Getting to Know You

This post is going to be slightly off topic from my usual focus, but I think it’s important to consider as we all continue to conduct fundamental tasks online, and also develop relationships in cyberspace. Many of us shop, bank, and get our news online. More and more people are beginning to get an education over their computer. This study conducted in 2010 stated that 1 in 4 college students took at least one course online. And that rate certainly is not going to decrease any time soon.

It’s this education piece that is extra important to me. I have been a university faculty member on and off since 1998, and have been teaching courses in Human Sexuality since 1990 (gasp). Currently, I teach Human Sexuality online at Portland State University. Currently, PSU only offers one program in which students can complete all aspects of the degree online (although several online courses are offered in many departments). I have had students from not only the east coast, but also overseas. I have had students who have taken my course while incarcerated. Pretty amazing, if you think about it.

I recently encountered a serious limitation to online education — one I hadn’t really thought of before. I received an email from a former student asking for a letter of recommendation. Although I am sure this student was enrolled in my class, I have no recollection of her whatsoever. She was literally just a user name among approximately 130 that I managed for 10 short weeks. Sure, I could look up her grade and even reread her papers, but I honestly have no way of knowing whether or not this person would succeed in law school.

In the past, I have had many students who only had me as an instructor for one quarter in a campus-based class ask me for a letter of rec. And sometimes (alright, usually), I oblige, but at least I recognize the student’s face; I have some sense of who that person is, and how she conducted herself in my class; how she treated other students, and how she carries herself as a scholar. She may have even stopped by my office hours, or lingered after class to ask additional questions. I can ask her to have coffee, or come to my office so we can talk more about her aspirations and why she wants to continue her education.

I am realizing I have no sense of connection to any of my past online students. For any of them to ask me for a letter of rec seems utterly ridiculous to me, as none of them have ever written to me to discuss the course above and beyond asking for an extension or complaining about an assignment. In the years to come, this is going to be a bigger and bigger problem. Students are going to continue to take classes online, and colleges are going to continue to provide this option, as it is both desired and more profitable (at least from what I hear and assume, given that universities appear to be eager to increase online offerings).

What needs to be stressed to students by both instructors and the university itself is the importance of cultivating relationships online, since they aren’t going to happen face to face. It’s possible to get to know someone online, of course. I have developed some good professional relationships with people online that I have never (or only once) met in person. I feel I know these people well enough not only through their work, but through their character such that I would jump at the chance to collaborate with them on a project, should the opportunity arise. Students need to be made aware of the importance of getting to know their instructors, and understand that instructors need to know them above and beyond a score on an exam, or how well a thesis was articulated in a paper.

I can’t write a letter of recommendation for you if I don’t know you. And I can’t know you if all I associate with you is a score between 0-100. Online students — reach out to your instructors and share yourselves (as you so often do in other venues). Raise that social capital: Your future depends on it.

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