How to Become a “Real” Person to Your Online Students

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What are the qualities you believe it takes to make an online class feel “real” to your online students? Do you believe your students consider you to be visible during the class and available whenever needed?

One of the challenges faced by institutions of higher education is providing quality degree programs via a virtual classroom environment. Even for experienced online instructors, there are inherent challenges which are based upon the nature of working in this manner, and will always be present, requiring dedication and time to address. One of the most pressing challenges is becoming a real person to students. This is someone who is visible and available to address their needs, and more importantly, accessible when requested to answer their concerns.

A virtual classroom immediately changes the dynamics of teaching, as to how instructors interact with students. Instead of visual, verbal, and vocal cues, now interactions are based primarily upon written text. There are exceptions to this rule and include the use of videos as a supplemental means of engaging with students. One of the challenges for reliance on written communication is the one-sided nature of sending messages and creating classroom posts. There is only a perceived tone, and if the formatting is less than academically accurate or precise, the message and its meaning will be interrupted.

Within an online class, students are watching for clues or indicators their instructor is actively present, not just someone who is remotely working and occasionally checking into class. The greater they perceive the instructor is present, the more likely they will be motivated to also be present and engaged in class. Creating a highly visible online presence requires skillful practice, implemented as part of an ongoing set of teaching strategies. 

Welcome to the “Always Open” Classroom

The benefit of a virtual classroom is the seemingly unlimited access to it, along with the course resources and materials. This “always open” mentality changes the perception as to what students expect of their instructors, as to when they should be available. I’m finding response time has a significant impact on how students view my involvement in the class, and shapes how they respond in turn to my feedback.

In other words, if I am highly responsive and available, students are more likely to engage with me when I send messages or post feedback. The challenge for me is learning when to be present and when to give myself a break or some downtime away from the classroom. Just because the classroom is “always open” does not mean I, or any online instructor, need to be “always on” and present at all times.

How to Become a “Real” Person to Your Online Students

To be noticed in a virtual classroom is the first step in being seen. Yet students who expect an instructor to be highly visible and accessible expect high quality interactions, and someone who is highly engaged, responsive, and frequently available to assist them. When I thought about sharing my strategies for teaching in a virtual classroom, I took into consideration the fact instructors will have varying degrees of experience working in this environment. However, there are basics which can be implemented by anyone to create an online presence which is perceived as visible and readily accessible to learners.

Strategy One: Personalize the Learning Experience

This is an aspect of online teaching I’m always aware of and it has to do with the development of ways in which I can humanize the learning experience for students. One area in which I’ve grown is with my introduction. I used to share professional information only but over time it has evolved and now I also include casual information which can help show me to be a real person. For example, I talk about favorite television shows and movies, and I’ve also included a photo of my office buddy, which happens to be a pet who comes into my office at times. I share a limited amount of personal information, believing there is a professional relationship needed to be maintained.

What I recommend to anyone who is trying to become a “real” person to their students is to share what you believe will help make connections with them, without sharing anything too personal. The idea is to connect with and inspire your students, and find a way to bridge the gap between a resume and casual conversation. You could also share a LinkedIn profile link as that is professional in nature and allows students to get to know more about your background, provided you’ve kept it up-to-date.

Strategy Two: Teach Through Weekly Posts

For those instructors who teach in traditional online classes, there is typically a method of posting course announcements and/or weekly overviews. For example, each week I record and post a series of videos. With each video I narrate a PowerPoint presentation, which provides an overview of the week ahead. This includes assigned readings, course concepts, an in-depth examination of specific topics, along with an exploration of the required learning activities. When I complete feedback, I also post a course announcement, and I often use this as a teaching tool. I may include supplemental resources, along with additional tips, strategies, and suggestions.

If you have an ability to transform long written lectures into some form of interactive video, with or without a PowerPoint presentation, I recommend you try it as students get the experience of being in class and a feeling of personalized instruction. This also relates to the first strategy about personalizing the learning experience. If there is any method available for you to add your instruction to the course, be it through the use of messages or something else, you’ll find this allows you to share your subject matter expertise and knowledge.

Strategy Three: Plan an Approach for Class Participation

Do you think ahead about how you will participate in class discussions? A weekly class discussion can be your opportunity to help determine how your learners are working with and grasping the course topics, along with being able to apply what they learned. While the discussion responses tend to be similar in scope, you still can help prompt them to continue to learn by asking questions in a planned manner, such as the use of Socratic questioning techniques.

When I post a reply to a student, I start by acknowledging something written within their response. Next, I build upon it by adding my own insight and supplemental resources, and conclude with a follow-up question. As to a planned strategy, consider starting early in the week and post a reply to every student at least once. This will help encourage students to become actively engaged throughout the week. Whatever your strategy is, if you have a plan for the week, it will help you become better prepared to be substantively engaged.

Strategy Four: Develop a Plan for Office Hours

Do you have multiple methods of contact available for your students? For most online schools, the traditional method of contact is through classroom messaging or email. Now web tools such as Zoom are available and can be used for virtual class meetings. A challenge for adjunct online instructors is determining how to balance availability with other full-time responsibilities. My recommendation is to offer office hours during a time when you know or anticipate you will be online working and available to return messages or accept calls.

If you want to continue to follow the first strategy and personalize the learning experience, I recommend you offer availability by phone. I do this to prevent long emails back and forth, which can end up frustrating both you and the student if the message is not understood. More importantly, I find this presents me with an opportunity to continue to teach the course concepts in a one-on-one manner, which can further bridge the distance learning gap.

I remember being an online student and how it felt when I had to wait for a reply and the reply received did not fully address my question. If I had an ability to call my instructor, I would have done so. I know my students greatly appreciate this extra time taken on my part. Perhaps you will consider it as well.

Manage Your Disposition at All Times

Becoming visible and easily accessible for students does mean you will have more direct interactions. The benefit of increased availability is helping your students when they request it, while demonstrating your care and concern for their developmental well-being. With increased communication comes an ability to also get to know your students better. This also increases the possibility of conflict between you and your students, especially if they are contacting you by phone and there isn’t a direct record of what was stated.

It will be up to you as to how you address each situation. For example, if a student does not communicate appropriately, you can then restrict their communication to messaging or email only. I also recommend with every phone call received or you initiate, send a quick follow-up message or email to serve as a record. This will provide your school with a record of the conversation. What you must decide ahead of time, is you will maintain a positive frame of mind no matter how challenged you might feel by a student. If at any time you believe a student has not maintained proper communication, be it their tone or something else, you can advise them you will no longer continue the conversation and remind them of the Code of Conduct.

As an instructor, you must always try your best to remain calm and emotionally controlled when interacting with your students. Your disposition helps to reinforce a perception you are interested in being an active part of the class. Visibility takes many forms and includes direct interactions with your students, whether through discussions, messages, emails, or phone calls. The potential impact you can have on the progress and development of your students increases significantly when you become easily accessible and use each opportunity presented as a time for teaching and learning. Whatever methods you use to become “real” to your students, make a conscious choice to be involved in class for the benefit of them and their academic development, not just to make an appearance for the sake of being present.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has 35 years of experience teaching and training adults. The first half of his career was spent in the field of Corporate Training and Development, with his last role as Manager of Training and Development.

Then in 2005, he made a transition into the field of distance learning. Over the past 18 years, he has been an online instructor, Faculty Development Specialist, Faculty Director, Faculty Development Manager, and Dissertation Chair.

Dr. Johnson is also an inspirational author, writer, and educator. His life mission is to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others. He has earned a PhD in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement (TPI), a Master’s in Adult Education, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal, and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference, along with presenting at three faculty conferences. He has also published over 230 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and mindset development. Dr. J published three books related to higher education, including two about online teaching.

Getting Down to Business: A Handbook for Faculty Who Teach Business.

Transform Adult Education: Expert Teaching Strategies for Educators.

Transform Online Teaching: Expert Strategies and Essential Resources Every Educator Needs.

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