In all forms or modes of education, relationship plays an essential and foundational role in fostering a positive, respectful, and safe learning environment. This desired relationship helps students to adjust to and be comfortable with the new environment or class that they will be part of for a few months. In online distance learning, fostering this kind of relationship between the teacher and the students serves to minimize the negative effects of the transactional distance or the gap (physical, psychological, and pedagogical) between them.
Some students who are new to online distance learning will surely need some time, more dedicated guidance, and constant assurance as they learn the ropes of online learning. They may need extra time to learn basic technical or digital skills that are needed for the online course. In the social-emotional dimension of learning, students may also need to develop the courage and confidence to interact with their teacher and classmates who are physically absent but are virtually present in a real online learning community. The undesirable feeling of being separated from the class becomes so real for most students. Hence, designing for relationships in online distance learning provides the warmth and support of a class, regardless of the distance that separates students from each other.
To design for relationships that will enable better interaction, learning, and support, online distance learning teachers and designers should work towards laying down the lines of communication and the foundations for an online learning community to develop the sense of belonging among students. Consider the following:
- Establish teacher presence in the online course to let students feel that there is a warm body leading the whole teaching and learning process. Teacher presence can be felt in three ways: the persona, social, and instructional. To establish a teacher persona, the teacher can always make the students feel his or her unique approach to teaching online, interests, and even personality. The social presence of the teacher can be seen in ways the teacher connects to individual students or the whole class to build an online community. Instructional presence, the usual persona that students are familiar with, shows that the teacher is the students’ guide in the learning process.
- Build and sustain a community presence to enable social interactions and establish a community of inquiry for learning. In a face-to-face classroom, social interactions are inherent because students and the teacher are in the same place. Conversations and social actions help foster interactions easily. The absence of these tangible and highly-observable social cues in an online environment can make it harder to establish a sense of social community and the sense of belongingness. Harnessing the power of online tools, teachers can now build online social communities to allow academic and non-academic interactions to happen. For example, video-conferences enable virtual face-to-face interactions which allows participants to understand better the message of another person. Discussion boards and threads that were limited to text input are now capable of displaying emojis, audio replies, or video responses that can help students communicate their thoughts better.
- Help students develop online learning habits. In order to adjust to the new environment, teachers can help students to build helpful learning habits. For new learners, building these habits will take time, so teachers can begin with manageable expectations and slowly set-up learning routines. Online learning habits in students can include having a daily or weekly calendar to follow or a list of study goals to target. It can also mean setting a routine to go through online resources, participate in discussions, and maintaining a healthy break time from using the computer or their learning device. Teachers can also give a weekly calendar of activities ahead of time and suggest ways to minimize distractions when learning at home. In the end, the goal should always be to develop online learners who are active, resilient, steady, reliable, and engaged in the online course.