Can Your Online Students Hear Your Voice?

Your VoiceSix of us are unwinding after dinner in a friend's living room. The kids, all 7 of them, are upstairs playing when several children erupt into crying and screaming. Immediately, one of the parents says, "It's mine." She knows the bravado of her two year old's wailing and the pitch of her four-year old's screech. She can discern their voice.

Hopefully, there is no wailing or screaming going on in your online course, but can your students discern your voice? Does it stand out among all the other voices vying for their attention. Author, Jeff Goins, asks the question, "What do you sound like to your readers?"

Are you motivating, positive, encouraging, fun, sarcastic, snarky, perturbed? What do you sound like to your students?

Your voice matters to your students.

First, your voice helps your online students know what to expect from you. For example, I'm profuse with emoticons, especially smileys :) , because I don't want my students to read a negative tone into my emails. After a while, they begin to expect a positive response from me, even when I'm having to be hard-nosed. Because of my voice, my students are likely to email me when they encounter problems. Before I sound like I'm just standing here tooting my horn, I have to admit that it wasn't always like this. For a few years I had become terse in my email communication; I wrote it off as being "efficient." In reality, I was shutting down student communication.

Second, your voice lets your online students get to know the authentic you. This is why we read certain authors. A hundred others authors may have written a book on the same subject, but we love how Anne Lamont, or George Saunders, or Mitch Albom says it. We love to see life through their eyes.

How can you develop your voice?
I'd recommend Jeff Goins post, 10 Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice, as a great place to start.

"I Hate Online Classes!"

"And I don't like sharing about myself online! I'm uncomfortable with it."

That's the short version of an email I received from a student. The email was much longer (about as long as this post), and the exact words have been changed to honor the student. If you teach online for a while, you'll run into this. In your efforts to build community online, and to establish your presence in the course, there will be some students who decide that this all feels fake and it wasn't what they signed up for (which leaves you wondering why they signed up for an online course in the first place).

girl at ancient computer

So, what's going here?

It could be one of several things:
1. Perhaps online learning is just a bad fit for them. I think it's a great choice for a lot of people; but it's not for everyone. Minnesota State recognizes this and has provided an online self-test at Minnesota Online.

2. Perhaps they had a bad experience. From reading around to a thousand courses evaluations, I can't tell you how many times I've seen a student comment, "I guess online classes just aren't for me"; but in the back of my mind I know that their experience could have been 100 times better if the course had been designed correctly, or if the instructor had been engaged with her students.

3. It's not about you. From my experience, more often than not, it's about something external to the course. One former student was angry and had no safe place to vent at school. Guess what an online course offered him?  The space and sense of safety to express his anger.

What should we do when this comes up?

1. Respond promptly and with perspective. You may get offended by their email or post. If that's the case, don't worry; that's normal. Go for a walk and talk with a colleague, to get some perspective. It probably has little to do with you and your course, and a whole lot to do with them.

2. Thank them. I've noticed something that these students have in common: they value genuineness. They can detect a fake from a mile a way. The distance inherent in an online course feels suspicious to them. So, thank them for their honesty, and their willingness to communicate their thoughts with you. They are probably expecting you to argue with them, so this kind of reply is disarming.

3. Offer your support. In your reply, ask how you can make this a better experience for them.

In the end, whether we love online classes or despise them, what we want more than anything is to be heard. If you listen well, you've done your job.

For more on communicating with your online students, check out our book, Excellent! Online Teaching.