Empathizing with your Online Students

Get a student’s perspective by taking a few online courses yourself!

Typically, when I post my personal introduction to an online class at the beginning of a session, I include my education and experience information, but I also make sure to empathize with my students. I do this by telling them that experientially, as a married person with a family to care for, I understand some of the challenges and benefits of their situation. I let them know that, as an older student, I completed one of my Master’s degrees entirely through distance learning, and I also tell them that I currently participate as a student in online courses. I often have older students with jobs and families, and I want them to know that not only have I been in their shoes, but I am there now.

Even though it is often a stretch to find time to take online classes, it is beneficial to do so if you are an online instructor, or expect to be an online instructor, because it will help you better understand what your students are experiencing.

Perhaps you have never completed a degree through distance or online learning, but you now find yourself in the position of teaching online or you are thinking about the prospects of becoming an online instructor. If so, there are ways you can gain an online learning experience that will enhance your teaching without having to go through the rigmarole and expense of earning a certificate or degree.

Online CoursesFinding free, online, non-credit courses is just a quick internet search away. If you would like some guidance or have some suggestions for where to find available courses, please post that in the comments section at the end of this blog post. I would be glad to read your suggestions or guide you to some available resources. There are numerous MOOC platforms with free registration where you can enroll in free courses that include video lectures, readings, discussion forums, quizzes, and assessments. There are also some colleges/universities that offer free courses through their own websites. I enroll in free online classes, not just for the purpose of immersing myself in an online environment as a student, but also for enhancing my knowledge and skills as a writer and instructor in the humanities.

Whatever you are able to do as an online student will help you better empathize with your online students.

Even though it is often a stretch to find time to take online classes, it is beneficial to do so if you are an online instructor, or expect to be an online instructor, because it will help you better understand what your students are experiencing. When an online instructor is also an online student, it can assist you as an instructor in the following ways:

  • Makes you look at the structure of your own online teaching to see if it is conducive to online students;
  • Causes you to consider how you interact with your online students;
  • Enables you to have realistic expectations of your online students;
  • Helps you experience the challenges of balancing work, family, and school as an online student;
  • Demonstrates to your students that, even though you are teaching, you are still learning;
  • Exposes you to the teaching methods of other online instructors in a way that helps you evaluate your own methods;
  • Reminds you what it is like to be graded on quizzes, tests, and assignments; and
  • Stimulates and challenges your mind when you take courses on subjects that you teach and subjects with which you are less familiar.

That is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gets you thinking about the benefits to you as an online instructor and, as a result, to your online students. For those of you who have taken online courses and have reaped benefits other than what I have listed above, I encourage you to share those with us in the comments section at the end of this blog post.

Even if you do not watch all the videos or complete all the assignments, you will still reap more benefits than if you had not attempted an online course at all as a student.

At this point, you may be wondering how you could possibly find the time to take on online course in addition to everything else you need to do. I completely understand that thinking and would point out that by wondering this you are beginning to better empathize with your online students. They, too, are wondering how they can get everything done that needs to get done while still having time to eat and sleep. If you are like me, you have found yourself in the position of counseling students to not despair when they are experiencing difficulties with completing everything satisfactorily. The advice I have, at times, given to them, and now give to you, is borrowed from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.

Bird by Bird

In that book, Lamott recounts a time when her brother was in tears over a school assignment about birds. He was looking at the project in its entirety and thought he would never be able to get it done on time. It was then that her father advised him to go about it “bird by bird” instead of despairing over trying to complete it all at once. I have received a phone call from a despairing student who was in tears due to a computer crashing and assignments looming. We were able to devise steps to get through that glitch so the assignments could be completed before the class ended.

I have learned how to complete online courses in steps as well: video by video and assignment by assignment. I often listen to lectures while exercising or cooking and have also found that the more courses I take the faster I become at navigating online classrooms in a time-saving manner. Even if you do not watch all the videos or complete all the assignments, you will still reap more benefits than if you had not attempted an online course at all as a student. Whatever you are able to do as an online student will help you better empathize with your online students.

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Brenda Thomas
Brenda L. Thomas is an online adjunct instructor at Grand Canyon University, College of Theology and freelance writer, teaching in the Humanities and writing on a variety of topics. When not teaching or writing, she is usually taking online classes, reading, or spending time with her husband and their two children.

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