making progress. In this scenario, course content must be easy to stop and start as multiple external distractors are prone to pop up for adult learners. They expect to be able to pause their course progress and return to the exact spot from which they stopped. Make content downloadable so they can access it offline at a later time.

Minimizing Transactional Distance Requires Flexibility and Responsiveness

Being flexible and responsive is the key to success for online instructors. YOU are the one who has to aggressively reach out to each student—not all of them will come to you when they are confused or frustrated. In order to ensure a positive class experience, make the effort to constantly touch base and check to see how each and every student is progressing and fill in the gaps as needed.

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