Showing You're Students that You're There and You Care
Tips and Technologies
When you're teaching online, you don't have the luxury of seeing a student every few days to see how they're doing. Hence, you need to use technology to maintain these connections. By establishing a positive instructional presence with your students, you can foster student-to-student social presence while also inspiring creativity.
There are many, many approaches to building interactions. Defeating the Kobayashi Maru: Supporting Student Retention by Joni Dunlap and Patrick Lowenthal provides an excellent overview of using telephone, discussions, e-mail, and other tools. Here, I've given my own brief overview, and the video by Solic emphasizes why your presence matters in the classroom.
However, I want to point out that establishing instructional presence is not easy. It is, in fact, one of the hardest things we do, especially in online courses. For many students — and also some teachers — the natural feelings of isolation that occur when interacting with a screen can be very difficult to overcome. For myself, one of my struggles is e-mail — for whatever reason, the endless bombardment of ads, announcements, and other e-mails make it harder for me to sift through the clutter to connect with my students. This is why I give out my cell phone number — it offers a direct, reliable line with my students for those days when my e-mail inbox is simply overwhelming.
For yourself, be sure to find the system that works for you and for your students. Giving out a phone number isn't appropriate for all teachers, and that should never be the only contact a student has with you, but I am definitely quicker to respond to students over text than e-mail.
Methods of Connecting with Students
Here's my own overview, much of which is shared by Dunlap and Lowenthal; Proffitt; and others:
Texting: this is my personal favorite for keeping in touch with students outside class. Unlike e-mail, I texts right away, and a quick response is often what students need most. However, you should never require students to share their phone numbers — that is personal information, and stalking is a legitimate danger for students of all ages.
Telephone: the sound of your voice can accomplish a great deal, especially if you can be personal and authentic. Inviting students to have a phone call with you at the start of the semester is a great way to build trust and rapport.
Video Chat: similar to the phone, but with video! Sometimes, this can be a bit more endearing — students not only hear your voice, but see your gestures and expressions. The downside is the necessary bandwidth — double-check that your students have sufficient access to high-speed internet, and maybe use the phone if they don't.
Video: You can't always talk with every student on the phone. But if you share videos, students can see your face and hear your voice. This goes a long way toward establishing rapport, especially if you customize your videos for each individual class. The "weekly update" can be very helpful.
E-mail, both Personal and Professional: Weekly announcements can serve as "pep" talk, and individual messages will reassure students that you know them as people. Whenever I e-mail individual students, I include their name in the subject line so they know to open it.
Discussion Forums: This is one of the best places to have an open conversations across the entire class. Here, you can invite students to post longer posts where they share deeper insights regarding their thoughts and progress.
Social Media: Yes, you can use Facebook and Twitter to connect with students, especially if you have a regular course blog or a video series. Just note, however, that your institutions LMS will have better privacy protections, and that using social media can exclude any students who don't happen to use the platform you're on.
Assignment Feedback: Yes, this is one of the best ways to connect with students. Personal feedback on their work shows that you understand what they're doing and that you want to help them do it better. This is especially helpful for inspiring creativity — with the right feedback, you can encourage students to take risks in their work, and your feedback will help them navigate successful risk-taking in their writing.
"Creating a Sense of Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom" by Rob Kelly: an examination of why instructor presence matters and how to gauge student engagement.
"How to Keep the Humanity in Online Courses" by Matthew Lynch: an overview of the available technologies with tips for how to use them to reach out to students.
"The Instructor's Role in Online Discussions" by Michelle Everson. What is the right balance between student and instructor interactions? Here, Everson explains how a teacher facilitates engagment and trust between students.