Creating Trust in Online Education

In order to have a productive learning environment, the instructor needs to develop and maintain a sense of trust between and among the students and the instructor through good course design and facilitation, says Nancy Coppola, associate professor of humanities at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

In a study that looked at developing trust in virtual teams, Coppola and her colleagues built on the work of Meyerson, et al. that looked at “swift trust,” “a unique form of collective perception … for temporary, but not trivial, situations.” For the purpose of the study Coppola and her colleagues used these previous researchers’ definition of swift trust, which frames trust in temporary situations in terms of the following characteristics:

  • vulnerability – the belief (hope) that others will care for what is being entrusted with good will.
  • uncertainty – a willingness to suspend doubt in order to execute the task performance.
  • risk – a willingness to take risks
  • expectations – a positive expectation of benefits of temporary group activity.

To determine the effects of trust in online learning, Coppola and her colleagues identified the most effective teacher from among those they had studied based on 1,300 post-course questionnaires that rated instructor effectiveness. For comparison, they also selected an instructor who was ranked among the least effective.

The researchers coded the online discussion transcripts in each course and analyzed them for social emotional positive and negative responses to students. Based on their analysis they found that communication plays an essential role in developing trust in virtual teams and developed the following trust-building strategies:

  • Establish early communication. Students need to perceive the instructor’s presence as soon as the course begins.
  • Develop a positive social atmosphere. Team members are going to respond to the caring that they perceive in the instructional environment and the way that instructors do this is by modeling solidarity, congeniality, and affiliation. “We found that when students followed that model, there was evidence of the establishment of trust,” Coppola says.
  • Reinforce predictable patterns of communication and action. Students need structured activity, repetition, and feedback. Without these, the students will get the impression that the instructor does not care about the course or the students, making development of trust unlikely.
  • Involve team members in tasks such as group projects or activities that require students to rely on each other to complete them. To get students to participate fully, participation should be required and the instructor should maintain a presence and motivate the students.

“The critical piece is to establish trust immediately. No matter how short or long the online course is going to be, the instructor needs to be there first and to provide constant, regular feedback. You need to get in there quickly in the beginning and get trust going and make sure the trust is carried through with these meaningful group tasks,” Coppola says.

An important role the instructor plays is modeling. “Students take their cues from the instructor, and when the instructor is not there, the students will be negative. But if the instructor is positive from the beginning, showing emotion for the students and the content, students will respond in the same way,” Coppola says.

Although the instructor is the most important player in establishing trust in virtual teams, course design can have an impact as well. “Certainly, the environment should be designed to facilitate conversation. Communication is the single most important aspect of a successful online environment. The course needs to be designed with the most opportunities for communication between and among the students and the instructor and the opportunity for students to give feedback to one another,” Coppola says.

These strategies can encourage trust, but the instructor needs to closely monitor communication in the course and take corrective action when necessary. Coppola recommends asking the following questions to gauge trust:

  • Are students responding positively to one another?
  • Are the students responding frequently?
  • Are the students really thinking and engaging with the material and one another?

The answers to these questions can vary throughout the duration of a course, and trust can sometimes be undermined with a single negative comment. If a student expresses negative comments that could disrupt trust early on, Coppola recommends communicating with that student privately via e-mail to try to get to the source of the negativity. “Sometime when you have someone with a strong presence come forward with a social emotional negative response, that student can shift the course. The instructor always has to be the leader — not dominate or be aggressive — but very clearly deal with anything that can interfere with the cohesiveness of the group.”

In some cases it may be appropriate to delete inappropriate negative comments, Coppola says.


Coppola, Nancy W., Hiltz, Starr Roxanne, and Rotter, Naomi G. (2004) Building Trust in Virtual Teams. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, (June), 95-104.