One of the circumstances that most bother instructors new to teaching online is that their students are largely faceless. The little headshot that pops up when you receive an electronic message from an online student is no substitute for the 360° appraisal you are used to making based on a student’s appearance, vocal characteristics, and body language during face-to-face meetings. It seems impossible to customize your teaching to meet all of the different learning styles and personalities you are used to detecting in the classroom. Doesn’t online teaching guarantee you can’t get to know your students well enough to really reach them?
Written communications and the silences between convey highly personal information, if you listen for it. Each student’s writing voice—the persona(lity) they can’t help but project through their phrasing, word choice, topic preferences, and logic—gives you a key to what the student wants from you as a teacher. When you know your students only through their writing—i.e., forum posts, papers, and emails—you can still develop effective strategies for dealing with recurrent complaints or common misunderstandings.
After ten years of teaching writing online, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are at least six main online personas that need special attention in an online course. While there can be some overlap in my typology, most online students play one role throughout the length of a course. This makes it important to identify a strategy for working productively with each one of them right from the beginning. Not included in the list that follows is The Ideal Student, who follows the course as you planned it and turns in great work on-time that clearly demonstrates the value of formal education.
● The Technowort—Anyone preparing to teach a class online for the first time should be prepared for the several students who have never taken an online course before. Be aware that they expect you to be highly sympathetic to this fact. Besides making your course site as usable and clear as possible, you need to get the Technoworts connected to the technical support people on your campus from the first day of the course, even before, if possible. I’ve found that no matter how well I explain how to use the specific electronic tools in my course site, my word as the instructor is never as convincing to the Technowort as recommendations from coursemates or IT. It’s best just to quickly figure out who the Technoworts are in your course (they usually self-identify early in the term) and recognize that they want your sympathy but not your advice.
● The Litigator—Litigators want to negotiate and debate every tactic you employ to get them to learn something from your course. They differ from The Back-Seat Driver (see below) in that they are all about debating the merits of the writing assignments you make, including their length and purpose, and the readings you recommend. Litigators don’t want to change your behavior as a teacher as much as they want to let it be known that they disagree with you. They will sometimes interrogate the elements of your syllabus in course forums but they prefer to send you long, private emails cordially explaining where you have gone wrong in your career as a teacher.
● The Stoic—While Stoics sometimes turn into Ghosts (see below) they can be known by their steady participation in course activities until the first paper is due. Once they have missed the first real deadline and you contact them by email or phone, it turns out that the Stoic has two full-time jobs in order to pay her mortgage and is taking 20 credits that semester. Alternatively, the Stoic had a life-threatening health issue last week she didn’t want to bother you with. No amount of reassurance in the syllabus that students should contact you when life takes a dangerous turn will flush the Stoic out of his well intended silence. The best you can do is notice when a student suddenly stops participating and act quickly to find out why. The solution may be for the student to withdraw from the course, hopefully in time to get a full tuition refund, with a warm invitation to re-enroll in the course once it’s more likely s/he can succeed.
● The Sunny Optimist—SOs are a delight early in the course because they interact enthusiastically with their coursemates and are always gratifyingly positive about the syllabus, the course site, and the college mission statement. Unfortunately, the idea that tasks in the course are time-sensitive, that is, have deadlines, does not register in their world of “Can do!” and “As soon as possible!” As fun as it is to have SOs in your course, ultimately they bring out the nagging parent in you that you swore you wouldn’t be this time around. These are the people for whom the “Incomplete” grade was invented. It’s best to trust that they have good reasons to be optimistic and try not to lose too much time at the computer worrying about their dwindling participation as the semester wears on.
● The Back-Seat Driver—These hard-charging students take self-directed learning to mean that following your syllabus is completely optional, like traffic signals to an Italian taxi driver. The BS Driver will leap ahead in the course to do the assignment in Week 10 even though it is Week 2 of the term and you have carefully sequenced the course with curricular scaffolding in mind. They will demand that they be allowed to substitute core readings you picked because they sound “boring.” They are frequently impatient with length guidelines and grading criteria so that their posts are skimpy and their papers are twice as long and half as well documented as requested. In the name of experiential education, the BS Driver is to be patiently tolerated up to the point where he or she confuses or intimidates other students in the course who are stilling trying to figure out how to attach a file to their posts.
● The Ghost—Unlike the students who don’t show up for class or sit so far back in the classroom you might mistake them for a movie poster, the online Ghost may have an attractive thumbnail photo attached to his messages suggesting that he wants to be recognized when he’s corresponding with you. But beyond a cheerful introduction in the first week’s forum, The Ghost is rarely heard from again. You send him messages when the drop/add deadline is near; then again when his activity report is essentially blank at midterm. Surely he doesn’t want to pay all that tuition for nothing?? I’ve learned from my own college-educated children that financial aid need not register as real money until long after the sixth year of college. Ghosts have their justifications for not frequenting your course. After a few worthy attempts to make contact with them it is safe to assume that they believe themselves to be in a better place. Who are you to judge?
For any online course that involves regular exchanges in full sentences, start the course with this assignment:
"Write a 400-word writing autobiography that explains how you learned to write academic papers, how you feel about your writing, and what areas you hope to improve in while doing the writing for this course."
Do not grade this assignment. Instead read and store these little goldmines of individual context, voice, and attitude to read again later as your students gradually teach you who they are as online learners. It’s only a matter of time before The Sunny Optimists and The Litigators alike will expect you to read their minds, just as they would in a face-to-face setting.