Why and How to Get to Know Your Online Learners

Know your audience.  Know your client.  Know your learners.  Whether we are talking about presenting to a large group, working with a prospective client, going on a first date, or teaching a new group of students; there is a universal principle that will greatly impact one’s ability to connect, persuade, relate, sell, serve, or teach.  It requires listening and observing, paying attention to the other, taking care to get to know them.  Know their challenges, background knowledge and experiences, abilities, interests, needs, goals, fears, beliefs, and values.

This same principle is true with effective online teaching and learning.  Without getting to know the learners, we are likely to miss out on many opportunities to teach, guide, and encourage.  If one is committed to cultivating a learning community, then creating experiences and opportunities for learners to get to know one another can be quite powerful as well.  While some people consider such things as “touchy feely”, there is no question that this is a significant aspect of creating a safe, positive learning environment.

  1. It can reduce student anxiety, which allows learners to focus more on the content and meeting the learning outcomes.
  2. It can build a sense of trust among learners which will empower them to be more candid in group activities and discussions, even allowing for more opportunity to respectfully disagree and challenge one another.
  3. It can help students build resilience when persistence when messy or complex learning is necessary.
  4. It can increase overall student satisfaction as well as retention rates.
  5. It will create a more positive, encouraging and pleasant environment in which to learn.

With that in mind, here are some activities / ideas to help you get to know your online learners.  The especially powerful ones involve learners getting to know one another as well, as they sometimes benefit from each other as much or more than they benefit from the instructor.

  1.  Find Commonalities – Most online courses have discussion areas where learners introduce themselves to one another and their classmates.  When replying (and encouraging students to reply), consider posting things that you share in common with each learner.  This helps to build connections right away.  We tend to trust those with whom we have things in common.  This is not to suggest that we ignore or disregard differences, but in the early stages of the course, take the time to point out the commonalities, and invite students to do the same. Do you have common hobbies or interests?  Can you relate with life or work circumstances of another?  Do you share certain goals, aspirations, fears, or challenges?  Perhaps it is as simple as coming from a similar town, having a common educational background, or juggling the challenges of work and family.  Of course, all of this requires listening, learning, and asking questions of the other learners.
  2. Google Them –  I am not suggesting that you stalk them.  However, if they share something related to an interest, a work affiliation, involvement in a club or group, or something else; then take a couple of minutes to learn more about it.  This might be helpful in better understanding them.  It might even give you insights that you can use to illustrate a key concept in the course at some point.
  3. Create a Weekly Check Up Survey – It can be as simple as using a quiz tool where students spend a couple of minutes responding to 1-3 open-ended questions.  What worked well for you this week?  What was challenging or confusing?  What do you expect to apply to work or life right away?  What sparked your curiosity this week?  About what would you like to learn more…or less?  These are just a few examples.  Pick your own or even change them up from week to week.  You can build this into the “assignments” or activities for the week so that students get in the habit of doing it.  Also, if you do this, be clear about your role.  Explicitly tell them the purpose of this activity and whether they can expect to get feedback individually.  At minimum, it will be important to show to students that you are reading these, and the comments are informing how you work with them.
  4. Use Free Inventories / Surveys – Have students fill out one the many inventories available on the web.  Of course, you want to be careful that they are not required to do this every class, but at some point, it could be helpful to have them do something like the character strengths inventory at authentichappiness.com and share some of their strengths with you and/or the class.  You can keep a record of these and take into account the strengths of different learners when planning group activities or weekly events.
  5. Use Synchronous Activities – A Google Hangout or Skype session can go a long way in building rapport and getting to know your learners.  It gives you a chance to experience their nonverbals, for you to hear their voice and see them.  This can be a powerful way for you to think of and treat the students as real people amid the otherwise disembodied communication of the web.  When you plan such activities, don’t just use them to lecture.  Use them as times for learners to share and collaborate.  Share as many questions as you do answers.  Be really curious about them.  Invite them to speak, question, collaborate and contribute.  That will make for a better opportunity to learn about them.
  6. Create Learning Journals – Learning journals are just what they sound like, journals or diaries that focus upon student learning experiences in the course.  They can be open-ended, or you can direct them with specific prompts or questions each week.  Consider giving them examples and guidance at first, and using it as a place where learners reflect on how to apply the content to their real world life circumstances, or as a place to reflect on what is helping them learn in the course.  You can make these visible to the entire class or just private journals that are only visible to you or a small group of their classmates.

There are plenty of other ways to get to know your online learners, but these are a few to get you started.  If you have other suggestions, especially ones that have worked for you as an online teacher, please consider sharing them as a comment.

One Reply to “Why and How to Get to Know Your Online Learners”

  1. @ioedu

    I founded an online ed program that is synchronous only — we serve public school districts in NJ. We hire NJ certified teachers to meet with homebound instruction students (who often fall through the cracks in the system at large) and offer them mainstreaming with their peers from across the state and real time lessons in the virtual classroom. Expression is of the moment — authentic critical discourse between students and teacher. We do not marginalize teaches we see them as integral to the learning process.

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