Home Newsletter Putting a Face on Online: Connecting without a Classroom
Putting a Face on Online: Connecting without a Classroom


LeAne H. Rutherford

What’s your biggest concern about teaching when the students aren’t physically in the same room or the same “time zone” as you are? As more classes are conducted online, the potential for anonymity increases. I fear the loss of social connection with them. I mourn the potential loss of motivation that connection and presence give me and my students. I have always used a kind of personableness to energize the classroom. Without that ace up my pedagogical sleeve, I feel handicapped. I lament the loss of eye contact; of visual cues of smiling, clowning, pouting, gesturing; the opportunities to pick up on an idea and run with it; and, in some narcissistic way, the chance to be on stage some of the time.

Nevertheless, I have enough good sense to accept the changing roles of teacher and student and the emphasis on learning over teaching and to adjust my concept of “classroom.” Besides, who’s to say that all physical classrooms are socially rich? Jose Bowen, SMU, observed in his article “Teaching Naked: Why Removing Technology from Your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning,” (2007), “Technology is often accused of pushing people further apart,…but a few minutes of questions at the end of an hour covering material from behind a podium is hardly an interactive experience either.” In fact, it has been posited by many that online classes may even stress relationships more than many traditional classes do (or at least as much). In “Measuring Up Online: The Relationship between Social Presence and Student Learning Satisfaction,” Hostetter and Busch (2006) assert, “Students’ perceptions of social presence were similar in both online and in person.” Maybe I’m beating a dead horse here—with apologies to the APCA—but even when such pedagogical gurus as Parker Palmer remind us that “classrooms are simply spaces that have been organized to promote learning among a community of people whose learning goals are similar,” I worry. I fuss over the fear that the “fuzzy” side of learning will be ignored unless instructors recognize and plan to include and integrate the affective with the cognitive in the learning process.

Why is affect so important? After spending 45 years in the classroom, I know that learning is relational. It necessitates connection and involvement. Cognitively, earning concerns connections and associations, with integrating old learning with new. It also has to do with the roles of emotion. Learning is dependent on students’ perceived and subconscious needs—needs for safety, social relationships, and esteem.


Much has been written to support the notions that students first connect to new ideas emotionally and from their previous experiences. To illustrate this, I might ask a group, “What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear “Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW)?” Not surprisingly, the reaction is mixed here in Minnesota: scorn and anger from some snowmobilers who are denied access to the BWCAW; delight from canoeists who prize silence, sadness from ecologically-savvy folks who know that global-warming could change the nature of this wilderness, and disappointment from someone like myself who found a trip to the BWCAW “paradise” to be a lot of work and lacking a good mattress. (Comfort has a lot to do with learning!) The connotation of the phrase carries with it the emotional association that affects its reception. If emotion colors learning, how can emotion be recognized or conveyed adequately online?


Instructors have to realize that not only does emotion affect students’ receptivity to learning, but prior cognitive learning does as well. Students are not blank slates; their chalkboards have not been erased! In the words of pop psychology, “They come with baggage.” They are integrators of the past with the present. If this is so, then how can an instructor from afar prepare to help students assimilate knowledge rather than just accumulate it? How can an instructor from a distance tailor the course to reach all the beings and their “baggage” so that learning can happen?

Furthermore, learning is dependent on learners’ perceived and subconscious needs, needs that we have to anticipate.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy Triangle


Using Maslow’s Hierarchy as an organizational schemata and starting from the bottom of the pyramid, we can hope that students’ most basic physiological needs for food, water, shelter, … are met. However, we must prepare seriously to accommodate their safety needs for security and protection. In an online course particularly, students want to know that

    • they will be supported technologically, and know where and how to obtain technological help
    • feedback on their performance and products will be given respectfully,
    • course expectations will be articulated and their own expectations met simultaneously, including rubrics, netiquette, ground rules…
    • they will be saved from boredom by courses designed to incorporate a variety of learning activities and modes
    • their privacy will be protected
    • lifelines will be on the ready for those with disabilities, including low literacy levels and universal design will be embraced
    • policies and time lines are student-and instructor-friendly
Social Affiliation/Belonging

Moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy to belonging, Aesop’s fable of the father with three combative sons provides a good departure point for discussing social needs. You will remember that a father gave each of his sons a stick with instructions to break it. Of course they did so easily. Then he gave them a bundle of sticks with similar instructions. When they could not break the bundle of sticks, he reminded them that strength comes from sticking together and helping each other.

Belonging to a supportive learning community is a bundle of sticks for students. Meeting social needs by creating community or fellowship (in the secular sense) can also be accomplished online by doing some of the same things that borrow from “landline” settings:

    • Create ice breakers (If MySpace can do this, you can, too.) Examples of techniques on online ice breakers, see http://www.southalabama.edu/oll/jobaidsfall03/Icebreakers%20Online/icebreakerjobaid.htm
    • Form teams predicated on commonalities: interests, levels of tech experience, geography, values, disciplines….
    • Embed photos, graphics, puzzles related to the subject into the site.
    • Send occasional electronic “treats” to them: humor, cards, …
    • Consider using instant messaging and wikis.
    • Adopt cooperative learning to promote positive, noncompetitive experiences and prepare students for cooperative learning techniques.
    • Above all, negotiate what preferred venues of communicating will be used so they don’t drown in a sea of new technology, thus meeting a safety need and a social need simultaneously.

As valued members of a learning community, on- or off-line, students need praise and encouragement as much as anyone. What they want to accomplish in the course, what they contribute, and what reactions they have to strategies used to implement learning should be requested and recognized. Gaining “face” is highly motivating.

    • To determine what students think they want from a course, use the Goal Ranking and Matching exercise from Angelo’s and Cross’ Classroom Assessment Techniques in which students create a list of learning goals they hope to accomplish and then compare that with a similar list created by the instructor.
    • Discuss points of difference helps avoid problems later. Then ponder what they have told you. If you sincerely listen to their goals, they may listen to your goals as well.
    • Take students’ formative feedback seriously. Jay Caulfield’s “expectancy theory perspective” suggests that getting early feed back from students raises “the expectation that their formative feedback would lead to increased value for them, for their peers in the classroom, and for students in future classes.” If listened to, students feel validated and see you as a responsive teacher; If the instructor is not responsive to that feedback, students will feel betrayed.
    • To foster recognition of personal growth, regularly integrate reflection into your courses through journals and blogs.
    • Employ simulations and case studies that require problem-solving. Successfully applying what they have been learning builds confidence. Create opportunities for students to teach other students. Knowing enough to teach others not only validates learning but validates the student who is taking the instructional role. This can be accomplished through small group discussion and projects.

Recognize and plan to include and integrate the affective with the cognitive in the learning process in all your classes—face-to-face or computer-mediated. Connect within or without a classroom. But especially, put a face on online learning—theirs and yours––to personalize your pedagogy.


Bowen, J. (Spring, 2007). Teaching Naked: Why Removing Technology from Your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. NTLF.

Caulfield, J. (2007). What motivates students to provide feedback to teachers about teaching and learning? An expectancy theory perspective. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 1 (1).

Hanna, D., Glowacki-Dudka, M. & Conceicao-Runlee, S. (2000). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Online Groups. Madison: Atwood.

Hostetter, C. & Busch, M. (2006). Measuring up online: The relationship between social presence and student learning satisfaction. Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 6(2), 1-12.

Palloff, R. & Pratt, K. (2003). The Virtual Student. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Last modified on 06/24/13 02:03 PM
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