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I often hear from my online students how comfortable they are in my online classes. This is music to my ears because I know that the comfort they feel is removing the barriers to learning that these students may have upon entering the world of online learning.

Despite the ease my students might feel, however, behind the scenes is a well thought-out plan for how to create a feeling in my classroom that encourages my students to participate in the class in a social way.

Some of the things I do to effect this outcome are:

  • A warm welcome letter, or post. This goes a long way to front-loading the feeling of comfort you wish to engender. In this letter, you should not only warmly welcome your students, but also should explain a little bit about how to proceed. Don’t assume the students will see the order in which they are to proceed just because you list items in a certain order. An online class can look like a jumble of words and links to someone who has never seen one before! Let your personality out. Help your students to feel that you are really there to help, guide and educate them.
  • A short bio and an invitation for your students to introduce themselves to each other by sharing their bio. Again, let yourself shine through your words. Give enough information to let yourself be seen, while still maintaining discretion and your own sense of privacy. Your students will most likely follow your lead in the way they post their bio. Make sure you let them know they should only share what they’re comfortable with. An important part of the comfort they will feel will depend upon them feeling a sense of safety and trust.
  • A short video clip showing you talking to them is a great idea if you can stand to do it! I, myself, haven’t felt comfortable enough to do it yet but I’m working up the courage!
  • One way to expedite the getting-to-know-you process is with a photo gallery. If your students don’t feel comfortable posting their own photo, perhaps you can suggest posting a picture of their pet or a landscape that they like.
  • Establish a question forum for the students to ask their questions. Make sure you encourage them to be open about their questions, because many students will wonder about things and the answer to their question may benefit all. But, at the same time, make sure they know they can send you a private email or message for questions or concerns they don’t want to share with the class.
  • A great way to jumpstart discussions is, once students have become facile with the forums, to have students take turns facilitating discussions. When you do this, you will be able to sit back and watch student learning occurring on its own!

Social presence in an online classroom is necessary to keep our classes from becoming a sterile learning environment. Learning HAPPENS when the brain is active and socially engaged!

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