Stop Freefalling: Building Affinity with Students in Cyberspace

The psychologists tell us that humans are born with only two fears: the fear of falling, and the fear of loud noises. Right now, many of us feel like we are in freefall without in-person social interactions. How well can Internet-connectedness fill this emotional emptiness? And how can you help?

It was the norm before social distancing times for widely separated individuals and teams to leverage online connectivity. Companies and militaries had relied on full motion audio-video apps to interact with widely dispersed teams for decades. Productivity during such interactions was achieved by shared common goals and values of the organization for which they worked. Similarly, families and friends used tools like Skype and Facebook to keep up with loved ones over great distances.

Alternatively, it was the norm for nearby individuals and groups to interact in person before social distancing times. This was true in professional, educational, social and familial groups. In-person interactions gave you an opportunity to share successes, sort through personal challenges, or commiserate over defeats or losses. You enjoyed the company of others and valued their opinions. You could look the other person penetratingly in the eye to establish a deep human connection.

Future generations of students will most likely learn that the Great Pandemic of 2020 normalized human interaction in cyberspace. Incentivized by social distancing, people finally accepted Internet-based solutions as a substitute for in-person interactions. Individuals moved to virtual space to maintain professional, educational, familial and social relationships.

What does that mean for student-teacher relationships? In some ways, nothing has changed except the venue. The affinity which teachers and students have for one another transcends the physical-virtual world boundary. Teachers still want to inspire their students to be successful in life, and students still need teachers to show them the way. Teachers can still teach, grade homework, and explain difficult concepts. Students can still ask questions, get more details about an answer that baffles them, and talk about career goals.

But in other ways, everything has changed. We now live with pandemic-induced uncertainty. Our ability to teach and to learn is hampered by technical difficulties, like faulty headsets, lagging connectivity, and platforms challenged by unprecedented bandwidth demands. Those subtle social cues we rely on – a student that sighs a lot, a teacher that is raptly attentive – are harder to discern in virtual space, perhaps hampering levels of trust between participants. Does that replicated person floating in cyberspace really have the same affinity for me that she had before in real space?

Teachers must conspicuously demonstrate two types of affinity in cyberspace. The first is our traditional affinity for our students. This remains steadfast. We still share their goals, objectives, and values. We must affirm our continued commitment to helping each student realize her dreams in our everyday online teaching.

The second type of affinity addresses the pandemic. Teachers must acknowledge to students that we all share concerns about the well-being of ourselves and our loved ones. We miss our routine pastimes in the physical world, and face daily challenges being isolated at home.

By giving voice to these concerns, teachers demonstrate their affinity to the underlying concerns of the students. In turn, students should feel that the teachers are taking their concerns seriously and trying to address them. This builds trust, which in turn helps students move on to resuming their studies in online venues.

In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy said “Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.” Let us be creative and master these times.