Online Students Need Virtual Emotional Intelligence

Online Students Need Virtual Emotional Intelligence

A common misconception about online classes is that students are working in a text-based environment that is absent of human emotions. While visual cues such as facial expressions, body language, and auditory tone are absent, emotions are always present. It is not possible to work in an online class without experiencing feelings of some kind. Students react to what they read, how they perceptually process their environment, and develop feelings as they interact with the class. A positive emotional reaction will encourage students to build connections, while negative emotions can result in disengagement from the class. What online students need is virtual emotional intelligence, which is an adaptation of Daniel Goleman’s model that is applied to digital communication.
Emotional Intelligence Model

In my post, Why Emotional Intelligence is Needed More Than Ever, I described Goleman’s model as it relates to college students and it includes the following four components:

#1. Emotional self-awareness. When students learn to recognize how they feel, along with their present mood and general disposition about the class, they can better control their reactions. For example, if a student begins the class feeling frustrated, and this isn’t properly acknowledged and addressed, it can have a negative impact on performance and interactions.

#2. Emotional self-management. As students conduct a self-check and become aware of how they are feeling, then they are then able to deal with those emotions. While there may or may not be an immediate resolution available for the cause of those feelings, they can prevent it from interfering with their work. As an example, if a student has received an unexpected grade and believes it was unfair – a strong emotional reaction can disrupt concentration, communication, and meaningful collaboration with others if it is allowed to continue unchecked.

#3. Social awareness. When students are able to recognize and manage their emotional reactions and feelings, they develop better people skills because their thoughts are focused on listening and empathizing with others. It is similar to “clearing your head” because you are not allowing yourself to be controlled by emotions and that allows you to be fully present in class.

#4. Relationship management. When students are emotionally intelligent, they have controlled their reactive emotions, developed an open mind when listening to others, remain neutral when presented with challenges or communication conflicts, and take a proactive approach to their involvement in the class. This is not to say that emotions should be eliminated; however, students interact more effectively when they focus on an emotionally objective (controlled) rather than subjective (uncontrolled) mindset.

Challenges for the Online Classroom

Do online students need emotional intelligence too? The emotional intelligence model described above is relevant and applicable to all forms of classroom interactions, on-ground and online. The process of communication doesn’t change but the format does, and this requires an adapted form of emotional intelligence. Of course many students tell me that they are better communicators via technology because they are used to interactions through social networking websites. However, from my experience, students learn that communicating in an online academic setting is different than using the abbreviated forms of communication that are present in social media as they need to clearly express their message in a way that it can be easily read and clearly interpreted. Even though the tone of the message cannot be heard, it is perceptually interpreted and this affects students’ working relationships.

In Emotional Intelligence as a Predictor for Success in Online Learning, the authors evaluated the use of written words as the primary form of communication, without nonverbal cues, and noted that: “students’ unmet needs for human contact, lack of self-motivation, or feelings of isolation can deter success in online courses” (Berenson, Boyles, & Weaver, 2008). These factors are all emotionally based reactions that must be recognized and managed if students want to work effectively in the online environment. This is not to diminish the need for these qualities; however, the emotions should be dealt with first so that the underlying issues can be addressed.

A 2012 study titled, Relationship between Students’ Emotional Intelligence, Social Bond, and Interactions in Online Learning, is one of few studies that considered the challenges associated with an online classroom environment. There are three key points that addressed emotions and perception:
#1. “The limited environmental capacity to perceive emotions in online learning may bring greater emotional distance to students who have low ability to perceive emotions.”
#2. “It is not easy to perceive emotions in an online learning environment due to the emphasis on text-based communication, which does not require facial expression.”
#3. “It may be more challenging for individuals with a lower ability to perceive emotion to understand others’ feelings in online environments.”

These three barriers occur most often when students first begin an online class or make a transition from an on-ground to an online environment. The reason why it is difficult for students to perceive emotions is that they have not developed an adapted form of emotional intelligence.

Developing Virtual Emotional Intelligence

Utilizing Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence, I’ll provide a three step process that adapts it for use by students in the online classroom.

Step One: Examine and Manage Your Emotional Readiness

Before you begin to work in the online classroom, consider your level of emotional awareness and your preparedness for working in this technology-based environment. Begin by conducting a personal self-check and ask these questions: How do I feel right now? Am I ready to begin class now and participate? Do I have concerns, frustrations, or distractions that I need to address? You can also take emotional intelligence assessments, such as the one offered by the Institute for Health and Human Potential, Test Your EQ. What you want to develop is your emotional self-awareness, as a means of managing how you feel and controlling any negative emotions.
Step Two: Participate Virtually with a Purpose

Social involvement in an online class consists of virtual interactions in a virtual space. Students rely upon perceptions, which in turn create emotions. Written communication has the power to humanize or de-humanize the learning process, depending upon the interpretation of the messages. Your written messages and posts represent you and carry a “tone” based upon the mechanics of the response and the word choices used. For example, poor spelling and grammar, or inappropriate wording, may lead to a negative perception about you – that also generates an emotional response. A virtual environment requires purposeful interactions, considering what you write and how it is presented. I recommend you create your posts offline first and then read them aloud to determine how they may be perceived. This will lead to development of virtual, social awareness.

Step Three: Create a Social Presence

Relationship management in a virtual environment consists of finding new methods of connecting with, relating to, and engaging in conversations. Almost every online class has a discussion board requirement, so that is a method of creating an academic community. You will also likely have an opportunity to post an introduction, which will allow you to become a “real” person to the class. What you can do is to develop and manage your virtual identity. You cannot control the perceptions or emotional reactions of your classmates; however, you can develop the image portrayed through your posts. Always choose language that is suitable for an academic environment and avoid wording such as slang, text messaging abbreviations, or typing in all caps. The development of a positive image is also worthwhile because it affects your working relationships with other students and your instructor.

The online classroom is a vibrant, interactive environment that is made meaningful through the quality of posts and messages you’ve created. Similar to any other classroom environment, your feelings need to be assessed and your emotional reactions managed, so that you can engage effectively with other classmates. When you develop virtual emotional intelligence you approach the learning process objectively and avoid subjective responses that create barriers to communication.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.
Photo © Ken Kaminesky/Take 2 Productions/Corbis

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