Connecting with peers in online programs is important. It’s not always clear, however, how to go about doing it. In a brick-and-mortar school, the shared space and time help bring people together, but what do we do when we don’t physically gather in one place?
As part of my doctorate program, I did research on how international students form growth-fostering relationships in online programs. What I found might be helpful to all of us. Here are my five tips for making and sustaining connections in online programs.
How we go about making friends is based on our previous experiences. For most of us, making a new friend usually involves social cues (body language, voice intonations and so on). Connections in the real world seem to happen organically, which is not the case online. As with any long-distance relationship, peer-to-peer connection online requires intentionality and effort. Be proactive and ready to put in the work.
Make the First Move
As busy adults, our time is extremely valuable. Often, we are reluctant to reach out to others, worried about imposing or having limited time to invest in new connections. We wait for a sign or reassurances to proceed and, as a result, remain isolated. Be bold – make the first move. Send a direct message to a peer whose discussion posts you enjoy reading or someone whose name you’ve seen in more than one class. It is a low-risk gesture – like waving hello or having a quick chat before class in a traditional school – and you just might help someone else feel less disconnected or lonely.
Ask Questions and Follow Up
To strengthen or anchor your connection, look for things in common. It is important not to form assumptions. Ask questions instead. Start with something you already have in common – perhaps, you are interested in the same topics or like the same professors. You can suggest taking the conversation beyond the school platform (to WhatsApp or Facebook) and ask your peer how they would feel about that. Not everyone will be comfortable with the suggestion, and that is okay. Whatever platform you use, show care and follow up when your peer shares something about their life or studies.
Sharing struggles and vulnerabilities deepens connections and mutual empathy. Tell your peer what difficulties you encountered in the program or what you struggled with the most. By showing your vulnerability, you establish a safe and non-judgmental environment for honest exchanges and mutual support. So, go ahead and vent a little.
There might be many difficulties to overcome as your relationship progresses. Time differences, technical issues and life contexts can complicate interactions. Misunderstandings will happen. Be patient with yourself and your peer. Approach each difficulty from the position of empathy. Not all relationships will flourish or last a lifetime, but even brief, genuine connections will make your educational journey more meaningful and enjoyable.
Students at American College of Education connect with peers and professionals from all over the world. Join us by exploring our fully online programs.