By Karen Wilkins

20 May 2014 - 10:04

Teachers and learners of online courses can have a feeling of ‘detachment’. Photo by Lars Kristian Flem under Creative Commons licence.
'Teachers and learners of online courses can have a feeling of "detachment".' Photo ©

Lars Kristian Flem, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Is technology breaking the traditional bond between teachers and students? Karen Wilkins is an online business trainer and PhD student researching the effect of technology on relationships. Here, she summarises her findings ahead of her live-streamed British Council seminar later today, 20 May.

The importance of student-teacher relationships to learning

Rapport between students and teachers is essential to learning. Learners need to make a connection between the knowledge they receive and the person presenting it. The connection is especially important to second-language acquisition. Without a connection, learners can struggle to make sense of what they are trying to learn. However, more and more learners are turning to the internet to develop their language skills. Online communities mean that learners can support each other with a tutor taking a more detached role. But many writers who look at Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) feel that the 'power' relationship between student and teacher is being eroded and that the internet is creating an equal and more anonymous relationship. In other words, the student-teacher relationship is changing dramatically with fewer barriers and less distance than before.

Why I researched this topic

My interest in this area grew out of unrelated research into 'extensive reading' and 'reading circles'. Low participation in a face-to-face, weekly reading circle led to me setting up a virtual reading circle to reach a wider number of students. It quickly became apparent that an online reading circle was a popular choice for the many students busy with work, family and social life. Since 2001, when I conducted the extensive reading project, online tools and blended learning have exploded. I believe this is because these tools can be used by students when they can't fit study into their timetable. The internet is (almost) always open; it’s immediate and it’s available to so many of our students. In short, online tools are convenient for our hectic lives. But are we losing something? Are we leaving behind a personal relationship between learners and teachers shared in the intimacy of a face-to-face classroom? These are questions I've been asking teachers, lecturers, tutors, learners, international students, editors, friends and family.

What are the findings of my research?

For every person you ask, there is a different opinion, but generally, there is a lot of concern among learners and teachers that technology is affecting our student-teacher relationships. There is also a feeling that future relationships will become more distant and less personal. One learner described the relationship between lecturers and students as more ‘indirect’; a teacher reported that she felt technology was a ‘barrier’; a university lecturer felt that too many slides on a PowerPoint presentation would not only ‘get in the way’ of the learning but also the rapport. An online learner and teacher described the experience of e-learning as being ‘detached' from the course.

But there are some who argue that the online world is opening education to the masses. Many embrace new technologies believing that online relationships can be as real and intimate as those in the classroom. I spoke to someone who had taught Skype lessons for two years and he told me that he felt these students were now ‘friends’, who consistently returned to class. An editor friend of mine felt she had closer relationships with disparate writers through Skype and email that would otherwise be less personal and immediate.

What this means for teachers and learners

I have heard from many sources that learning online is the future; some even argue that computer-assisted learning through technology such as interactive whiteboards (IWBs), blended learning and access to interactive online content and virtual learning environments (VLEs) will become the norm.

As a teacher, I believe we cannot afford to ignore these changes. We should learn how to build effective relationships with our learners online. This may mean we need to re-assess how we create relationships and build rapport with our students. We should encourage learners to commit to the course in the same way they would if the class was face-to-face.

A few tips for building relationships with your learners online

  • Encourage your learners to interact with each other through noticeboards and private messages. Edmodo is an easy to use and secure way to create an online learning community.
  • State the rules of 'netiquette' and any other rules of online communication that you feel are important at the start of the course.
  • ‘Flaming’ (angry or offensive comments) and cyber-bullying need to be dealt with immediately just as they would in a traditional classroom.
  • See what works for other teachers -- see these blog posts about mobile learning and how technology can connect children all around the world.
  • Learners often have more technological 'savvy' than teachers. Get them to help you design interactive content for the course.

What ideas would you add to these?

Watch the live-stream from 18.00 UK time on 20 May and take part in the Twitter conversation for a chance to win an app voucher – to be announced live at the end of the seminar.

Find Karen on Twitter and find out more about our seminars for teachers of English in the UK and worldwide.

You might also be interested in: