March 4th, 2013

Who Are You? Putting Faces on Virtual Learners


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One of the first and most difficult tasks an online instructor faces is how to establish the presence of a learning community. Learning in isolation may be possible, but it’s neither enjoyable nor complete, and many online students end up quitting or failing the course simply because they miss the classmate support that is readily available in face-to-face classes. To ignore the importance of peer learning and personal connection in any classroom, including those in which participants might not physically meet, is to deny the significance of social interaction in learning.

Teachers in physical classrooms understand this well and use the basic human wish for connection to instill learning through team assignments, peer review, classroom dialogue, and other methods. The online teacher faces a considerable challenge, especially when a certain percentage of students have chosen an online class, in part, because they believe they will learn more quickly without classmates who might “waste time” with too many questions and comments. These students begin the class having no desire to recognize or collaborate with other students.

Establishing the presence of co-learners is essential from the beginning. Online students may already perceive that they are in this alone and for those without online experience, the academically unsure, and those who are readily confused, this marks the first moment of learning anxiety.

Many online instructors try to create a sense of community by asking students to write a one-page bio, and then requiring them to read each others’ work. The problem with this is many students won’t bother, and those that do will likely be faced with a sea of dry facts that won’t forge any kind of human connection.

This semester, I’ve tweaked the biography assignment and the student response has been off the charts. Many students have emailed me, excited to have discovered a classmate with similar life experiences or with experiences that are exotic and inspiring. Several have let me know they are meeting to go over class work, either virtually or on campus. A number have thanked me for tricking them into discovering each other as individuals.

Before I introduce the assignment to the class, I dangle that currency that’s valued by students everywhere—bonus points. I explain that each student will write a biography, including those things that make them most interesting, but also include one simple, very believable lie. Whether truth or lie, the more specific, the better. For example, rather than telling classmates you like to garden, explain how you learned by helping your grandma with her peonies and tulips, describe the white picket fence and the smell of rich earth. A lie that’s unbelievable (“I’m a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader”) will be easy to spot—unless it’s true! This encourages students to dig deep into their own lives and pull up unusual or passionately felt experiences.

The rest is simple. After reading an entry, each student emails the author and tries to guess the lie. Guessing a lie is worth a bonus point, but if no one in the class guesses yours, it’s worth several bonus points. In my classes, 100 bonus points equals a single grade point but students will put in great effort to earn even a few bonus points. By the end of the first week, each student has communicated directly with most of the other students in the class.

This assignment has a practical side, as well. Each page-long bio offers the teacher a base-line writing sample. Since the students know their bios will be read by everyone in class, they take a little extra time to correct spelling, fix grammar, and try to make it shine. Comparing later assignments to this initial piece can provide valuable assessment opportunities, and can also help a teacher identify intentional or accidental problems with plagiarism.

Dr. Cynde Gregory teaches composition and literature at Gwinnett Technical College in Georgia in addition to tutoring second language learners of all ages.

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15 comments on “Who Are You? Putting Faces on Virtual Learners

    • Thanks, Kathy–the students really seem to enjoy this one. I was actually shocked by how well it worked. I figured it might encourage a few of them to connect, but it really has made a difference this semester!


  1. Great idea! I may just use this myself. However, I do have a logistical/practical question: If students are emailing their guesses to each other, how do YOU know who is guessing right or wrong so as to award those bonus points?

    • PS: and, if you have the students email you a report on who guessed right and wrong, how do you know they are not lying about that? (if I wanted a lot of bonus points, I might say that no one caught my lie when, in fact, a few have)

      • Ah, the dangers of online–or face to face, for that matter! Let's see–hmmm–OK. They have to cc you when they email a guess to another student. At the end of the allotted time, have each student return to the discussion board and post the corrrect answer. THEN students must email you to tell you how many lies they correctly spotted. That should minimize the number of emails you would directly deal with, and you could spot-check to make sure nobody is fibbing!

    • Hi!

      First they have to connect with each other to determine if their guesses are correct. If so, they email me Yes, it's a LOT of email at the beginning of the semester but it's worth it, because they end up bonding with me as well as each other!

    • I agree, this might become tricky in knowing who earns the bonus points and who doesn't. I am not sure I would assign bonus grades to this, but that's just me.

  2. Great idea – I'm interested in trying this with my online class. I am wondering though: my institution does not allow "bonus" or "extra credit" points. What might you offer as an alternative, Cynde?

    • Hi Gail-

      In your situation, I would just make it an assignment that is required, but let the students know that they can earn 100 by trying to guess at least 15 lies (they must cc you on the emails they send to each other so you can keep track), a 90 for 10 lie guesses, an 80 for 5, and a 70 otherwise–that should motivate them!

  3. Hi!

    First they have to connect with each other to determine if their guesses are correct. If so, they email me Yes, it's a LOT of email at the beginning of the semester but it's worth it, because they end up bonding with me as well as each other!

    • This could result in an influx of emails, I guess it is a fun way to get to know each other – I know for myself personally I am already overwhelmed by too many emails, I can't imagine the number of email guesses you could receive.

  4. Kathy, Moodle has an easy way to add a Forum so students can comment to other students' responses. I will be adding this to my class. Thanks.

  5. I like the idea of this exercise, but it did not work very well in the class I just implemented very well. Most of my students did not bother trying to guess the others' lies, and the biographies were very short and full of errors. Perhaps because I am not teaching an English class, the students did not feel the need to make them polished. Moreover, the students only e-mailed one line e-mails to the other students with the particular line they were guessing as the lie. No salutation, reflection on the rest of their post, nothing. I had more connection between my students in the original iteration of my getting to know you activity. I guess I will need to work on developing more comprehensive guidelines on how to go through this activity.

  6. Okay so I am a little late joining this discussion, but I do find the idea interesting. I am curious how do you know who has guessed right and how is this tracked for bonus points – I guess it makes it fun in getting to know fellow classmates, but I am not sure it is a strategy I would use. I did my Masters via flexible learning plan, which incorporated a lot of online work and making discussions mandatory and group assignments helped me get to know my fellow classmates.

    Interesting idea though…

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