I feel especially close to the 50 college students I taught in two back-to-back summer sessions. What made the experience so unusual was that my relationship with each of them was purely a digital one because both classes were taught online.

My students easily adapted to a digital professor whom they became acquainted with online through my weekly video lectures they were required to watch. The students seemed unusually comfortable in a digital world. I, on the other hand, had a difficult time adapting.

Technology facilitates real-time connections
My online classes had no formal meeting times. Students were required to post daily comments on a private group Facebook page, and ask questions via email or text. Once I started responding to their posts, I began to feel a stronger connection to the students than I do in a traditional classroom.

I was checking the class Facebook page one night at 11 p.m. when a student posted a video from a Phillies game he was attending. His post showed a product featured on a billboard at the stadium. He explained that he now understood the role of sponsorships, thanks to that week’s reading assignment. I quickly responded and we went on to have a conversation during the 9th inning of the game I was also watching at home on ESPN. For the first time, technology enhanced my connection to a student.

It happened again the next morning. Another student posted a photo of a retailer we were studying as she walked to her internship at 7:30 a.m. in New York City. I was online at the moment of her post. As with my baseball fan student the night before, we had a short digital conversation to confirm her observation and learning experience.

For 10 straight weeks this summer, I was able to communicate with my students as they experienced the course material in their everyday lives. It added an enormous sense of authenticity and connection to the learning process.

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.

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

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.

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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