Personality goes a long way, but when faculty are limited to a digital format, the personality, compassion, and caring dispositions that help good educators make connections with students often get lost from one screen to the next. When I first started online teaching, I was told to be direct. This would preclude any misunderstandings or miscommunications between students and instructor.
Unfortunately, my directness was not received as such. Students felt that comments lacked compassion, and were, if anything, rude. Going back and reading through the feedback I had provided, I did not notice anything out of the ordinary. There was nothing I hadn’t said to students in face to face formats before. Students had always rated me highly on professionalism and student-teacher interactions. Why were my online students unhappy? Why did they perceive me as a monster?
It seems that my directness and digital personality did not come across as intended. It is not enough to have compassion for students, or to even act upon it in the online classroom. One must focus on expressing that compassion through balanced communication in the forms of assignment feedback, answering general questions, and overall course communication. Getting to know students personally, and those small interactions before and after class are lost in the online format. Those are important to forming relationships with students that further the teacher-student bond. Without this bond, teacher communication is not seen as coming from the point of a person who cares about your growth as a student, but instead it is seen as an uncaring slap in the face from a domineering grade controller on the other end of the computer.
At the same time, we must remember to stress professionalism. Filling announcements with emoticons, exclamation marks, and font changes will not instill confidence in online learners, and they may find it hard to take the professor seriously. So how do we find balance?
Find something positive – When communicated with students, whether through individual feedback on an assignment or a whole group announcement, always try to find something positive to say. Acknowledge and thank students for participation, enthusiasm, or effort. Make sure you are genuine in this statement. It will be obvious if you are not.
Ask questions – Make an effort to get to know your students. When students email, post questions, or even send in assignments, make sure to ask questions of them. Check on them when you notice they haven’t been participating. Just because the introductions were done at the beginning of the class, doesn’t mean you are done with creating those personal connections.
Watch your tone – When delivering feedback or corrections, re-read your comments for tone. Something you may say in conversation and is fine, fun, and helpful, could be taken wrong. (Unfortunately, if you are female, this can work against you even more so than if you are male.)
Give helpful advice – Make sure that if you are giving feedback on something that is incorrect, that you provide the correct information along with it. This is a learning opportunity, and will help the student feel less beaten down.
Punctuating! – While the exclamation mark can be overwhelming if overused, it can also help convey a happy or positive message on occasion. Don’t forget that it exists!
Emoticons – I’m on the fence with these. While I feel that today’s students more clearly understand text when it is followed by a winky face, sad face, or something of the like, I also stress professionalism in communication in my courses and try not to encourage the use of them. Sometimes, it can’t be helped. 😉