One week, we read a case study about Sephora cosmetics. Many of my students, guys included, posted photos of themselves at a Sephora retail store with one of the sales people or talked about products they purchased there. I didn’t even need to make many online comments to enhance our digital discussion. The students were so engaged with the subject they were teaching each other.

With more than 2,000 student posts on the Facebook group page from two summer sessions, I couldn’t be there for every single moment of learning. However, I was there enough of the time to develop a close bond with these students.

Self-expression online
The online environment encouraged spontaneity that is missing from many of today’s traditional college classrooms. Students were much more comfortable expressing themselves with smartphone photos and short phrases. The delete option gave them the freedom to eliminate a post if they decided they didn’t like what they said or if they received a disapproving comment. This culture resulted in a more expressive class in which everyone participated.

While many in academia might find a digital environment distasteful, I found it refreshing, but very tiring. It is not easy keeping up with these students and their online behavior. This summer they were most active early in the morning (prior to their internships), at lunch, and from 9 p.m. until midnight. It was quite a time commitment for an instructor who also had to grade weekly exams. However, as each class advanced through the summer sessions, I sensed a deeper understanding of the subject matter and appreciation for my daily responses to their comments.

The best way to get close to students? Teach a course online

It might sound surprising, but I can’t wait to get back into the traditional classroom this fall. I look forward to the routine of two-day-a-week class sessions, talking to students, and observing their facial expressions and body language when they are called on in class. This summer, I missed the genuine human connection of the classroom. Teaching is a lonely profession, but teaching online is especially isolating, even with all of the digital interaction.

For educators who find today’s classrooms eerily quiet with students hiding behind their laptops, I recommend taking a break next summer from international travel or the usual research activities. Consider teaching a course online and joining students in their digital world. There is no better way to understand how college students communicate and relate to one another than to spend a summer session with them online.

About the Author:

Bill Bergman is a lecturer in marketing at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond in Virginia, where he teaches in the undergraduate and MBA programs. He has more than four decades of experience working in marketing, advertising, and publishing. Bergman has worked on a number of national brands while at BBDO and The Richards Group. He also worked at Newsweek magazine where he was director of circulation and marketing. He has been teaching in the Robins School of Business since 2009.


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