How to create human connection when teaching online

Instructors teaching online must take steps to connect with their students via digital channels and compensate for the loss of natural face-to-face cues and communication. Flower Darby explains how

Flower Darby's avatar
Northern Arizona University
7 Jan 2021
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Key Details

This video will cover: 

00:21 Recognising the difference between face-to-face and online connection 

01:19 Communicate more often than you would think 

01:57 Develop a warm and supportive tone of voice in communications 


Hi, I’m Flower Darby, faculty at Northern Arizona University and the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. I’m here today to talk about how we can be more present with our students in online environments, how we can connect with them and support them, just as we do in person.  

Now, the key here is to recognise the difference. When we teach in person, we do all kinds of things that show our students that we are connecting with them as people, that we support them in their learning.  

We make eye contact, we smile, we greet them, we might ask them how their week is going. And all of these kinds of behaviours communicate to students that we care about them and their success, which in turn helps them to engage with us and our course content.  

These are equally important goals in online environments, but they just don’t happen quite as effortlessly. 

So, I have two suggestions for you today, which both really revolve around the concept of being intentional.  

We must recognise that in online environments, the isolation and the distance create barriers to prevent us from connecting with our students and demonstrating that we’re present with them.  

So, what we want to do is to be very intentional in two ways. First is to communicate more often than you might think. Our students need to know that we are there and the best way that we can do that is to communicate strategically in one to many formats.  

I’m not talking about lots of individual emails or meetings with students. I am talking about intentional use of announcements or email messages to the class or discussion posts, where the entire class can see that you’re there with them.  

So, for example, a welcome announcement on a Monday morning and a wrap-up announcement on Friday afternoon every week that shows students that you’re there with them, helping them to be successful.   

And the second tip is to be intentional to write and speak to your online students with a warm and supportive tone of voice. You certainly need to use your own voice in your writing and your talking to your online students, but make an extra effort to bring positivity, warmth, support and encouragement into the words that you choose for your students.  

So, instead of sending an announcement that says: “Remember, there’s a quiz on Friday,” reword it and say: “Hey, everybody, you’re doing great, please remember that on Friday we have a quiz. If there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know.”  

Now, that is my tone of voice; that might not be authentic for you. But make that effort to write with encouragement and to speak with encouragement to your students in online spaces, as a way to overcome the distance and reduce those barriers, and stay connected with your students online. Thanks. 

This video was produced by Flower Darby, a scholar of equitable and inclusive teaching and learning at Northern Arizona University.


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