Why and How to Communicate, Collaborate, and Network in Online Classes

Building comfortable and sustainable relationships with classmates and instructors in online classes may not seem to be a worthwhile investment at first glance, especially since those with whom we interact online are seemingly distant. However, I encourage you to work toward building relationships, because academic communities and personal connections with classmates and instructors may be some of the most rewarding and fulfilling in your life!

I was recently an online doctoral student myself, and I made it a point to interact with others in my courses. I did this because I always seemed to learn more through the connections I made with classmates than I did by reading books or reviewing content. Additionally, in a graduate-level program, I took several courses with some of the same classmates. By getting to know them early on, I established a “safety network” for myself. If I had to miss a discussion or if I didn’t understand an assignment, rather than revealing my lack of knowledge to the instructor, I could reach out to my safety network of classmates first. The network also allowed for easier collaboration on class projects, and was a safe space to discuss assignment ideas and details.

How does one go about establishing relationships with online peers and instructors? Studies have shown that building trust is foundational in relationships and can improve online student engagement, community building, and academic motivation (Latusek & Gerbasi, 2010; Tseng & Ku, 2011). There are number of ways you can build trust while interacting in your online classes. The following are some ideas.

Show Personality
Posting an introduction of yourself, including your background and interests, along with a photo, allows others to get to know you initially. This type of post fits well in a designated introductions discussion thread, or in a “coffee house” or other designated interaction space. When you share information about who you are and what you do, people will tend to like and trust you more.

Any time you can share a bit of your personal experiences (in a discussion post, a group activity, or in an assignment that is shared with classmates), you can make connections with others. In online courses in particular, sharing short video clips and/or audio clips has been shown to help build trust among peers (Kennedy, Bruce, & Young, 2013). When others can see your facial expressions and mannerisms in a video or picture, they have a frame of reference for what you look like and how you act. This helps convey sincerity and authenticity, which are key to building relationships.

Be Helpful
Another way to build trust with others in your online classes is to serve as a class resource; posting links, for others to peruse, to relevant articles, websites, videos, and books within the discussion threads is a way to demonstrate your trustworthiness, knowledge, and resourcefulness. Also, offering to assist classmates who may be new to online learning or new to the subject area, by providing your contact information, can help build trusting relationships with others.

Additionally, trust can be built through praise; for example, praising your classmate for a great idea or bringing up an interesting point, builds rapport and trust. By giving credit to classmates and honoring their knowledge with recognition, their willingness to connect with you and disclose information rises dramatically.

Prioritize Communication
If web-conferencing or online project collaboration is permitted in your class, these are great ways to build trust and enhance relationships. If there is a built-in web-conferencing tool in your learning management system (LMS), inquire with you instructor about using it to meet with classmates to discuss assignments or projects, or to create a study group for an exam. Invite classmates to join you at a certain time to share notes and ideas about important content.

If there isn’t a web-conferencing tool in your LMS, Google Hangouts is a free online option. Hangouts will host up to 10 users at a time and screen share, Google Drive, YouTube, and websites are all accessible within the Hangout. Additionally, Hangouts offers an inter-conference chat feature so students can create a “back channel” conversation and/or communicate effectively without using audio or video. With a good internet connection, Hangouts works almost seamlessly and it is a great option for distance students who wish to meet up spontaneously or at a set time.

With more and more career-driven adults returning to school for graduate-level and second bachelor’s degrees, it behooves students to get to know one another. Those you study with will be great professional connections throughout your career, and some could eventually be your colleagues (if they aren’t already).

Online classes are places that lend themselves well to networking, connecting and community building. This might open the door to a future job opportunity or business endeavor, and at the very least it will help enrich you learning experiences as you take courses.


Kennedy, A., Bruce, M.A., & Young, S. (2013). Discovering student and instructor perceptions of trust-building in online courses: Presentation at University of Wyoming College of Education Professional Studies Research Symposium.

Latusek, D., & Gerbasi, A. (2010). Trust and technology in a ubiquitous modern environment. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Tseng, H., & Ku, H. (2011). The relationships between trust, performance, satisfaction, and development progressions among virtual teams. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 12(2), 81-94.