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An Easy Method for Building Relationships in Online Courses

Submitted by on March 5, 2013 – 12:08 pm14 Comments

Building rapport and establishing relationships are critical to the success of an online course. This practice promotes learning, engagement, and retention.

I understand the importance of community first-hand from the perspective of a student. I remember feeling overwhelmed and awkward in my first online course–it was not until I became familiar with the platform and felt comfortable with my classmates and teacher that I began to open up and participate more. Moral of the story: The more students feel comfortable, the more they will participate and engage in a variety of activities, which leads to the retention of students in your institution’s program. Think about it for a minute: In a traditional classroom, students sit in their regular spots and play off each other’s body language and social cues. In an online learning environment, these cues are often lacking, and the message may be misinterpreted if proper netiquette is not exercised.

How to Easily Start Building Community

One way to begin building a sense of community is to share your personal story with the class in a way that students can relate to and find common ground with you. What about your course makes you passionate? What past experiences influence the way you look at the course subject? What struggles have you encountered, and how have these obstacles contributed to your success as a continuous learner and teacher of the subject? In return, ask everyone to share their “my personal story and goals” with the group in an online discussion. This is the story that I share with my students–my intentions are to let the students know that they can be successful, no matter how challenging the obstacles may seem:

Why My Community-Building Method Works

Through the years, I have realized that my story has affected my students positively. For example, when I first began teaching online, a few of my students wrote me telling me how much my story encouraged them. They told me they felt more comfortable in the class knowing that I had been there too. I strongly believe that my personal story has a direct impact on my effectiveness as a professor and a positive influence in my online courses. More importantly, having told my story to my students, I have become more in touch with them and vice-versa. As a result, grades have increased in my online courses, and students have participated in online activities more regularly. To encourage participation, allow for more academic freedom in how students will respond to discussions based on their level of comfort. For example, they could reply with a video, audio, Prezi, blog, or even an infographic. This sweetens the pot, and the students enjoy the opportunity to be creative. It just makes sense that students’ participation is crucial to the online course. By participating regularly, students expand their knowledge and sense of community with instructors, colleagues, and others.

Share Your Experiences

How do you relate to your students and establish rapport? Share with us in the comments section below.    


  • In s similar fashion, I provide an opportunity for students to connect with me and classmates online using Second Life for synchronous class meetings. The game-like appearance and operation attracts students to the class activities and discussions. The Second Life viewer permits multitasking where while audio discussions are going on, students can also exchange texts in SL. The result is an environment that is very familiar to them. And, they establish a connection where I am not the omnipotent demigod, but rather one of them. The relationships are usually very positive. The SL environment allows students and me to participate in ways that would not occur in a F-2-F class. For example, I have a dance routine to Cuban Pete (From The Mask) scripted into my resources for SL. When student performance is particularly good, I will congratulate them by doing the dance. They LOVE it. I would never be able to do this in a F-2-F class, but it seems appropriate for our SL class.

  • Lee K. says:

    Great post! I appreciate your suggestions. I know taking an online course can be very intimidating for students of all ages. My own children take online classes at their universities and sometimes struggle with the lack of “personal touch.” I really like your suggestion to allow students to choose the way they prefer to respond, or submit work. Everyone needs to know their work adds value to the world, and because that “value” means different things to different people, it is important to allow students the flexibility to choose what is meaningful to them.

  • In an on-site course, people have the opportunity to chat at break or before or after class, work together at tables, or take each other’s measure during class discussions and other experiences. Online classes can run the risk of seeming less personal and more sterile, and that can affect student motivation, learning, and success.

    Nothing is more powerful than sharing our stories, whether it’s in person or online. When we share our struggles, conflicts, and epiphanies, the other participants will probably empathize, or become more likely to share their own experiences. When students invest in the course with those kinds of contributions, the community aspect can flourish.

    This point is huge: “To encourage participation, allow for more academic freedom in how students will respond to discussions based on their level of comfort.” Students (and instructors) have different levels of tech comfort and expertise, so encouraging experimentation with a variety of platforms is a great idea. I work with high school students, and right now they are excited about using ToonDo, DoInk, and Spotify playlists to augment the ideas they write about.

    Thank you for these important ideas.

  • Kim Culp says:

    Great points! I agree that using technology in a familiar way—telling a story—helps to bring down the fears students have with new tools. This concept applies to many technology tools that educators use in instruction.

  • Terri says:

    I have taken only one online course to date. I did not feel very successful even though I received a high score. The experience left me feeling as though I had “missed” something. I think what I missed was the social interaction. I confess I did minimally respond to the professor’s assignments, and did not embrace this venue the way I could. I think it was my level of discomfort with sharing with people I had not physically met. After reading, I am inspired to try an online class again.

  • Cathie B says:

    Awesome post! One of my college age boys actually prefers on line courses! If I was a college student, I would be very encouraged to participate online after reading your blog; you’re enthusiasm for teaching clearly is apparent. Great job!

  • Tara says:

    Hi Heather! Thank you for sharing! Storytelling is a very effective way to connect with students and assists faculty with building positive, motivating relationships in the classroom. When online faculty are able to “connect” with their students as you do it is a win/win for everyone involved. Thank you for sharing!

  • Dr. Heather Farmakis says:

    I have always been intrigued by Second Life. I love that you reward your students with the dance performance.

  • Dr. Heather Farmakis says:

    You’re right! Value does mean different things to different people. I think it is important to allow for academic freedom whenever possible.

  • Dr. Heather Farmakis says:

    I agree! Story sharing is a powerful tool.

    Allowing for academic freedom is the best opportunity to provide when you want to encourage participation. The students really appreciate the chance to select their method!

  • Dr. Heather Farmakis says:

    It sure is a win-win situation. Relationships assist with establishing trust. Then, students are more prone to interact.

  • Dr. Heather Farmakis says:

    Thanks Cathie! Online learning is definitely an industry that will become more prevalent.

  • Dr. Heather Farmakis says:

    Exactly! Breaking down the barriers is important. Fear is significant barrier when it comes to any new learning.

  • Dr. Heather Farmakis says:

    I do hope you try an online class again. Much like everything in life, you get what you put in, but that opportunity needs to be cultivated. When it comes to online learning the level of interactivity is crucial to the success of the learner and the course itself. When students begin to share stories, any barriers start to diminish. That is when interaction begins to flourish.