Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Building relationships: using technology for classroom connections

A guest post by Joseph Baker

A new dimension has been added to connections an instructor has with his or her students. Neutral until human application occurs, technology is now a well-established component of learning in the 21st Century. Its role in what educational researcher Robert Marzano describes as one of the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction – the nature of the relationship between a student and a teacher – has not been fully defined, yet the implications are profound. With much of what college students now experience taking some form of online education, understanding how to build and maintain a positive, professional relationship with students is well worth exploring.

Social Media as a Resource

The concept of technology being neutral is important, and some would argue, unfairly discounted. Cyber bullying is but one example of where the intolerable behavior has been eclipsed by the medium in many cases. For the professor striving to form a supportive relationship with members of a course, online communication can just as well serve a positive end as bullying serves a negative goal. It’s fair to say that most students use social networking platforms for positive exchanges with their chosen connections, and while instructors don’t often have the luxury of selecting which students they serve, the principles of how technology can help build supportive relationships remain.

Conveying the intent

Returning to Marzano’s research-backed emphasis on relationships between student and instructor, his finding cite that the perception a student has as to the degree a teacher is invested in his or her academic success is paramount. This isn’t to suggest that fakery is the key to a professional level of support for a student, but it does mean that behavior really does count.
Each student has a very individual level of need for at least acceptance by an instructor. For the instructor, setting high expectations and standards can be underscored by the way in which a student believes that instructor has faith that each is capable of rising to those expectations. By following most any online forum or blog thread, it’s not hard to spot relationships by which participants are respectful to others and which are ignored or belittled. Social networking sites, again, generally restricted by choice of contacts, can offer plenty of examples of how contacts convey good intent.


Most instructors have had a colleague or supervisor spend some time observing classroom instruction for the purpose of genuine improvement. One common practice is to map the seating arrangement and then track instructor interaction with students. Sometimes, the results are downright embarrassing. Professors reviewing the findings discover that, unintentionally, they’ve limited their questioning or student responses to the same cluster of students, ignoring many to varying degrees to include complete isolation from class interaction. With this in mind, technology may actually help lessen this very human, but ineffective habit by providing a visible record of interaction.

Fire prevention

Online learning, from the communication features to the administrative capabilities, can help identify when a relationship with a student needs some supportive intervention. Just because you might not actually see an expression of frustration or even hopelessness, a change in performance or participation can signal the educational professional that an offer for tutoring, group remediation or re-teaching is needed. Don’t forget, this response is predicated on the understanding that you’ve already established clear, high standards, do supporting a struggling student is not synonymous with lowering your expectations. In fact, it means quite the opposite and for the student, that consistent conveyance by the instructor that he or she believes the student can succeed is the cornerstone of not just that relationship, but of all good student-instructor connections.

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