Relationships in online learning

Establishing relationships in online learning

In 2004 George Siemens developed the idea of ‘Connectivisim’. Essentially it is about people learning with technology in a connected environment. Summing up connectivist teaching and learning, Steven Downs says: “…to teach is to model and demonstrate, to learn is to practice and reflect.” The connectivisim learning theory is particularly relevant to MOOC’s the – Massive Open Online Courses. Bayne says that a lack of “talking heads” might have made some participants feel that there was “no ‘professor’ present in the course”. Of course it is difficult to have a relationship with your instructor in a course of 50,000+ enrollments and one instructor but having a talking head video significantly helps create the sense of what Peter Norvig calls a ‘personal tutor’.

Heather Farmakis writes “…Building rapport and establishing relationships are critical to the success of an online course.” Farmakis goes on to talk about sharing personal stories and goals at the start of a course. The following list details some possible directions and is not exclusively applicable to online. Face-to-face and blended, or hybrid learning would also benefit from the following.

  • Recorded video feedback or conversations via webcam
  • Recorded video interviews with facilitators and guest lecturers
  • Scheduled video chat (Skype or WebEx or Zoom or Join-me)
  • Recorded video instruction in a casual over the shoulder style
  • Closer integration with employers in assessment structure
  • Employer participation in the assessment process
  • Active and scheduled online discussions
  • Small online tutorial groups instead of the one large class
  • Peer assessment review with facilitator oversight

Currently I’m building the Executive Graduate Certificate in Business (Leadership through Coaching and Mentoring) we are using three different techniques to create connected students to each other, content and their facilitators.

The first is Flipgrid. A video response system where a facilitator poses a question and students respond with a maximum of 60 seconds. When many students engage this is a fantastic tool. I’ve had mixed success with up to 30% of the cohort contributing to a number of activity opportunities. Recently we flipped the Flipgrid approach and have the unit coordinator posing a topic and peer academics responding so that the activity becomes about expert opinion and is content as opposed to a student response opportunity and community. A video response, even a short one requires considered thought and practice before pressing record, something normally done when typing. Hair and appearance is surprisingly high when talking to students about their use of the tool. Some students even likened the activity to public speaking a fate worse than death!

Flipgrid process

The Flipgrid Process

The second is Disqus. Traditional learning management systems include a discussion forum buried within the site. These have varied success. My approach to foster community contribution around content and for students to leave ‘breadcrumbs’ where they have been is to embed a blogging comment tool at the bottom of the page. In my current program this has received a tremendous response. Students comment on page content. The unit facilitator receives an email notification with the page URL and can respond to the comment. Students can also ‘subscribe’ to the tread and be notified when other contribute and/or be notified when someone replies to their comment. It would appear other are thinking the same thing about onpage discussion with FutureLearn and Khan Academy applying the same techniques. FutureLearn call this “‘discussion in context’ and ‘following’ over the coming months, so that social learning feels less like a forced conversation and more like a chat with friends about your ideas and what you’ve learned.” Hopefully traditional LMS will update their tools to match this direction soon.


Discuss in action – Executive Graduate Certificate in Business (Leadership through Coaching and Mentoring)

Khan Academy discussion at the bottom of page content

Khan Academy in action

FutureLearn in action

FutureLearn in action

Finally rounding out the relationship tool set is Zoom. I love Zoom. Zoom is like the video conference experience you always wanted, hoped for, knew might happen one day and today is that day. So what is the big deal? Simply it is video conferencing without dropouts – video and audio are real time so conversation flows freely… and yes I have tried every other platform – Skype for Business, WebEx, Join-me, Collaborate Ultra and Connect. Zoom outperforms them all. Users can share their screens, record the session and a few other technical niceties BUT it is all about people conversing via their video cameras (web camera, smartphone, tablet, mac or PC) for a discussion. In my current program, Zoom facilitates a weekly conversation enhancing the relationship between student and teacher. An online course does not have to be just reading text online. Unit evaluation feedback requests more ‘personal’ time to be added to the session so that they could simply chat to their peers and not focus on content – this is when you know the platform is working.

Zoom in action - The Brady Bunch!

Zoom in action – The Brady Bunch!

Developing unique authentic engaging relationships on online courses is critical to engagement as educational institutions expand their face to face courses with blended and online courses. Learning technology is only ever a means to an end. The means by which we deliver our material may change, but the need to welcome students into our institutions and make them feel part of something should be a key goal in engaging lifelong learners. Be it a one day workshop, a single webinar or a three year online degree we need to think about the student and how we connect, support, share and collaborate with them in every interaction in their learning journey.

Lance Scaife-Elliott is a Learning Designer supporting leadership, coaching and mentoring programs. He can be contacted on

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