Building Relationships in the Virtual Classroom

As more students migrate to an online college education, some question whether it is possible to make meaningful and lasting connections with fellow students and professors outside of a traditional classroom. While it is true that a physical classroom carries many benefits, online learning can accommodate today’s busiest adult learners with accessibility options and flexibility not found in brick and mortar classrooms. Learning online is not a reason for students to feel isolated during their educational experience.

The key to a quality education, online or classroom-based, is the interaction between you, your classmates, and your professors. Additionally, online or in person, establishing relationships with professors and classmates helps create a more rewarding experience.

Relating to Instructors
Your instructors want to know that you are committed to learning and successfully completing the course and that you haven’t mistakenly decided an online course is an “easier way out” than learning in a traditional, physical classroom. Thus, demonstrating that you are engaged in the course is important.

Sit in the front row.
In traditional, physical classrooms, students who sit in the front row give themselves an advantage. It has been said that students in the front row are often more in tune with the instructor, take better notes, and participate in more class discussions. Naturally, these study habits may translate to a better comprehension of the course material and possibly result in higher grades. In an online environment, the instructor assesses your participation and your contributions to the course through your postings and submissions. Therefore, it is to your benefit to post regularly, rather than only interacting at the bare minimum. Instructors want to know your thoughts about the material, just as they would in a traditional setting. Here are some tips:

  • Engage in discussions in a timely manner.
  • Don’t be afraid to be the first to post.
  • Make meaningful contributions to any optional discussion forums.
  • Always reply to those who respond to your postings. In other words, never leave someone “hanging” in a discussion thread that you initiated.

Put thought into it and stay on point.
The online format gives you, as a student, more time to reflect on the information before responding and joining the discussion. Use that time to ensure that your work is relevant, is well written, and contributes to the academic discussion. In an online classroom, your written word is your “voice.”  It is critical that you can express yourself clearly in writing. Build your writing skills by using the resources, such as the writing center, provided by your college or university. Online education means that everything is documented – meaning that you should be keenly aware of what you type and its quality. In academic discussion forums keep your writing pertinent to the topic you are asked to discuss.

Engage your instructor.
Yes, your instructor is busy. However, she or he will appreciate your initiative if you take advantage of individual communication options. If your instructor gives out an email address or phone number so you can ask specific questions outside of the classroom, use them – and the earlier in the course, the better. Utilize the technology built into the course to connect with your instructor (such as instant message tools, questions forums, etc.) and communication vehicles outside of the classroom (such as Skype, Yahoo Messenger, etc.), as applicable. More than likely, your instructors will highlight the communication tools available to you and their preference for using them. If not, do not be afraid to ask.

Relating to Other Students
Your online learning experience will be enriched greatly by the relationships you build and the interactions you encourage with your classmates. The online format gives you an opportunity to learn from students with diverse backgrounds and network with people who are geographically dispersed, many who may be thousands of miles away.

Share your story.
Your fellow classmates will open up to you if you open up to them. No need to divulge personal details but let them know why you are passionate about the course, your educational aspirations, and a bit about your professional experience and background. If other students have not yet done this, your lead will encourage a more open dynamic in the class, and your professor will appreciate the initiative. Take the opportunity, in the first few days of a course, to introduce yourself to your instructors and classmates.

Actively participate in discussions. 
Though you aren’t actually talking face-to-face, it is, in part, your role to keep the dialogue flowing in an online class. Log in to your course regularly. Keep up with the discussion threads and posts made by your peers to contribute something new and unique. You’ll realize, as time goes by, which students might be more dedicated to the experience than others – and some may be shy and not want to reply to anyone but the instructor. Still, keeping the floor open for discussion will make the class more interesting for you and for everyone else.

Be mindful of your tone. 
The online classroom is not a place for sarcasm, dark humor, or other nuances that could be misconstrued without the aid of body language and facial expressions. Make sure that your posts are professional, positive in tone (overly positive, with lots of “smiley faces” and exclamation points, is rarely a professional approach) and respectful. Address classmates directly by leading with their first names in your reply postings to personalize your communication. After all, your instructor and classmates do not know you in person. Ensure that your words clearly communicate what you intend to.

Use the net to the network.
Thanks to technology, you will have plenty of opportunities to communicate with your classmates on social media, email, and other internet venues. Take advantage of these opportunities, and form bonds for better chances of success in the class. Today’s technology makes it easy to form lasting relationships with your professors and classmates. Embrace the opportunity to develop professional relationships with individuals who may have diverse backgrounds and who may live on the other side of the world!

Have you taken an online course? How did you form a connection with the instructor or your classmates?

Author Info: This is a contribution by Dr. Katie Thiry. Katie is an Assistant Professor in the College of Business at Ashford University, where she teaches courses in training and development, research design, instructional leadership, and more.

Updated: July 19, 2018 — 9:23 am

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