In Online Courses, Lecturer and Student Relationships Matter Even More

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Teaching students online isn’t about pontificating on a stage, it’s about developing meaningful relationships

by Kate Roll

Universities have changed how we teach in at least one important way: we’re now online. It is now becoming clear that this shift may last at least into the new academic year and likely longer. As lecturers, this is not necessarily something to be afraid of: it’s an unparalleled opportunity to rethink teaching and to refocus on relationships with students.

In the early days of teaching online, the focus was on recreating the familiar set-up of the physical classroom with the professor positioned at the centre – often referred to as the “sage on the stage”. The overall message was that nothing had changed, and the lecturer was still in charge.

But us lecturers aren’t feeling so in charge anymore. Our experience of online teaching has been destabilising, but also levelling and humanising. Behind students as well as ourselves, we see kitchen tables and the occasional unmade bed. There is a lack of polish that feels more direct and more human. And this, in turn, prompts us to work in fresh ways with familiar material and precious expertise and experiences.

That’s why standard lecture approaches often fare poorly online, leaving both students and lecturers feeling disconnected. This poses a challenge for higher education: how to build the connections which are key to student success and one of the joys of teaching. The relationships between students and staff affects everything from student satisfaction to their capacity to take risks and excel, to a sense of personal efficacy and sustained curiosity. 

Recent research on student engagement in online learning has underscored the need to focus on the quality and variety of such relationships. Online, it is important to establish a strong teacher presence to motivate students and ensure they feel cared for. Hearteningly, the research also found that students did not see online platforms as the main barrier to meaningful interaction.

Building relationships online will require lecturers to have closer contact with students through more small-group tutorials and fewer extended lectures. This involves more regular email communications, concise and actionable feedback, and staff participation in online chats. It’s also about bringing oneself into the classroom. During this crisis, we have spoken more personally about how we are faring, relaxing the barriers between students and lecturers.  All of this is especially critical to reach more marginalized students.

In our own experience, so far we have made time for an informal closing debrief. At University College London, we have free-flowing Friday online meet ups – where, most importantly, staff are participants, not just observers. At Oxford, we are convening a regular series of conversations to connect MBA students and early career scientists with founders, funders, and lecturers.

One added benefit of Zoom lectures may be the possibility to diversify the classroom. This might be through bringing in new voices from underrepresented geographies to the conversation, increasing a sense of belonging for a more diverse range of students. It might also be through widening access to new and underserved students both in the UK and internationally. 

Universities expecting plug-and-play efficiency from online learning will be disappointed. Online teaching requires even more effort from lecturers than face-to-face. Establishing and maintaining these relationships takes demanding emotional labour. And while many departments shifted online with impressive speed, streaming a lecture is not the same as designing, building, and delivering it for online. That requires new skills, as well as investment in new technology and support, from universities already under financial strain.

As educators, we need to be willing to experiment: this will be unsettling for both staff and students, who have become comfortable in their respective roles. But staff must now think seriously about relationships and, perhaps, be more open and vulnerable. 

In the early moments, it will be glitchy and awkward and imperfect. It’s going to take sustained work in new ways, but these changes may in fact revitalize university education, and make it a better reflection of lived experience.

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