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Asian woman studying at home using laptop on the table, holding a pen in hand.

Higher education practitioners can encourage connection among online learners by allowing students to share more of their personal lives and creating space for engagement outside of class hours.  

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Finding ways for students to connect with one another while they are taking college courses online can be a challenge for professors and higher education leaders. Students participating in online-only classes have fewer opportunities than their peers on campus to connect with fellow students, but how do college leaders promote friendships in a way that is authentic and meaningful?

There is a myth that students who enroll in asynchronous learning formats aren’t interested in connecting with each other or their professors, but that’s not true, Jim Julius, faculty coordinator of online communication at MiraCosta College, said in a Sept. 28 webinar hosted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “Even when students are online, many, many of them still want to feel connected.”

Professors share ways they’ve fostered relationships with their students.

Survey Says

In a spring 2023 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, around one-third of student respondents say professors taking an interest in them would promote academic success. Students at four-year institutions are more likely than their two-year peers to want their professors to build a relationship with them, according to the survey.

  • Share a token

Krista Vince Garland, associate professor of education at Buffalo State University in the State University of New York system, wanted to build a better rapport with students and know them on a personal level.

Vince Garland found students were shy or quiet on the first day, but asking them to share a small piece of themselves in the form of a token was a great way to break the ice and find what’s important to them.

A token of significance, as Vince Garland calls it, is an item that is meaningful to the student not because it’s large or expensive, but because it’s personal and ties to an important aspect of their lives. A token could be a pet, a key chain from a favorite holiday, a piece of jewelry given by a family member, a favorite food item, a piece of sporting equipment or a sticker of a character from their favorite TV show.

The exercise works both in person and on Zoom, and professors can create the assignment prior to the first day or ask students to find something on their person or in their setting in the moment.

“Even if they are not home, they can get creative,” Vince Garland says. “They are very innovative!”

After the exercise, students know more about each other and can relate to their peers, whether that’s similar hobbies, involvement in campus clubs or shared hometowns. Vince Garland found “they began to connect outside of my course, and this helped them to establish relationships and class partnerships,” she says.

  • Create a social channel

A majority of college students are digital natives, feeling just as comfortable (or more comfortable) interacting with strangers online as they do on a college campus. An online community can be an academic resource as well as a way for genuine relationship building.

Fort Hays State University created a digital learning community, Tiger-2-Tiger, which allows learners to connect with their professors, classmates and others in the university in a secure but welcoming online environment.

MiraCosta uses Pronto, a messaging platform that builds into the college’s learning management system, Julius says. The platform allows learners to connect at all hours, sharing homework help, silly messages or encouraging notes.

Do you have a campus engagement tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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