A Facebook post and conversation showing the professor communicating with students

I taught online courses and formed stronger relationships with my students

Teaching an online course is the best way to understand how college students communicate and relate to one another

Even though I never saw the 50 college students I taught in back-to-back sessions last summer, I feel especially close to them. Our digital relationships were just as powerful as the relationships I have with face-to-face students.

One of the ways my students became acquainted with their digital professor was 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.

Online conversations helped students take learning to the next level

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 had an online conversation during the 9th inning of the game I was also watching at home on ESPN. For the first time, technology enhanced my connection with a student.

The next morning, it happened again. 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.

Related: 5 terrific edtech tools for creating a highly engaging online (or hybrid) course

For 10 straight weeks last summer, I was able to communicate with my students as they experienced our 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.

The online format takes advantage of this generation’s comfort zone

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.

Related: How to create engaging online assignments with universal design in mind

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. 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.

For educators who find today’s classrooms eerily quiet with students hiding behind their laptops, I recommend taking teaching a summer 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.

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