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Oh joy.

I have managed to completely tangle up an e-mail communication with a professor at seminary that I don’t know in person. Great. That does not help my grade.

Seems like I have just hit one of the snags of an online master’s program: your professor doesn’t see you and thus doesn’t know you outside of the work you turn in.  Not good for relationship building or – in this case – clearing up misunderstandings.

During my undergrad, this was one of my prime objectives: to meet the professor, so I could engage well in discussions and to learn the maximum amount of new knowledge possible. I have always been a firm believer that face time ultimately is what makes a learning experience one that allows both parties to benefit.

Well, in this case, that’s not how it went. Somehow my request for clarification for a question I got wrong on our mid-term was derailed into a conversation stream I was not trying to be a part of and that really had nothing to do with what I was asking about. And now I feel I have blown what might have been a chance to meet someone who can help me in my future learning. Yes, I am frustrated tonight (and I suppose a little whiny). But that is the danger of not being a resident student.

With some of my other professors, I was able to build a personal rapport. But that was only possible because I went on an intensive to Israel with two of them and attended a summer intensive at the university, allowing me to meet that professor.  Not all distance learners have that luxury – the distance may just be too great.

So how to fix this? I am not entirely sure yet as this situation developed over the past two days. I very strongly dislike conflict, and this kind of stuff is enough to rob me of sleep.

But let me do a little analysis nevertheless of what I think went wrong:
a) Distance learning prohibits most face-to-face encounters,
b) the professor may not even know if you are female or male (happened to me),
c) the interaction is limited to handing in reports or doing exams,  and
d) e-mail as a medium of first contact can lead to miscommunication when thoughts are expressed imprecisely or when the two parties simply have different styles of communication.

So how could this have been improved from the start?
a) Have a section in the online discussion board where you ask students during the first week of class to introduce themselves,
b) encourage students to submit prayer requests during the class – this seems to have an amazing impact on building connections,
c) have discussion forum questions, even if the course is not typically graded like this – “force” interaction. Grade weight should be limited, but enough to encourage participation,
d) allow for discussion around questions that weren’t clear – I have had several professors agree that the question on the exam was wrong or misleading,
e) encourage course participants to e-mail their questions – and be willing to respond, and
f) ask meaningful questions on the course evaluation – and offer to respond.

I do believe that just a few of those would greatly improve the feeling of belonging to a course and one’s fellow students as well as giving the students a sense of connection to the professor monitoring the course.

Last but not least, the courses I have had that had DVD recordings as a mandatory part of them always made me feel that I was a part of a real learning environment vs. those that don’t.

Just some thoughts – maybe you have others. Do comment, if you do.

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