How to Become a Real Person to Anonymous Online Students

When you are assigned a new online class, do you want to get to know these students individually? Is it possible for you to see your students as something more than a group of anonymous names?

In a traditional college class, instructors will likely have a fairly predictable group of students who can be visually assessed, even though these visual perceptions may not always be accurate. This is different for a class of online students as there can be a greater variety of backgrounds and experiences, which is why the traditional definition of a college student is no longer applicable. That’s why the phrase “non-traditional students” has been used to describe online students as it represents a group of students who have different needs than traditional college students. It becomes imperative for online instructors to learn about their students during the course if they are going to assist them and support their progress.

Within an online class it is possible to have students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and mental impairments, along with other forms of physical and mental challenges. There is a saying that you should not judge a book by its cover and with online students there are no visible covers to assess. Even the phrases used to describe learning within a technologically enabled environment are not very encouraging. For example, “online learning” sounds mechanical and “distance learning” sounds far away. But at the heart of teaching in any environment, especially for the online classroom, is the instructor and student relationship. If that relationship can be developed, even during a limited class time, it will help to improve student success and retention.

Helping Online Students Discover Their Identity

At first an online instructor may view their students as a single type because they all appear to be the same when represented by a printed name or number. Some learning management system platforms now allow students and instructors to upload a photo and attach it to their profile as a means of personalizing classroom posts. From the students’ perspective there are still some who are reluctant to share any personal information, some who share too many details, and others who want to hide behind their anonymity. When a student believes they are anonymous they are more likely to express their thoughts freely and seemingly without any consequences. In my experience some students have even felt empowered from their perception of freedom and talk without a filter to other students and their instructors.

Behind every name listed in the classroom is someone who wants to complete a goal but they may not be able to express themselves effectively, especially if they have identity issues. An identity is developed as a result of their internalized self-beliefs, which have been maintained over time and do not change easily or quickly. When students participate in their class those prior problems and challenges related to their identity still exist, including a negative self-image. An instructor can help them discover their authentic self through the use of supportive communication, interactions, and feedback.

How To Overcome Anonymity

Students cannot be forced to interact with their instructors beyond what is required of them, such as involvement in the discussion board. However, through the development of a strong working relationship it may be possible to gain their cooperation. Sometimes a student’s reluctance is the result of their perceptions or prior negative experiences, and that requires extra effort on the part of their instructor to change that mindset. Students can either be coaxed out of anonymity or they may retreat further into their shell.

There are steps you can take to get to know your students and encourage the development of their online personality. For example, you can utilize different options for posting their introduction, including the use of a recorded voice or visual introduction. As their instructor you cannot control how students will respond to you but you can make an effort to work with them and get to know them.

Why Online Relationships Matter

The most important reason why relationships matter is that you must work with students to help them succeed. A positive relationship with students helps prevent the online environment from becoming mechanical as it humanizes the learning experience. You become “real” to students and in turn they become “real” to you. At the basis of the word relationship is the word relate and while this cannot be forced, you have an ability to nurture it.

For example, you can personalize students’ feedback rather than use strictly canned comments. You may never get to know your students but you can still work with them and offer to assist them. Be sure to closely watch your communication and do your best to always assist them. Every class consists of students who rely upon you and this is a reminder that teaching involves much more than classroom management.

Develop Meaningful Relationships

When you ask students to post an introduction at the beginning of the class that represents an ideal ice-breaking activity, one that allows you to guide them with what you want them to share. While fun facts are entertaining, consider the value of what you ask them to post. The goal is to begin to learn something about them that will allow you to understand their developmental needs.

In addition to the introduction you can also offer multiple sources of availability, such as the use of email and instant messaging, as a means of establishing an open dialogue with them. For email, be sure to check it as frequently as you can to reduce students’ frustration and anxiety. Instant messaging can be used to hold office hours each week. This creates a perception that you are accessible and approachable and helps to establish an open connection with them.

All interactions you develop with students can further impact your relationship with them. If you can establish rapport with your students, you are more likely to be viewed as approachable. If you are proactive instead of reactive to circumstances, they will discover you possess emotional intelligence. It is up to you as their instructor to make initial and ongoing attempts to develop meaningful relationships. While superficial responses to students’ questions and discussion posts may seem adequate, the ultimate goal is to develop engaging communication so that students will work with you.

Becoming Visible to Students

When you develop a strong virtual presence, it lets students know you are engaged in the class. It is similar to seeing an instructor present in a traditional classroom; the more the instructor is seen the more comfortable students become. You cannot manage an online class from afar and with your presence you can begin to bridge that distance gap. With the discussion board take time to engage students in a conversation and as they respond be sure to follow-up with them. It is an effective practice to respond to all students at least once for each required discussion question as it shows students you are acknowledging their effort and contributions. It can be challenging with a large class size to post a reply to every student and if that is the case, try to rotate your responses so that all students eventually receive a reply from you.

Trust is also a significant issue within online classes and something that is challenging to develop in a virtual environment. As students interact with you they begin to assess your credibility. They will likely learn to trust you if they believe what you tell them, and if you are both firm and fair when addressing their issues and requests. Getting to know your students requires effort and time, beyond managing the classroom and completing your required facilitation duties. However, the outcome is that the time spent working together is enjoyable for everyone as students feel connected to the class, distance is minimized, and students are fully engaged in the learning process.

Dr. Johnson specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA.