Technology as a Catalyst to Facilitate Connections in the Online Classroom
People are social creatures who often seek out connections with their family members, friends, co-workers, and peers. Dr. Joel Salinas’ (2018) research found that the number and quality of social connections can even have health benefits. People with high social connections have a lower risk for strokes, cognitive dysfunction, and even pathology (Salinas, 2018). This desire for social connections transcends the college classroom — where students look to connect with their peers, the course content, their faculty, and the campus. Various technologies are available in many learning management systems (LMSs) and as open-source resources, which can be used to enhance faculty, student, and curriculum connections. The authors examine and address how technology can be used to establish and nurture social connections within the online college classroom and what role technology can play in improving student satisfaction and success outcomes.
Connections are an important part of education and student success. This is true of both online (Weller, 2007) and traditional classrooms (Kop, 2011). Past research (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Teven & McCroskey, 1997) indicates that student connections influence student perceptions and are key factors in student success. This is especially true when examining perceptions of the students toward the faculty member teaching their course. In a brick-and-mortar institution, these perceptions often stem from the various interactions between the student and professor across the college (both in and out of class). The challenge is how to build and sustain rapport online, which is important for two reasons. First, students want a close, harmonious relationship with a group that shares similar feelings and ideas (Frisby & Martin, 2010). Second, positive perceptions of the students’ rapport with their faculty member are associated with emotional, cognitive, and pro-academic behaviors such as motivation, class attendance, and participation (Frisby, Slone, & Bengu, 2017; Solis & Turner, 2017).
Additionally, positive perceptions can predict student and course outcomes. Considerable research indicates that students’ interactions with the course, the content, the faculty, and other students influence their perceptions of not only the class but also their opinion of the faculty, the course learning outcomes, and their overall experience with the university. This finding is important since other research suggests that many students want a lifelong relationship with their college or university (Clinefelter, Aslanian, & Magda 2019; Frisby & Gaffney, 2015, Hagenauer & Volet, 2014; Halx, 2010; Sibii, 2010). The terms connection and rapport can be used to describe a wide range of concepts. Sibii (2010) defines student connections to include closeness, care, safety, trust, honesty, fairness, respect, openness, support, encouragement, availability, and approachability (p. 535). All of these factors can contribute to building rapport, which is defined as students’ general perception of the relationship with their instructor (Frisby & Gaffney, 2015). Students who hold positive perceptions of connection and rapport and believe their instructor cares about their success also conclude that they learn more (Boynton & Boynton, 2005). The challenge is determining if this outcome can be effectively implemented in the online or virtual environment. How can the trends in the higher education industry, coupled with technology, be used in the online classroom to help facilitate student and faculty connection and rapport? These issues and others will be addressed, and a list of free or open-source technology tools for consideration when facilitating and engaging students in an online classroom is provided.
Online education continues to grow in popularity. A 2018 report by Best colleges.com found that 80% of students felt the online learning method was at least as good as or better than traditional on-campus learning. According to Clinefelter, Aslanian, & Magda (2019), 85% of participants in their study reported that their online school experience helped them improve critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Google data analytics indicate that the fastest growing internet search query for education in 2018 included a specific education program and the term online (Mangles, 2018).
Enrollment in online education has more than quadrupled since the early 2000s. Even at a time when tuition at universities is rising faster than inflation, and wages are stagnant, enrollment in online programs is holding steady (Dusst & Winthrop, 2018). There is a national interest in student success in higher education institutions, especially in the online market. Poor student outcomes have led to negative publicity and skepticism from potential students to enroll in some online institutions. Colleges and universities are using data analytics to manage return on both student and university investments (Mangeles, 2018), which has led to colleges and universities looking for ways to integrate technology to increase the return on investment in online education and to better support student success.
New technology is entering the online education space, including virtual and augmented reality. These new immersion technologies have the potential to provide students with real-world experiences and can provide a collaborative environment connecting students in the same virtual space, regardless of their physical location (Lopez, 2016). Although this technology might be cost prohibitive in its current state, the potential is pervasive. Some universities have created virtual campus tours via mobile applications. Other virtual technology offerings include instructors holding virtual office hours, live tutoring, and student–advisor video meetings. For example, students can set up a meeting with their instructor via a mobile calendar app. During the agreed-upon time, the student would knock on the instructor’s virtual office door, sit down in the virtual chair on the opposite side of the instructor’s desk, and have a real-time conversation via video about the course content or assignment instructions in a virtual reality setting. In instances where a faculty member or student might not want to use video, they can opt for an avatar or still picture to display on the screen and still benefit from the real-time interaction. Such a strategy also creates an opportunity for a student–instructor exchange that contributes to connection and rapport building, which can better support student success as noted previously.
The proverb “No man is an island” (Donne, 1624) is as relative to life today as it was in the 17th century and can be applied to the area of higher education. Connections continue to be an important part of education and student success. When students begin their online college journey, they are excited, motivated, and ready to start a new adventure. Students see this opportunity as a way for them to improve their personal and professional lives. However, this excitement can temper quickly if students feel they have entered a desolate wasteland, left to navigate the unknown online environment all by themselves.
By focusing on finding ways to present an enriching online experience for students through encouraging relationship building with their peers and faculty, and engagement with their program and school as a whole, we might be able to improve student connection, rapport, and engagement. These critical success factors influence the overall student experience, success, and satisfaction (Bergin & Bergin, 2009). Leveraging technology to foster these connections and relationships is key.
The student–instructor connection and rapport are important aspects of improving student success. Technology will play a key role in fostering both components in the online modality. Although an exhaustive review of all current educational technology is beyond the scope of this paper, our intent is to highlight the importance of these factors and provide tangible examples of using technology to enhance student–instructor connection and rapport. We also introduce some resources that have potential to augment the student’s experience in the online environment. Examining social media and its impact on connection and rapport within the online classroom is beyond the scope of this paper; however, we do note the important role social media can play and the benefits of examining social media in future research. See Appendix A for a sample of technology tools that can assist the online instructor. See Appendix B for a sample of technology tools that might benefit the online student.
An online university instituted a communication system within the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS) called CVITAS. CVITAS displays a visual graphic, called a heat map, which shows students’ engagement in the course. All students are awarded a score based on their level of engagement in the course. The score shows how often and how much time the students spend reviewing the syllabus, the assignment instructions, discussion board activity, and on the course material activity page. Students are assigned an engagement score between 1 and 10, based on the LMS data point, which is refreshed every 24 to 48 hours. Over time, the expectation would be that the distribution of the engagement scores would hover at the midpoint or around 5 out of 10. Instructors are encouraged to send out communication weekly to low-performing students (those scoring below 5), which not only fosters rapport but also supports the likely increase in students’ participation. Instructors are also able to include the students’ advisors on the outreach should they feel extra student support is needed. The goal is to increase both peer-to-peer and student-to-faculty communication in an effort to increase students’ overall experience and, ultimately, their success in the class.
In addition, instructors are encouraged to send messages to midlevel students (those scoring between 5 and 8) to encourage them to continue engaging in the course work and contact high-performing students (those scoring above 8), acknowledging a job well done. Students across the board, including high-performing students, frequently responded, thanking their faculty member for reaching out and recognizing their hard work and commitment to the classroom. The reviews from students since the CVITAS initiative began, approximately 12 months ago, have been mostly positive. Instructors have observed a notable difference in student responses. Students answer favorably to the positive engagement emails acknowledging their participation and accomplishments. Many students receiving the low-engagement scores are inquiring as to what they can do to get out of the red zone or low-engagement category. The table illustrates a few paraphrased examples of the types of student responses received when given their CVITAS engagement scores via email. Even though not everyone might have access to this tool, the principle (regardless of the tool utilized) of taking the opportunity to connect with students at key touch points across the course is both needed and effective. Using something as basic as the gradebook and roster can prove effective if given attention.
Student Responses to Engagement Emails
Many of the current technology tools used in the online classroom are mostly static. Examples include course announcements, discussion assignments, written guidance, recorded lectures, and integrated rubrics, which are valuable methods of communicating information to students even though they might see these as more of an information dump or reiteration of what has already been posted in the syllabus or in the assignment instructions. Repetition in education has some value. Aristotle (Ross & Phil, 1906) recognized this in 350 BCE with his laws of association and frequency stating that learning “is frequent repetition that produces a natural tendency” (p. 113), and “the more frequently two things are experienced together, the more likely it will be that the experience or recall of one will stimulate the recall of the second” (p. 11). However, instructors should be mindful of how much information is presented in the course and avoid students experiencing cognitive overload.
Administrators might also keep this in mind when considering faculty expectations, i.e., more is not always better. If the announcements, discussions, and other static tools are used to enhance or augment the material already presented in another form, they can provide value for the students. Oftentimes these tend to be more repetitive in nature and offer very little in the way of encouraging engagement, reflection, and creative thinking. Simple adjustments to these static methods, such as focusing on the visual appeal of the delivery method, can encourage students to read and engage in the material. For example, instructors can use a free service such as Canva (see Appendix A) to create interesting infographics when posting an announcement or a discussion response. Something as simple as creating a visually appealing PowerPoint slide, saving it as a .jpg, and uploading it to the class as an announcement or discussion post can catch the students’ attention and encourage them to respond.
Less Common Technology Tools
Digital technology allows instructors to provide audiovisual feedback to students. Screen-casting technologies offer a different approach to providing students with feedback on their assignments or discussion posts. Early research supported the idea that audiovisual feedback can enhance the student learning experience and create rapport and support between faculty members and their students (Liou & Peng, 2009). This type of feedback allows instructors to engage students with multiple learning styles. Whether this type of feedback is more effective in improving student performance or engagement than written feedback is debatable, but it is an option for instructors who are looking for different ways to reach their students. Providing audiovisual feedback is now simple and easy to incorporate with built-in features in some LMSs.
Most LMSs have alert systems that can filter and target students who have missed a deadline or performed poorly on an assignment. Instructors can quickly home in on students who might be struggling and use the alert system to contact students and encourage them to participate in the class or submit a missing assignment. Even if an LMS does not have this feature, a quick glance at the grade book could allow instructors to perform targeted outreach via email or telephone. Email is likely the most common tool used to communicate with students in the online classroom, but text messaging, social learning communities, and even social media could be used to reach students as well. Digital badging can be incorporated to show students when they have met or exceeded a goal within the classroom. For example, if a student is the first to respond in a discussion forum, they might earn a digital conversation starter badge. The full potential of digital badging has not been recognized yet, but some early research suggests that badging can be used to motivate students by recognizing their accomplishments. Seixas, Gomes, & Filho (2016) found that students with low engagement in the online classroom were often motivated to increase their participation when gamification techniques were applied.
Considerations and Recommendations
Quality Versus Quantity
Technology can be implemented to present content that is interesting and relevant to students. This can draw students deeper into a topic, direct their own learning, and help them attain technological literacy skills that can translate to the workforce. We have to be cognizant of providing quality resources versus bombarding students with too much information. Examples of quality might include taking time to develop highly visual and appealing announcements and discussion posts that are accurate and error free; following best practices for creating videos, being mindful of background, presentation, length, and content; and embedding video instead of just posting a link.
Balance / Americans with Disabilities Act — Especially with Video
Alternative methods are needed for presenting information feedback in conjunction with video, such as written transcripts or closed captioning. Many software programs are available that will transcribe the videos. Google Docs and Temi both have built-in voice-typing tools. Amara is one of many collaborative captioning and translation tools. Not all students are going to prefer video feedback and lectures over written ones. Video lectures and feedback should be as short as possible when conveying the information. Instructors might find that they need to communicate in multiple formats to appeal to multiple student-learning styles, keeping the course content relevant, timely, and up-to-date to hold student interest and attention. Engaging students can be challenging, as they face constant distractions; in addition, their attention spans are getting shorter. Research indicates that three to four minutes is the average time students will spend reviewing video lectures or feedback (Briggs, 2014; Bradbury, 2016; Armes, 2018).
Helping Students Make Connections
The online classroom is diverse, and students come from different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. The instructor can give students a survey at the beginning of the course to capture data about their interests and abilities and then share the aggregate results in the introduction discussion forum to build a sense of community. For example, if the informal survey indicated that 45% of students were interested in learning more about the stock exchange, the instructor could look for ways to incorporate that information into a lesson. Stanford University developed a program called Talk About, which enables peer discussion in a global classroom via Google Hangouts (Hertz, 2013). Students and instructors are able to post their video responses in real time. If instructors are able to find commonalities across the discussion thread, they can use these commonalities to connect the students to each other and the instructor.
Mindful of Communication Style in Public and Private Settings
One may not readily distinguish between public and private conversation in the online environment, but students will certainly note the tone of the communication. Using one approach in the discussion forum or in a live seminar/session and another in the gradebook can actually hinder instructor–student rapport and ultimately learning. A simple, mindful practice that goes a long way to ensuring consistency across communication includes always using a greeting (Hi, John) and providing a complimentary close (Thanks, Dr. J.). Effective communication needs participation from all parties. Emotional awareness, or the ability to recognize feelings, plays a role in the effectiveness of communication (Pogosyan, 2018). Being mindful of how our communication styles affect others can assist us in becoming better communicators.
Careful Not to Overwhelm with Mass Communications
Students receive a lot of information from various stakeholders across the university. They receive university-wide emails, alerts, and notifications, which do not even include the communications they receive from outside the university to that same email address for nonschoolrelated activities. Being cognizant when posting announcements, sending emails or texts, and responding in the discussion forums that our communication has a purpose is important. If students receive too many messages that they see as irrelevant or not pertinent to them, they could begin to ignore our attempts or else see them as disingenuous.
Limitations and Future Research
This work is based on the two authors’ experiences. In addition, we recognize there are other limitations, including our own bias toward appreciation of online learning. In future studies, we will consider specific practices connected to building rapport and success outcomes. Apps and social media platforms, such as Twitter badges, where students push their discussion posts using a hashtag to be a storyteller or other badges that recognize student achievements could be explored to see if they encourage student engagement, rapport, and satisfaction. Future research could examine ways to encourage students to tap into emotions, and add personal stories in an effort to build rapport. Additional consideration might be given to negative influences outside school that could be impacting key metrics, including rapport building with peers and instructors. Being mindful of the ethical issues around personal disclosures will be important.
Adding self-assessments and peer-review opportunities where students grade each other’s discussion posts or rough drafts could be explored as an effort to give students a sense of ownership, accountability and control over their learning. Students could be given the opportunity to choose between several options for assignments versus forced choice. For example, they could be given the option of creating a voice-over PowerPoint presentation, creating a personal video, or creating an animated video as options for a presentation assignment.
Future research about the benefits of training online instructors on the implementation of engagement strategies, not just on theories and pedagogies, should be addressed. Instructors should be given access to specific engagement tools to leverage technology and build rapport in the classroom. Additional research on engaging learners by using a mix of content delivery methods (video, text, audio, etc.) should be explored. Various methods for keeping the course content relevant and updated by bringing in new research, news, articles, policies, and emerging trends should be examined.
Another opportunity for future researchers is the use of how specific technology tools might affect course retention or success rates. Methods of leveraging email notifications from the LMS, scheduling and sending automated encouraging and motivating messages to high-performing students (and not just focusing on those who are falling behind) should be explored in more detail.
Many college students today grew up in the digital age and are comfortable with various social media and technology tools. Regardless of the level of comfort with these tools, technology is part of all online college students’ lives. These students will need to use some sort of technology, such as a computer or mobile device, to manage their day-to-day online learning tasks. Additionally, research (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Hagenauer, & Volet, 2014; Frisby, Slone, & Bengu, 2017) has shown that students need to build a connection and establish rapport with their peers, faculty, and the university. Knowing this, faculty members and university systems need to find effective ways to use technology in the classroom, which gives students the opportunity to interact with their classmates and instructor in various ways. Providing a variety of options to find what options work best for the individual needs of the students is important. Integrating technology in the college classroom encourages students to stay engaged and develop their digital citizenship skills (Mareco, 2017). As educators, we can help students improve outcomes, including their grades, course completion rates, technology skills, and critical-thinking skills. At the same time, instructors must support efforts to foster student–faculty rapport. Technology is an integral part of life in the 21st century and can be used to make positive changes in the online college classroom and, ultimately, in the lives of students.
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60 Cities: https://www.360cities.net/ You can show almost instantaneously the places that you will be studying. There is a VR setting that you can click so students can view through their VR devices. Same concept: Google Earth: https://www.google.com/earth/
Canva: https://www.canva.com/ Create infographics to use in announcements or discussion assignments.
Edpuzzle: https://www.google.com/earth/ This website allows you to make videos interactive. You can turn them into formative assessments. Upload a video you want to use or search their gallery, and then you can clip the video to include only portions of the video. You can also add audio narration or comments to the video. You can embed both multiple-choice and open-ended questions as well.
Flipgrid: https://flipgrid.com/ Facilitate video discussions. You can record short videos to post in the discussion or reply to others. Similar to snapchat (filters, stickers, etc.)
Listenwise: https://listenwise.com/ Allows you to add audio components. You can browse their collections to find relevant stories for your topic. Then just click the share button to get a link to take the students to this audio recording. Listenwise also provides discussion questions for each story as well as premade Socrative quizzes.
SMMRY: https://smmry.com/ Summarizes any text or webpage. (Use to summarize journal articles or difficult concepts.)
Smore: https://www.smore.com/ Easy to create newsletters and flyers. Templates are customizable and mobile enabled.
Temi: https://www.temi.com/ Speech to text transcription.
Two free phone apps: Typorama / Font Candy. Allows you to create graphics on your iPhone or iPad. Add quotes, artwork, filters, colors, etc.
ViewPure: http://viewpure.com/ Allows you to copy a video URL, paste it into the box at the top, and then click the purify button. The site then generates a new URL with all the clutter removed. Great for YouTube videos.
Yellowdig: https://yellowdig.com/ Engagement platform with social media features, nudges, and multimedia posting capabilities. Organizes content via topics and incorporate gamification (point system). Educational version of Facebook.