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5 Ways to Connect with Students in an Online Course

by Dr. Polly Trevino

At HBU,  professors care about our students.  We get to know our students and form strong connections with them, which is one characteristic that distinguishes HBU from other institutions.  As we build our online programs and increase our online course offerings, we want to establish rapport with our online students, just as we would our on-campus students.  At first glance, it appears difficult to create similar rapport with online students; however, you can connect with your students in the virtual classroom.  Here are 5 simple ways that you can connect with students in an online course.

Begin the course with introductions.  Introduce yourself, and give students a chance to introduce themselves.  Introduce yourself in a short video or post a page with a biography and pictures.  Describe your professional background, your scholarly interests, and any personal details that you feel comfortable sharing with your students.  I include pictures of myself with my family on my bio page because it humanizes me.  After viewing the page, students know that a real person, not an automated cyber-bot, is teaching the course.  Don’t stop at just introducing yourself.  Give students a chance to introduce themselves in a forum.  Respond to each student’s introduction.  Welcome him/her to the class and comment on something they mentioned in their introduction.

Use students’ names.  Address students by their names.  In the online classroom, most posts or participation is accompanied by a student name/username, so it is obvious who is commenting or posting.  Nevertheless, address students by name in forums, emails, chats, and other communication.  Not only does this humanize students in your mind, it helps you remember their names.  Moreover, when the class sees you addressing students by name, they will be more likely to address classmates by name and direct comments, questions, and conversation to classmates.  This encourages a sense of community in the online classroom.

Be present in the course.  Remember, you are still the same caring, enthusiastic professor that you are in the face-to-face classroom.  Only the modality for expressing your professorial identity has changed in an online classroom.  Because your online students do not physically see you, you must use course tools to be present and be “seen” by students.  Post messages, such as announcements and reminders, several times a week.  Give previews or summaries of course topics in a News/Announcements forum or as class messages.  In forums, participate in the discussion and respond to student posts.  As you respond, synthesize student posts and ask questions to extend students’ thinking (just as you would in a face-to-face discussion).  Give regular feedback using rubrics to grade discussions and assignments.

Relate content to students’ life experiences or contexts.  You can do this in your class messages or announcements.  You can also design discussion tasks that require students to apply course learning to their own experience or context.  You will learn a lot about students from their responses to topics that ask them to link new knowledge to previous knowledge and experience.  Then, you can incorporate what you’ve learned about them into your responses to their posts and in future discussion posts.

Incorporate synchronous sessions.  Synchronous sessions, when you meet with students in real time, can be chat sessions or video conferencing sessions using Blackboard Collaborate.  Attendance at these sessions can be required or optional.  In my experience, students appreciate the extra support that these sessions provide.  Many attend, even when attendance is optional.  These sessions give students a chance to ask questions, hear you lecture, or interact with you and with each other.  Students get a sense of who you are as a professor, and they realize that you care about their learning.

So there you go!  Five simple ways that you can foster relationships and build a learning community with your online students.  Try them in your virtual classroom!


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