Can’t We All Get Along: Building Bridges in Online Classes

Can't We All Get Along: Building Bridges in Online Classes

When you think about relationships that are important to you, whether at home or work, you know how much effort is required to develop productive interactions. You have to consider your tone, body language, and other visual and verbal cues. As an online student it may seem that developing relationships could be easier since the visual and verbal elements have been eliminated; however, that can make it more difficult. Now you have to learn to interact in a purposeful manner and intentionally build bridges with other students through proactive engagement in the class. You can accomplish this by following the basic rules for relationship-building and adapt this approach for digitally-based classroom interactions.

The Influence of Your Perceptions

Without the benefit of visual cues, you are going to rely upon your perceptions to guide your responses to other students, as well as your instructors. Whether these perceptual ideas and thoughts about others are true or simply what you have imagined about someone, your perceptions dictate your responses and actions towards others. Your past experiences will also dictate how you develop perceptions. For example, if you had negative interactions with your instructors or you did not receive meaningful feedback, you may develop a perception that they are uncaring or disconnected from the class.

With an online classroom you will be constantly scanning the environment and picking up on cues that will perceptually tell you how well you are liked, based upon how others respond to you. This will take place primarily within the discussion board as that is where most interactions occur. Christopher McCarthy, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has conducted research in the workplace and believes that perceptions even guide our belief about the type of treatment we receive. This is applicable for online students as they will develop a feeling of being left out if other students (or their instructor) are not responding to them or demonstrating a lack of respect by discounting their ideas.

At All Costs, Avoid Deception

Another relationship-building basic is to interact with others in manner that over time will create a sense of trust. Learning to trust your instructors is important because they are helping guide you through your coursework and assisting you as you complete activities to meet the required learning objectives. You need to trust that they have your best interests in mind as they provide feedback and recommend resources to develop your skills. As to other students, that same level of trust is not required for meaningful interactions; however, if you want to build productive relationships you do need to establish some level of personal responsibility and accountability in your actions so that you are perceived as being trustworthy.

A research study conducted by educators at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Promises and Lies: Restoring Violated Trust, found that trust is developed through a series of interactions. For example, if you observed what you believe are untrustworthy actions by fellow classmates, you are going to develop a corresponding belief that they are untrustworthy. This is not an insurmountable challenge that cannot be repaired; however, the same study found that there is a condition when trust can be permanently damaged. If there are “untrustworthy actions and deception, trust never fully recovers – even when deceived participants receive a promise, an apology, and observe a consistent series of trustworthy actions.” Within an online class I’ve observed this when a student copied another student’s discussion question response. It permanently damaged their working relationship and they avoided each other for the rest of the term.

Losing Control is Necessary

Another important component of relationship-building is working with someone that you perceptually believe you do not like, for whatever the reason may be – right or wrong. Daniel Goleman, who is a thought leader in the field of emotional intelligence, recommends that the best approach to take is to manage how you react to this person. Goleman recommends focusing on how you react instead of how they are acting as “it’s far more productive to focus on your own behavior because you can control it.” In order to work with someone you do not have an instant connection with you have to lose a need to control their behavior and focus on yours instead.

Within Lose Control and Like It – 4 Ways to Handle Responsibility and Control, a perspective of personal responsibility was shared. The word “responsible” was transformed into “response-able” or developing an ability to respond because that’s what you have control over – your actions. The article also discussed problems that develop in working relationships “when we try to take responsibility for those things we don’t control or when we choose to shirk our responsibilities for those things we do control.” What this means for online students is that you should not avoid interacting with other students in the discussion board and remain open-minded. Of course if you are unable to communicate effectively with someone you do not have to continue to maintain attempts. But this approach will help you minimize the impact of your potential perceptual barriers.

How to Build Bridges

Following the relationship development basics will help you maintain effective interactions. The online classroom also requires additional focused effort and you can accomplish this through four bridge-building strategies:

1. Show Respect: While this is an essential component of any relationship, it is something that online students tend to forget about – especially if they post a reply immediately following an emotional reaction to something they’ve read. Students sometimes believe that they can hide behind anonymity and say anything that they want to and a lack of respect can be damaging to interactions and discussions. You can always agree to disagree or ask clarifying questions when you want to discuss a post; however, at all times respect must be maintained in the classroom.

2. Don’t Make it Personal: All conversations in an academic environment need to be professional in nature. There will be a variety of personalities and perspectives, along with individuals from diverse cultures and backgrounds. A professional approach not only ensures respect, it helps you maintain a proper tone and promotes collaboration with your classmates.

3. Develop an Authentic Presence: Relationships are developed as a result of ongoing, positive interactions. For an online class, where students are not always present at the same time, if you are not actively involved you are going to miss out on an opportunity to work with others. Students will not be able to get to know you if there are not frequent posts for them to review and respond to.

4. Develop Rapport: This is a challenge for online students since they cannot gauge each other’s reactions visually; however, I’ve found that this is also an advantage as students in an on-ground class who are naturally shy may hesitate to talk during class discussions. The online platform allows all students to be equally heard through their posts. As you read other’s posts, try to find ways of relating to them, either through a similar outlook, experience, or point of view. As you get used to communicating in this manner you’ll find that rapport can be developed easily.

A factor that is influential for building working relationships in an online class is the perceptual process of developing beliefs about others. The most important relationship you’ll have is with your instructor and this also requires purposeful interactions. I encourage students to proactively participate in class instead of reactively respond to what they’ve read. As you look for ways to relate to classmates’ posts and develop rapport you will likely discover that you can gain new insights, receive feedback about your ideas, and over time you’ll establish supportive connections.

Watch for another post this week about communication strategies for online students. It will provide further support for the relationship-building process.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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