The Nicest Person I’ve Never Met: Teacher-Student Communications Online

Guest Blogger, Katherine Judd, VSCC Livingston Campus English Faculty Kathy Judd

One day, as I worked in my office, I overheard two students speaking of their class registration times. One student lamented not being able to take a class she needed in a classroom; her only option was online. Her companion asked why she worried so. Her reply? “I can’t stand it when the online teacher never answers email or returns a call. How do I learn if I cannot get in touch with the teacher? If I have to teach myself, I don’t need college.” This is a common complaint among our students, the inability to communicate with the online teacher. When I teach online, I remember this conversation and set aside time each day to communicate with my students. Today’s technology provides multiple methods of communication and communication software (VolState uses eLearn). In addition to assignments, we have access to discussions, dropboxes, email, telephones, and virtual technology.

First and foremost for all teachers is email, the one delivery system for all information within the college, whether directly to faculty and staff, to the student body, or both. But, it need not be JUST a delivery system. Every morning, even on weekends, I begin my day with a cup of coffee and my email accounts. I begin with my independent account, as this is where I find news of family and friends. Then, I move to my VolState email, where I may find information about the college, my department, fellow faculty, and, at times, my students, especially if they are on the job or otherwise not online with eLearn. Finally, I login to eLearn and check for any and all emails there. These messages tend to become my priority, as these are questions from students regarding their classwork and/or assignments. Sometimes, there is the panic email about inoperative technology. Sometimes, it’s a clarification question. At other times, it is a missive explaining an absence from class. All different; all important; and, I answer each and every email, be it independent, VolState, or eLearn email. Generally speaking, the fewer emails I have, the more involved my students are in their work. All told, the time dedicated to email responses each morning averages about one hour, give or take thirty (30) minutes.

Now, I am inside eLearn, so I check the work submitted in the discussion area. I really enjoy reading the students’ discussions of the various assignments I’ve posted to Discussions. Since I teach mainly writing, I use discussions to 1) DISCUSS the assignments (NOT teach them) with the students, and 2) help students practice good writing skills by showing the errors and advising on corrections. When discussing, I may agree or disagree with a student’s viewpoint, but I never grade opinions! I may offer a differing viewpoint for consideration, or I may mention a point that appears to be dismissed as unimportant. When offering tips for practice, I note errors in the posted messages, show how to revise those errors, and encourage students to read and respond to those revisions. Discussions are where I discuss MLA citation of source material, basic grammar rules (capitalization and punctuation), and basic writing rules (complete sentences and sentence variation). In the past, I’ve read syllabi from other teachers stating they seldom read/participate in these discussions. How very sad! I LOVE them! Here, I get a sense of how each student thinks and feels about various topics and world events. I also learn their “voices,” just as they learn mine. We “get to know” each other during our discussions. Finally, I provide one room for all my students that is uniquely theirs: the Steam Room! Here, students can vent, scream, cry, and otherwise let it all hang out without fearing a grade, a slap-down, or a grammar lecture. Here, shortcuts and netspeak are ok, the forums are open to all and sundry, and no harassment rears its ugly head. I read this forum, too, and add my own personal experiences to their stories to show them we are all human.

Once out of the Discussion area, I move into the Dropbox area. Students know this area is serious, as this is where they turn in assignments for evaluation. In eLearn, we teachers have a wide variety of options and software available to help us keep our students on the academic straight and narrow. Just about any assignment can find its way here, but how we respond to these anxious excisions of our students’ brains says a lot about what they ultimately think of us. I see the Dropbox as an extremely viable communication tool for education. First of all, all submissions are files, which means we (teachers) can “write” directly on them. And I do! I use my ability to write directly on the document I’m grading to continue growing my relationship with my online students. However, here I tend to be more teacher, less mentor. I grade….then I explain the grade in a note written to the author of that document. I “speak” directly to him or her, explaining errors, encouraging revision and further discussion, and offering any further assistance. We also can offer help and encouragement through the Feedback area to the entire class or to each student, depending on the frequency of the errors or overall approach to the assignment. Finally, I re-open the Dropbox assignments for revision and error-correction. Students revise and re-submit their assignments to attain a higher score. Sometimes, I OFFER revision as incentive; other times, I require revision, especially if the first submission was egregiously off balance or poorly written. Most students are grateful for the opportunity to better their overall scores.

Key words: communication, presence, and time

As technology continues to evolve, a whole new range of options suiting online virtual presence ready for usage. We can make videos of lectures, then stream the lectures. We can use a webcam and deliver our lectures or discussion live. With live TV hook-up, we can broadcast to several universities from one central location. We can record audio and visual “notes” for our students. We can even write all our documents as equally accessible for all students. Here, I caution you, my fellow faculty, do not assume ALL students have access to higher technology just because we do. I’ve heard students complain that online teachers don’t care whether or not they (the students) pass. The prevailing thought is teachers believe all people have access to and use advanced technology. While some teachers may believe this, most of us do not. Believe me, I still spend more time in a face-to-face discussion or tutoring session than I do with “live” technology. While advanced technology is intriguing, most students extend their gratitude to the teacher who makes time, not technology, for them!

And this, my friends, is only the tip of the iceberg! I’ve not even mentioned chat rooms for virtual offices hours, news and information items on the Homepage for each class, content modules containing lively classroom discussions recorded then distributed (with permission, of course) to other interested parties, and, lest we forget, SOCIAL MEDIA! I realize we all have responsibilities and duties, but we are TEACHERS, first and foremost. If our true goal is student retention, then communications is our greatest tool. Take the time, make the time, and spend the time with your online students. You’ll be glad you did when you overhear, “He’s/she’s the nicest person I never met.”