TLO 12: How to Teach Online: Building Trust

In TLO 11 (posted 8 Jan 2014), I wrote that: “When we think and talk about building relationships online, we move beyond the Technology of TLO to the other ‘Big T’, which is Trust. In all relationships, personal as well as professional, face-to-face and at-a-distance, nothing meaningful and lasting can be achieved until we have established Trust.” A number of readers responded to that idea with the very good question: Yes, but how can trust be built in an online environment? If you can’t be in the same physical space with someone, shake their hands and look them in the eye, how or why would you trust them?

In an online newsletter called Faculty Focus, Rob Kelly (2008) revisited the work of Nancy Coppola and her team at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (2004), who looked at the development of trust in virtual teams, based on 1,300 course participant questionnaires, which asked about the most and least effective online instructors. Based on all that feedback, Coppola and her coworkers recommended four strategies for building trust in teams working together online. The first was: “Establish early communication. Students need to perceive the instructor’s presence as soon as the course begins.”

Although this is very good advice, I would go further and suggest that: Students need to perceive the instructor’s presence before the course begins. That’s not always possible, but in most well-organized and well-run LTO programs, the course participants (CPs) and the teachers have the opportunity to get to know each other before the course officially begins, which is a great opportunity to “establish early communication,” and for the CPs to “perceive the instructor’s presence” as soon as possible.

Coppola and her colleagues also recommended that instructors of courses online: “Develop a positive social atmosphere,” “Reinforce predictable patterns of communication and action,” and “Involve team members in tasks such as group projects or activities that require students to rely on each other to complete them.” One of the recurring themes in the early postings in these TLO blogs is that much of what needs to happen in online teaching and learning environments is the same as what needs to happen in traditional, face-to-face classrooms. So, although I do agree with the school of thought that says we should not just be trying to duplicate online all of the things we do in class, it’s also true that the recommendations of Coppola and her team would apply to both settings, but in different ways.

According to Kelly: “The instructor needs to closely monitor communication in the course and take corrective action when necessary.” This relates to our discussion, in TLO 10 and TLO 11, on the importance of establishing the ground rules at the outset. In addition to the strategies recommended above, Coppola and her coworkers also suggested asking three key questions as a way of understanding how the trust-building process is proceeding as a course unfolds:

  • Are students responding positively to one another?
  • Are the students responding frequently?
  • Are the students really thinking and engaging with the material and one another?

One of the benefits of TLO courses is that it can be relatively easy to see whether or not, to what extent and in what ways, participants are responding positively with each other, by looking at the comments posted within a series of linked, or threaded, discussions. These often start with a CP being the first one to tackle a particular task or respond to a specific question. The other CPs then add to and build on that discussion, while also thanking the first CP for starting the thread and making positive comments on the first CP’s posting. I have often seen CPs on the MA TESOL courses I’m teaching playfully tease each other for taking comments from each other and “making them their own,” showing that they appreciate and trust each other.

It’s clear that the trust-building in virtual classrooms is an essential aspect of teaching and learning online, and that there are many different ways in which it can be built. So, how is trust created in your courses online?

About Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis
From 2015–2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th president of TESOL International Association. He has coauthored and coedited around 200 publications and worked with more than 50,000 language educators in more than 100 countries. His current research is focused on the New Peace Linguistics. He is an online professor in the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University, and he is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works as an independent language education consultant for organizations worldwide.
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