Who Are You? Putting Faces on Virtual Learners

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.