Connecting with Your Online Students

darla

Darla Ausel

– Darla Ausel

As many of you already know, connecting to students in an online class environment is much different than in the face-to-face classroom. However, the importance of this connection is highly valued by students and outside reviewers, and is seen as essential to student learning online.

How you develop this connection is important. In an online environment, human interactions do not happen naturally. Developing this connection, and ultimately a sense of community within your course, should be an intentional goal when designing class activities.

Let’s consider some instructional strategies that can help establish this connection.

Help students get to “know” each other.

  • Introductory Discussion Boards are an important element in any online course.
    • Instructors should provide an introduction that goes beyond their own contact information. Consider including information such as your teaching philosophy, hobbies, interests, a photo, etc.
    • Encourage students to share similar information about themselves and respond to other students with similar interests.
  • Use creative ice-breaker activities to make introductions more engaging. (Check out the LTC Nov/Dec Workshops for examples.)
  • Create a ‘Water Cooler’ type of discussion board to encourage off-topic student interactions.
  • An example of the "Welcome, {firstname}" function

    An example of the “Welcome, {firstname}” function

    Address students by their first name to create a more personal feeling (Hint: use the first name string {firstname} in NEWS items, as in this example.)

Provide regular opportunities for collaboration and interaction.

  • Weekly Reflective Journals (private between individual student and instructor) help build rapport and provide a private area for students to reflect on the course content, ask more personal questions, or perhaps post their ‘Muddiest Point.’
  • Small Group Discussions more easily create a sense of connectedness between members than large group discussions, which often have an overwhelming number of posts.
  • Weekly Summaries, including comments from the weekly discussion forum, that acknowledge students by name, increase the perception of instructor presence.
  • Group Projects help promote collaboration and a sense of community. Wikis and blogs are excellent tools for asynchronous collaboration.
  • Small Group Virtual Meeting rooms provide a space for students to interact synchronously for study groups, common questions, weekly discussion session, etc. (using Bb Collaborate).

Promote instructor presence.

  • Regular communication and timely feedback reduce students’ anxiety. BUT, be sure to set specific expectations as to when to expect a response – e.g., within 24 hours, by 10am daily, etc.
  • An “Introduction/Welcome Video” posted as part of the Getting Started area of your course can help you appear as a ‘real’ person and increase feelings of connectedness. (Check out the LTC Nov/Dec Workshops.) The video below is a first draft of an introductory video for Randy Potter’s online Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences course, and was made with iMovie.
  • Virtual Office Hours provide students the opportunity to speak with you face-to-face, often minimizing the sense of isolation (using Bb Collaborate). Note that Rhonda Clark accomplishes this goal using Skype.
  • Short Video Lectures or instructional presentations for weekly topics promote more personal connections with the course (using MediaSite Desktop Recorder).

Creating a sense of community through introductory discussion boards, peer group activities, and instructor presence is key to a well-connected online classroom. When students feel a sense of connection, they become more motivated in their own learning. Being deliberate in identifying and integrating strategies such as these is an important aspect to effective online course development.

For additional instructional strategies that promote a sense of community, please feel free to stop by the LTC and talk to either Sue Homan or Darla Ausel (or call x1848 for an appointment).


Darla Ausel is the manager of the Learning Technology Center/Computing Services. She has over 16 years of experience as an instructional designer in higher education. She has also been developing/teaching online courses for the past six years.

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