Emotionally Intelligent Online Teaching

Laptop computer on desk at home overlooking lake

Leading Distance Learners Through Uncertainty

In the quick pivot to all-online teaching, faculty everywhere are rising to the challenge of implementing practical and innovative ways to preserve academic continuity amid campus closures. They also find themselves in a peculiar position of leadership. Whether their courses were online all along, or are part of the overnight COVID-19 “rapid remote” transition, instructors everywhere have been thrust into the role of being the leader of distance learners. More significantly, instructors have quickly become influential people in the lives of learners struggling to navigate the ambiguity and uncertainty of social distancing, media portrayals of shortages and panic, and real concerns about their futures. 

Applying Emotional Intelligence in Online Teaching

Thankfully, online teaching does not have to be impersonal. The online classroom provides a convenient and flexible platform for new and meaningful connections. Emotionally intelligent online teaching focuses on making the most of the virtual environment through human insight and innovative, personal learning.  

Here are five ideas for bringing emotional intelligence into leadership and learning in the online environment. 

1. Maintain Instructor Presence 

Though online instructors have many ways to personalize the online classroom and interact, students often report feeling disconnected and distanced from the learning experience. To address this divide, create a human connection wherever you can. Personalize your course home page and make regular class announcements. Consider holding routine weekly live webinars or chats to build very personal dialogue around your topic. Jump onto your discussion board daily to extend the ongoing conversation into new territory. Give detailed feedback with personalized assignment comments when you’re grading. 

Using simple methods to stay involved as an online instructor assures learners there really is another person on the other side of the screen. Moreover, it tells them you see them as learners, that you recognize their efforts, and that you are actively teaching them. Active online instructor presence keeps the remote learning experience alive and engaging. 

2. Empathetic Concern

In times of uncertainty and ambiguity, learners are often navigating a complex landscape of mixed emotions and influences. They may struggle to focus or even to prioritize classwork in the context of other challenges they face. Teaching with empathetic concern opens up the possibility for deep engagement despite the shifting emotional backdrop of concern and worry. 

Allow your virtual classroom to become a place for open discussion and acknowledgment of the practical and emotional challenges students are facing can advance learning on multiple fronts. Open discussion forums or even current-events related discussions that encourage sharing personal perspectives gets students to interact with each other, breaking down some of the virtual distance common to the online classroom. Asking students to reflect on how course topics relate to current events can make the learning objectives very real. Offering a venue for students to air concerns or vent provides a foothold for the sort of direct student-instructor dialogue and mentoring that is often essential to online learner success. 

3. Stay Flexible 

Recognize where students may be struggling and stay open to the possibility of judiciously flexing your course policies for the greater good. As routines are disrupted, living arrangements and workspaces suddenly merge, and childcare becomes a major hurdle for many learners in higher education, your flexibility may be the crucial lifeline that keeps a learner on track. While you don’t need to shred your whole late assignments policy, a few extended deadlines or nixed assignment requirements where they don’t interfere with key course outcomes takes some of the pressure-to-perform off learners’ plates. 

pencil bent into a loop

Staying flexible and reducing high-stakes pressure in an online course is more than a matter of empathy, however. By flexing when students need grace, you show enthusiasm for their learning, reducing the chances a student will cheat to complete an assignment, or choose not to complete it at all. Students are more prone to cheating or giving up when they are anxious, exhausted, or overly pressured to succeed. Applying some human insight when students need it most adds stability, connection, and understanding to their learning experiences, encouraging engagement despite interruptions. 

4. Encourage Critical Reflection

Anxiety and concern often arise from the combination of uncertainty and feelings of powerlessness. Reflection helps us and our learners examine our own perspectives, make sense of critical experiences and disorienting dilemmas, and build stronger self-awareness. Rather than ignoring the surrounding context of learners’ predicaments in the COVID-19 outbreak or allowing the class to dwell on negativity, steer discussions toward the sort of reflection that enables constructive explanatory thinking and avoids assumptions or blame

Openly acknowledge the ongoing local situation, and consider pivoting assignments or discussions to engage with the current information flow. Teach students objectivity and emotional critique by encouraging their assessment of influences and ripple effects beyond the immediate cause-and-effect they may be experiencing.  Break the emotional traps of blame and wallowing with open-ended questions that encourage self-awareness and grounded optimism. 

5. Foster Resilience 

Stress tolerance is a process of actively coping with stress and staying resilient while navigating challenges. The inner strength to remain resilient takes flexibility, creativity, grit, and optimism. Teaching resilience starts with setting the tone and modeling a calm approach to facing difficulties. According to Marvin Krislov, it also involves helping students develop strong networks, keep things in perspective, and continue progressing toward their academic goals by working on what is under their control. 

Model the way by lightening the mood where you can, but tuning into the emotional cues that signal the need for deeper discussion, flexibility, or mentoring moments. Emotionally intelligent online teaching doesn’t require us to be emotional gurus.  However, we do have to acknowledge that our learners are currently surrounded by influences driving feelings of anxiety, frustration, isolation, despair, and helplessness. Approaching our role as the teacher—especially in the online classroom—with active listening, empathetic practicality, and a resilient attitude just may turn a transactional online or “rapid-remote” class into an engaging, memorable, and meaningful learning experience. 

Teaching through this current global pandemic calls for leadership, and nothing less than bringing our first and best selves to class each day. 

To keep up to date with the latest information on FIU’s remote learning endeavors, review the information on FIU’s Academic Continuity page.

Amber Webber, Ph.D. is an Instructional Design Manager at Florida International University (FIU) Online. Dr. Webber is an Air Force veteran, with experience as an adjunct professor, leadership development coach, corporate trainer, instructional designer, and organizational development consultant in civilian and government organizations. She is a “serial academic” and lifelong learner, coupling her practical experience with a Ph.D. in Business Management specializing in Strategy and Innovation, a Master’s in Adult Education, a Bachelor’s in Management and Human Resources, and a couple of Associates degrees from the Community College of the Air Force. She believes in building outstanding online learning experiences, leveraging students’ individual experiences and prior knowledge to create a nexus between learning opportunities and future application for each student.

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