Faculty Focus


Building a Connection with Online Students Right from the Start

When teaching and designing courses, I find that it’s easy to slip into autopilot and use the same tools and strategies over and over. Autopilot can be comfortable and easy, but I know I don’t do my best work in that state. So I try to look at my courses and materials with fresh eyes as often as I can. Often, I’ll ask another faculty member or designer to look at what I’m designing with a critical eye, and I return the favor for their courses.

If you teach or design online courses, you may be looking for ways to do things differently as well. Maybe have more fun. Engage yourself and your students more. The first thing to do may be to think differently about how your courses should work. Get out of a rut or the don’t-fix-it-if-it-ain’t-broke way of thinking. I face some typical objections when I try to convince instructors and instructional designers to try new approaches.

Why fix it if it ain’t broke?
Some folks tell me it’s silly to mess with what works. Thinking through how you can do whatever it is you do better is a mark of professional excellence in any field. Do you have courses that lack “umph”? Where students seem to just be going through the motions? Too many dropouts or no-shows? Then it’s past time for making some changes, and I’m hoping to help.

Some instructors tell me that their subject matter is inherently boring. No subject is inherently boring. Courses are boring if the instructor is bored or boring. Courses can be boring if the content and assignments are unimaginative. Courses are often boring if the course content and assignments aren’t connected to the world around us.

We’ll start our journey by looking at one approach that can be used to improve the connection between you and your online students early in the course.

In many online courses, it takes a while for students to connect with the instructor and other students. Asynchronous communications (typically through email and discussion postings) take time; time for a reply; time to understand what someone means; time to get a feeling for the course, instructors, and other students. And this delay makes some students, especially those who are new to online courses, feel like they are in a large city but are all alone. This can be a huge problem, and it’s one we don’t do enough to rectify. Students who begin online courses with concerns—about the difficulty of the content and course, about using unfamiliar course systems, and about staying motivated and on track—are worried and looking for reasons to either be less worried or jump ship.

Research shows that online course dropout rates are affected by many things, including not being firmly engaged and successful early on. There are many ways to create opportunities for early engagement, but the opportunity to be engaged live with the instructor and other students early on can short-circuit the time and effort needed to feel connected (and likely to stay) as well as allay concerns about learning online.

You may think this is crazy. Your students may be all over the world. And they typically take online courses because they want the flexibility to attend whenever it is convenient for them. But chances are that quite a few do want to connect with you and will go out of their way to do so.

There are numerous tools that can help you connect live with students. You can use them to do introductions early on, answer questions throughout the course, hold office hours, meet with members of project teams, and so on. Some of these may be available within your course management system, but if these tools aren’t available or are available but don’t work too well, there are many free or very inexpensive tools that can be used

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a widely recognized information and instructional designer, writer, and author, who helps others build valuable information and instruction. She can be reached through her website: www.learningpeaks.com/.

Excerpted from Online Teaching Fundamentals: You, Live: Pump Up Your Online Courses, Part 1, November 2008, Online Classroom.