How to Connect With Students in Your Online Classes

Let students get to know the person behind the computer screen.

January 10, 2017

Online classes have become popular, and with good reason. They enable students who work outside of school or have full schedules to attend class on their own time. However, teaching an online class has its challenges. Online, students can’t see or talk to their classmates or the instructor.
“In a live class, I walk around, I make jokes, I laugh at myself,” said Jennifer Cainas, CPA, an accounting instructor and DBA candidate who has taught numerous online courses at the University of South Florida. “In an online course, they are just out there. When they ask a question by email, unlike in a live class, they have not had the benefit of seeing my reaction when others have asked a question.”
This lack of direct feedback can leave some students disengaged. But experienced accounting professors have come up with many strategies for forging connections with students in their online classes. Here are some of them:
Let your students see the real you with video. Maureen Flores, Ed.D., a lecturer at Troy University, and Julianna Browning, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting and business school chair at California Baptist University, make themselves more relatable to online students by posting a video introduction at the beginning of the course.

“I post a video where I talk about myself. I tell them about my interests. I make it personal,” said Flores, who teaches online undergraduate courses in financial and managerial accounting. “Other students can post videos about themselves too—what they do, where they live. This is always the focus of the first week.”
Use chat technology to build connections. Flores uses Google Hangouts and Skype for informal group discussions as well as for one-on-one discussions. “I get them to realize I’m a human being just as they are,” she said. “It’s important to engage students at a personal and social level.”
Consider a hybrid component. Using a hybrid class model, in which students spend some of their class time online and some in a face-to-face environment, can be another way to overcome disconnectedness. Cainas requires that her students attend the first day of class and come to campus for exams. That way, they also get to meet her in person.

Make sure your students are comfortable with the technology. Frustrations with the technology used in online classes can be a barrier to engagement. Always recognize that your class may be the first online class some of your students have taken. Take some time to go over the features of any technology your course uses, such as a learning management system (LMS). Flores walks her students through the class so they know how to get started.

Give students a lifeline. When students can’t meet with you after class to ask questions, they may not know where to look for help. Flores encourages students to search for help on the LMS’s forum. Reading topics such as “Ask the Instructor, “I don’t understand the technology,” or “I need help with homework” can help students come to grips with problems as soon as they arise, she said. Browning also has a Facebook group for each course where students can ask questions.

Get a look at your students’ study habits. Many LMSes enable you to see when your students log on, which can give you valuable information about how they’re engaging with your class. Flores said she uses her LMS to see how much time students spend with a certain section of the course or on their homework. “I can see if they have logged on during the week or only on weekends,” she noted. If the latter is the case, she posts tips on how to avoid last-minute cramming.
Maintain frequent contact. Students in an online course are physically removed from their fellow students and teachers, which can mean they’re less than clear about what the instructor’s expectations are. To overcome this problem, Browning uses the LMS Blackboard’s announcement feature to send out emails on what students can expect that week.
Use social media to connect with students. Cainas has started an accounting Snapchat (Prof_cainas) specifically for her online students. Twice or thrice a week, she posts either fun material or accounting-related content to it. When she went out to dinner with her daughter, for example, she posted, “When I pay the bill, it’s a debit to cash and a credit to revenue.” For more detailed interactions, she has students comment on three discussion board posts a semester on Canvas, the LMS she uses.

Teaching across time zones? Try texting. Flores allows her students to text her at any time of day. “If I’m awake and I’m alive, I will answer,” she said. (You could also designate certain times of day when you’ll accept texts from students.)
This cuts down on the frustration students can experience when posting on the discussion board from different time zones, Flores said. She noted, “I’m not necessarily going to be there for them when they post, but I will get back to them when they text me.”
Use forums to facilitate peer-to-peer and student-teacher interaction. Student-to-student interaction makes for a satisfying learning experience as it fosters a sense of community. It can also build students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills as they ask and answer questions. To replicate this experience online, Browning puts the Blackboard discussion board forums to good use. She usually dictates that a certain number of posts and responses be posted and grades students on the quantity and quality of their posts.
Browning also pointed out that these forums can be better than face-to-face interactions, where two or three students with strong personalities could take over the discussion.
Mix it up. Browning encourages her students to use the Accounting Challenge app to play with information, not for grades but “just to engage students outside of an academic environment.”
Usha Sankar is a freelance writer and editor based in Cary, N.C. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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