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Learn how to connect with your students and how to build an online meaningful connection that drives creativity and engagement in your class.

It doesn’t matter if your teaching subject is creative or technical, it doesn’t matter either if it’s an introductory or advanced class because teaching means more than sharing knowledge. Teaching implies social abilities in order to be able to connect with your students.

However, online teaching may be a challenge with regard to a meaningful connection. You’re no longer sharing the same physical space, your students cannot “feel you” and, you cannot “feel them” either. And then, of course, the digital infrastructure may come with its own limitations after all.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to be online and yet to feel more “connected” and “engaged” than within any other physical environment. How is this possible? How do you experience a high level of energy and response from your online students?

In this article, I’m sharing 5 power tips from my e-teaching experience over the last years. I taught different media subjects from creative, to practical and technical and, I’ve learned from (and with) my students how to connect. We created together at least the same amount of energy that usually builds itself in a physical classroom. I simply figured out that online teaching has no limitations when it comes to being engaging and meaningful.

Meaningful connection

First, let’s think from a pure connection perspective, not teaching nor learning, just think a genuine human connection.

There’s this magic called connection with other people. But it’s not just happening because you are surrounded by people, you have to do something in order to activate this state.

All humans have the ability and the need for connection. It’s part of our human nature.

We’re all social creatures, designed to live in a community, designed to share and learn from common experiences. We feel inspired and connected around certain people but also, we become uninterested and disconnected around others.

We may be at a party with people we know, in a meeting room with our colleagues, or at home surrounded by family. But there’s this feeling of being somehow separated from whatever is happening around us. We’re not mind-wandering, we just don’t feel connected.

Why is that? Why do we feel alone or disconnected and yet surrounded by people?

A clear and simple answer is given by Sean Stephenson, a therapist, self-help author, and motivational speaker, well known for his speeches on how to create powerful connections with people. Sean points out the key problem, “connection” is confused with “communication”.

schematic block between human connection and communication

Connection means an exchange of emotions and energy while communication means an exchange of information and knowledge. And that’s a huge difference!

Think about this for a moment. If you need information, you pick up the phone and you google it. But what do you do with the need for connection? Is it still there at the tip of your fingertips? No, I don’t think so.

So, how do we connect?

The answer to the need for connection is sharing our emotions. Which means building a trust and care relationship among us. Only this way we can become open to listening and learning from each other.

We all have emotions even though we look, talk and think differently. We all share the same emotions even though our experiences are different and unique to each one of us.

Now, how do we share our emotions?

We share our emotions through our personal energy, through our way of speaking, listening, acting and reacting.

  • We need to share our thoughts on what is working and what isn’t.
  • We need to share our story of why we do what we do.
  • We need to share the good’s and bad’s, without the fear of being judged or criticized.

It’s all about sharing because when we share, we connect!

Human communication

When we are physically in the same room, we somehow “feel” connected through the 3-dimensional space. We feel that we are a group just by sharing the space, without actually doing anything.

We perceive our reality through our external sensors, we are under the same light conditions, we hear the same environmental noise or, we may even sense a strong perfume coming from somewhere. And if someone’s phone rings we all react and look around to check who’s phone is that. It does look that we are having the “same” experience.

Have you heard about the Rule of Personal Communication, 7-38-55?

In the ’70s, Prof. Albert Mehrabian, quantified human communication in words – tone of voice – and body language. He came up with a ratio of 7% – 38% – and 55% of any personal communication.

human communication divided into 3 key aspects and percentages

Prof. Mehrabian suggested that we overwhelmingly communicate our feelings, attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs not only through the actual words spoken but by the speaker’s body language.

Obviously there are scientists saying it is very difficult to quantify the impact of tone of voice and body language as the key factors in communication, these factors cannot be applied as a general rule to all social contexts. However, depending on what study you read, you may hear a ratio of something like 10% – 45% – 45%. But it’s really just the same thing.

Body language is a communication channel between humans. It has always been like this, that’s why it’s a powerful tool and skill.

Sharing physical space comes naturally to us, it’s also natural to learn as a group in the same classroom. But what happens when our space is on the computer screen? How do you experience the same level of energy and response? How do you keep your students engaged, motivated and truly connected?

Online space and meaningful connection

I hope by now you realized that my article is not going towards online tools for meetings or classrooms. It’s not about what web-cam to use, what microphone to plug-in, nor a debate between Zoom vs Skype.

I am not being poetic or spiritual, but humans depend on life-energies and we do have the characteristics of this energy. We are and we create energy. A connection between humans is built on energy which is a non-physical “thing” since we don’t “see it”, right?

I know this for sure (with or without science backing this up) because we all experienced it, many times actually.

Have you ever read and re-read a book that truly inspired you? Have you ever watched a video of a speaker given a talk, you never met him/her and yet it completely flipped your mind? Have you ever heard a real story about someone’s life difficulties and successes and it just touched your heart?

That’s the energy I’m thinking about, that’s the meaningful connection. It “touches” you, they say.

Human energy is the ability to influence, inspire and motivate and it doesn’t require either physical space or synchronized time.

I believe that an online experience can indeed be meaningful and truly powerful. Perhaps even more powerful since we reduce all the physical distractions around us.

Five pointers on how to meaningful connect online

If you are a teacher reading my article don’t forget that you are responsible for the teaching environment, academically, socially and now online as well. I wrote previously about what makes a teacher impact students so check out my article here, Teaching is a form of Leadership.

From an online teaching standpoint, here are my top five pointers.

5 key aspects of how to connect meaningful with your students

Tip nr 1. Open up the session. Do a check-in.

Start with a warm salute. The first seconds of your introduction is setting up the general mood. It only takes 5 seconds for students to sense your enthusiasm. Then, before proceeding into the new session, check if everything is ok from the previous one, check if there are any concerns or questions whatsoever.

If somehow there are any delays in starting up, just ask creative and meaningful questions. For example “What is the best/crazy thing that happened to you today?” or “When was the last time you laughed?”

Tip nr 2. Be digitally organized. Stay on top of things.

Regardless of the topic or difficulty level, the teacher must be able to structure and organize information in a simple and clear manner. I assume you already know this.

However, when you are online and you share your screen as well, make sure your environment (desktop and files) is organized and tidy. You don’t want to keep switching between tabs and windows. You don’t want either to browse your entire computer in order to find your file. And if a personal photo pops out on your screen, don’t make a tragedy out of it, just soothe it with a funny comment.

Tip nr 3. Use the first name when you talk to your students.

This one is actually a super advantage of the online platform and you must take advantage of it. There’s no excuse now in forgetting students’ names, isn’t it? it’s there on the screen, in front of your eyes.

Talk with your students by their first name. It’s friendly, pleasing, powerful and rewarding for the person that you’re talking to. Your students will feel acknowledged, will feel a part of the same environment as you are.

Tip nr 4. Make eye contact via video camera.

Eye contact is extremely powerful, it activates our social brain. Making eye contact signals to the other person that you are paying attention, it implies focus, intention, and emotion.

Even though our brains can distinguish between synchronized or delayed live video or, even if we don’t consciously spot a tiny difference, eye contact is the best way to genuinely send your vibes to others.

Tip nr 5. Ask and really listen to your students’ opinions.

Ask and listen to your students. Students are never short on opinions. I have never heard a student of mine saying “Cristina, I don’t have any opinion on that, pass your question to my colleague”. Students want to be heard because they feel like mini experts in the field (and some of them are).

And then, when you listen, don’t just prepare your response or the next best question. But truly absorb the information and understand it, then you react to it.

Power tips

In a real setting like a classroom or a meeting room, it’s natural to connect with people. Because of all those spontaneous mini-chats that happen during a coffee time or lunchtime break. However, a relationship shouldn’t be built only between 4-walls.

Remember that our external reality is always based upon our internal state and how in-tune we are with ourselves. It’s about energy. It’s a bounce back and forth of discussions, ideas, thoughts, and jokes.

My last tips that you can take away.

  1. Be visible. Connect with both video and sound, share your genuine facial expression and your body language.
  2. Be present. Turn off your screen notifications so that you don’t get distracted, make sure that there are no environmental distractions as well.
  3. Be yourself. Don’t let your camera diminish your natural body language, keep your smile, your face. But don’t stay to close either to the camera, have like a proximity space around you.
  4. Have a smooth voice. Keep it smooth, it calms down people plus there’s no need to speak loud or strong since you’re not in an auditorium anyway. Pay attention to your tone of voice because it attracts/distracts people’s attention.
  5. Be playful in your conversations but yet professional. When you talk to your students, be there with them. Look them in their eyes even if it’s across the camera, send your wisdom and genuine vibe.

My questions to you

Do you remember a time when you felt connected with someone but you weren’t in the same room? Maybe over a phone conversation? Over a video call? Or just, by reading their email addressed to you?

Do you remember if you ever experience online laughing? You laughed so hard that you had to put the headset down.

Drop me a line if you ever felt this online-energy. It’s there, in the air.

Cristina Zoica Dumitru

I teach digital art courses online and on-location. My mission is to challenge students to reach their maximum potential for creativity and authenticity.

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