Bridging the gap: creating student-teacher rapport in distance learning courses

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Dr Helen Ringrow explains how she adapted her teaching style to connect with students on her distance learning course.

Dr Helen Ringrow is Senior Lecturer in Communication Studies and Applied Linguistics at the University of Portsmouth, where she leads the BA (Hons) English Language and Linguistics programme and teaches across several postgraduate and undergraduate courses. Her monograph, The Language of Cosmetics Advertising, was published with Palgrave in 2016. She is interested in the language around femininity and the female body, in both online and offline contexts.


Before I started teaching distance learning for the first time, I heard some not-so-great things about it (okay, slight understatement): that the online mode made it very difficult to build up a rapport with students; that there was an increased possibility of misunderstandings online; and, perhaps most disheartening for me personally, that the teaching experience wasn’t overly rewarding. That said, I did try to approach distance learning teaching with my usual relatively naive optimism, although perhaps with a little bit of caution.  I began teaching on several online modules as part of a suite of Masters programmes in linguistics, communication and translation. Our students are located all over the world and most of them tend to be classified as mature, managing full-time jobs and family commitments: quite different to the typical campus student profile.

In terms of developing materials for online teaching, this has been quite time-consuming and has involved a little bit of trial and error in seeing what worked well. My main advice to anyone teaching online is a phrase my students often hear me say: context is key. As with campus classroom teaching, distance learning is not a one-size-fits-all scenario and must be adapted to the needs of the learners and the overall requirements of the course. My distance learning teaching style is not what I’d personally call especially high-tech, but suits my students and the materials. Each week, I upload a PowerPoint, PDF, Word or Prezi file, which includes key content, hyperlinked readings (to our library’s e-book system) with guided questions, embedded clips/videos/audio files, and discussion points. There are also some short tasks which students must complete and post on our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) asynchronous discussion forum for that week. Our VLE is Moodle, but there are other suggestions for discussion fora here. The purpose of the discussion forum is for students to learn from and engage with each other, but lecturers will chip in and guide/comment, as necessary. Only once have I had to break up a very heated disagreement over signs for toilet etiquette across cultures – but hey, this was certainly evidence of a high level of engagement with the topic. I love reading the fora to see how my students engage with the materials, and learn something new from every group of learners. Students email me if there are any additional questions, and can chat one-to-one with me on Google Hangouts or by booking a Skype tutorial, especially coming up to assessment time.

I’ve worked hard to make sure the materials are suitable for students to work through at their own pace. Time-permitting (she says hopefully!), I am planning to experiment a little more this year with different online technologies and activities. I have had great fun with Padlet (which I found out about from a previous student!), an online interactive whiteboard where students and lecturers can contribute to shared documents (easy-to-use and visually very appealing). Next on my list to try are Quizlet and Quizizz to help students revise key concepts and useful terminology. I’d also love to create some explainer videos using My Simple Show – you can upload existing slides and turn them into accessible video clips, which might be useful for livening up some somewhat “dry” but essential topics. I think the key is to use technology thoughtfully to bring the materials alive for your students – not just adding it in for the sake of it.

As mentioned earlier, my distance students tend to have quite different careers and backgrounds to me. I went through a fairly traditional academic route – BA, MA, PhD, academic job, with no breaks in between. But what my students and I have in common is a shared desire to learn new things and to improve our understanding of the world around us – and ourselves. Before I started teaching online, I believed the misconception that distance learning is a less-than-ideal environment for education. My students have shown me that this categorically does not have to be the case.

You can view Helen’s staff profile page here and buy her book here.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy Distance Learning: Building an Online Community by Dr Steph Fuller.