Online Learning: Building Relationships in the Digital Age

This week, I began teaching an online class. I have little experience in online education. I started my undergraduate degree when AOL still used instant messaging. Online classes were rare; in fact, I think I took one biology lecture and nearly failed because I did not have the discipline to sit in front the screen to listen and learn. When I started my masters, online classes had become the norm. “Ugh,” I thought. “Why stare at a computer screen when I can go to a class and have human interaction?” I always opted for the in-person classes, avoiding online ones like the plague.

But my preference for attending classes is no longer such a norm for many students. In fact, a growing number of students are choosing to complete nearly all or some of their high school education online. According to the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, “The total number of students in the United States attending online and blended schools is unknown. A reasonable estimate is between one and two million students, or roughly 2–4% of all students in the country.” This phenomenon isn’t rare; I think I am just late to the party.

They explain that students choose online education for several reasons but mainly due to the flexibility. They may be experiencing mental and physical health issues or bullying in traditional schools. Students also choose online school due to attendance issues as well as pregnancy or parental responsibilities, or they want to catch up on credits.

As a teacher, building relationships with my students is important. I pride myself on knowing my students and building their learning around this knowledge. However, this can be difficult when the learning moves to the digital world. How can we build these crucial relationships with students when there’s a screen between us? I asked this question to several teachers with online teaching experience and they struggled to answer. So I went to the best source around, my good old friend, Google. When he didn’t have anything of merit, I realized I had to think this one out on my own.

I asked myself, “How do I build relationships with my kids in person? And how can I do that online?” I also considered my audience: teenagers. They spend much of their time watching and making videos on Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, and Dubsmash. How can I use this information to create relationships with my kids? The answer is simple: video messages. Now students can hear my voice, see my face, listen to me stumble over my words, and watch me get excited over silly stuff like school!

I filmed my first message today. Yikes! It took me about 11 attempts before I finally taped a minute and a half video where I only sound like a weirdo occasionally. (Why do we hate the sound of our own voice on film? How do people become radio DJs?) I finally decided all that weird stuff is what makes me, me. Every “um” and “like” (working on that for next time) is me. And that weird stuff is what kids remember. It’s what makes my class “my class.”

I also plan to give feedback via video. It’s so much easier to explain something in person rather than words in an email. Furthermore, I think students struggle to understand tone in emails. By filming a quick video, I can help students understand how to improve their assignments with the real tone of my voice in a video message.

I hope this is successful! But I know this is not the only way I can create relationships with online students. How do you achieve this difficult task? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! Until then, I will be busy filming (and refilming)!

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