Teachers and students rarely become good friends. They don’t divulge secret hopes, they don’t send text-messages to meet for coffee, and they don’t disclose personal struggles with each other. They keep to professional distance and communicate in patterns focusing on topics related to course material. Beneath this seemingly mutually agreed upon social arrangement, both novice learners and skilled instructors recognize an understated need for somehow becoming better acquainted on a more interpersonal level:
- Students need teachers to offer suitable career advice, craft personal letters of recommendation, and be willing to serve as a reference on a student’s evolving resume.
- Teachers need their students to work as trustworthy research assistants, write letters of support during tenure review, and provide an evaluation of a professor’s teaching ability that is open and honest.
- Both students and teachers learn more deeply when they become more aware of personal contexts that influence another’s thinking.
All of these tasks inherently require knowing a person socially to some degree.
To serve these critical functions in any useful capacity, teachers and students must undeniably form deeper social relationships beyond the scope of a limited classroom interaction. Yet, multiple barriers inhibit the social development of teacher-student friendships:
- numerous time constraints,
- limited campus settings for opportunities to meet and chat, and
- few visible models for ways that teachers and students can become allies, even friends within social spheres of academic communities.
Despite these challenges, a variety of technologically mediated communication tools exist that encourage opportunities for social development. In fact, modern tools including social media, instant-messenger, and even text-messages can be used to improve interpersonal relationships within academic settings.
What if teachers and students communicated with one another by using these tools – instead of constraining their mediated dialogue solely to email, which may not provide the best means of communication in all circumstances? For example, Facebook posts may enable a more social component than email in sending information to an individual, even multiple recipients. Similarly, a simple text-message to one student’s or teacher’s cell phone may be more timely and appropriate than the email alternative. With this in mind, teachers who wish to improve their social relationships with students should consider using additional mediated technological tools rather than relying on email alone.
As a support, research indicates that the number of different types of mediated tools that pairs utilize to communicate is related to their degree of closeness: those who are relationally close (or strongly tied) tend to use multiple mediated tools and choose the most suitable for a specific situation. Inversely, those who are weakly tied utilize far fewer communicative options (Haythornthwaite, 2005). Similarly, communicators in online groups seldom constrain dialogue to one specific medium (Baym, 2009). Instead, they use YouTube to share videos, Flickr to send photos, and they use the chat feature on Facebook; they move beyond the limitations of one communication tool and use multiple tools when appropriate for each person, message, and task.
Therefore, teachers may also consider the advantages of utilising multiple technological tools to communicate with students given that this strategy may provide greater opportunities for relational development.
Certainly a number of concerns exist regarding the potential disadvantages of using these new communicative resources in teacher-student relationships: chief amongst them is a concern for privacy. Communication Privacy Management (CPM; Petronio & Duran, 2008) theory sheds some light on our understanding of this phenomenon and explains that in normal face-to-face communication, people seek to regulate the revealing and concealing of personal information. As we know, numerous communication tools online make it more difficult to manage private information. Because sharing information on Facebook or via cell phone may be perceived as a more personal mode of interaction in which we have less control over our private details, teachers and students may resist using these mediums for academic purposes in order to better manage the boundaries of their personal and professional relationships.
Another concern acknowledges the potential for students and teachers to abuse new communicative tools: They may send messages during times of the day which are not ideal, become reliant on receiving immediate information, or may become too relationally close in inappropriate ways.
Concerns such as these are necessary considerations as instructors plan for appropriate use of multiple communicative resources. These three suggestions may provide a starting point for cautiously optimistic professors:
- Consider opening your regular office hours to include online options. Rather than simply using office hours to meet with student’s in-person, give your students multiple options to reach you online during that regular set time and day of the week. For example, log on to Skype or Google Hangout during your office hours and make certain your students know you are reachable via either tool. These tools are fantastic because they give students the option to video chat or share instant-messages which may allow introverted students a mechanism to communicate more comfortably. By expanding your office hours to include online options, you are still in control of when, where, and how your students can communicate with you. Yet, it provides a variety of mechanisms for students to open up to their teachers which may better foster interpersonal opportunities.
- Create an online social network for your class. For example, consider opening a specific group page on Facebook that you can invite your students to join. Alternatively, you could also set up a social network through a third-party tool such as Edmodo (a social networking website created specifically for the academic environment). There are numerous advantageous of setting up a social network site for your students: it allows them to connect easily with one another, it provides a social dynamic to the sharing of information, and it seamlessly flows with their daily activities. Rather than scolding students for Facebook usage during class time, invite them to post comments about the class to a designated space. Weave it into the course material and students will have greater ways to connect with their professor.
- Finally, set up a system for you and your students to easily send and receive messages on a mobile device. For example, if you have a designated Skype or Google account that you use for class purposes, allow this account to push notifications to your phone and encourage students to set their phones up to do the same. This can be helpful in a variety of circumstances such as when a professor is late for a meeting with a student or when a student has a quick question. Good communication can make all the difference in facilitating social development. The main benefit to utilizing this system is that teachers and students can connect easily through mobile devices without having to reveal a private cell phone number.
The ways in which teachers and students interact will continue to evolve with the expansion of technologically mediated communication tools playing a role in shaping these new, beneficial-to-learning interactions. We have the tools to improve our communication and allow deeper social relationships in a variety of contexts, and now we are engaged in learning how to best incorporate these tools. A variety of questions can be posed to move these practices along:
- What are the best practices for utilizing multiple mediated tools to communicate with students?
- How can teachers and students manage their private and personal details online?
- How can each party achieve a work-life balance when mediated tools keep us constantly connected?
Scholars of instruction must further examine research at the intersection of mediated communication and interpersonal relationships. Understanding these dynamic communicative issues will reveal insights regarding how students and teachers can better know one another socially in this digital era.
Baym, N. K. (2009). A call for grounding in the face of blurred boundaries. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14, 720-723.
Haythornthwaite, C. (2005). Social networks and internet connectivity effects. Information, Communication & Society, 8, 125–147.
Petronio, S., & Durhan, W. T. (2008). Communication privacy management theory. In L. A. Baxter & D. O. Braithwaite (Eds.), Engaging theories in interpersonal communication: Multiple perspectives (pp. 309-322). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.