I Really DO Matter: Cultivating a Sense of Empathy Online (EIQ)

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Brief Abstract

In an online classroom, students can feel lost or disconnected. With today’s climate of unsettling events, empathy is more important than ever. Empathy promotes collaboration and a sense of community which ultimately enhances learning. We will discuss ways in which we promote online empathy through presence in our online learning.


Former faculty member in communication and college administrator. Currently applying those skills in the teaching and learning discipline of online learning.

Extended Abstract


As online learning becomes more and more commonplace, it is worth the effort to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the modality with the aim to enhance the human connection within the online experience.  In-person modality strengths are well documented: eye contact-led connection between speaker and learner, non-verbal feedback and feedforward, and intensification and downplay based on that feedback, among others.  Noted drawbacks of the in-person modality include: the ephemeral nature of the classroom, the physicality and/or distraction of the environment, and the rigid pacing of synchronous communication, among others. 

Over the last two decades, many learners have documented their concerns about online learning.  One recurrent grievance is the “non-present” faculty member, or rather, their perception of a non-present faculty member.  The good news is that empathy and presence can be connected in which faculty can present empathy with students simply by being present.

This presentation will discuss interviews with numerous online learners and how their perceived presence of the faculty member leads to the students’ perceived empathy of the instructor.  Furthermore, it will discuss tactics that faculty can leverage to increase their mindful presence in their online classrooms, thereby increasing their empathic presence. 

Being Present

Many educators struggle to create a presence online because it is very natural and inherent to do the same in the face-to-face classroom.  This is only exacerbated by the asynchronous communication inherent to the online course itself.  A question to a teacher, for example, could go days without a response (a typical “required” response time is 48 hours).  Discussion posts might go even longer as they wait for someone (anyone) to respond.  It is easy to see how learners can feel quite alone in their online class. 

Although one of the best ways to create empathy in an online classroom can feel daunting, it is not a difficult. It must be, however, deliberate.


The most easily accomplished tactic for creating presence is leveraging the announcements feature. 

The announcement is always the first thing that learners see when they log in. Seeing a message from the teacher is the first tactic to create presence and empathy. A daily announcement that is current to the climate or needs of the class sends the message that the teacher is paying attention, cares about the class, and is present.

Many Learning Management Systems provide an introductory page where students can see their teacher’s photo, learn about their interests, and other items that make the instructor human. Similar to the “I’m not a robot” function we see on many webpages, the introductory page helps the student connect to the teacher. Without it, the student will assume whatever construct they have created in their head (if they have one at all) to connect with. Without an introductory page the teacher will have a more difficult time creating the empathic presence throughout the course. 

The third communication tactic that can be leveraged to create empathy and presence is email/course email. These are used when direct and specific communication is needed to reach the student. These individualized specific messages opens the lines up for personal connection and communication. Course email is a fantastic tool to suit this purpose, but may only be accessible if the student logs into their class. Email can be further reaching (although not foolproof) when you need to reach the student and they may not be logging in frequently.

In an interview with students, one of the most reported frustrations of learners is response times. 

Students can often feel removed from the class and the teacher if the response time is too great. This often falls into three buckets:

  1. Discussion posts - Discussion posts are typically done on deadlines, such as Wednesday and Friday. While it may be convenient to only respond on due dates, giving thoughtful responses daily will help the student feel heard, connected, and significant in a teacher’s online class.
  2. Graded Feedback – Managing expectations of students can help teachers with their grade load. It is not necessary to have graded assignments back immediately in order for the student to feel connected to the teacher. However, establishing a feedback date and then holding to that commitment will create teacher presence. In addition, thoughtful feedback beyond “Well done,” extends the teacher’s empathetic presence.
  3. Answering Questions – Interviewed students revealed that not receiving answers to their questions is one of the greatest frustrations in an online course. Learners are typically used to very fast response rates. The more a teacher can shorten the response time to emailed questions, the more connected the student will feel to the class and to the teacher.  


There are some active strategic moves that can help students feel their teacher is present and connected. 


Scheduled Virtual Office Hours – When synchronous video office hours can be offered, it is a great way to help students feel connected to the teacher. 

  1. The benefits are numerous; synchronous question and answer, non-verbal feedback, and other benefits that mirror the face-to-face classroom benefits.

  2. Responsive Study Sessions – Often, teachers can tell if a class as a whole, is having difficulty with a particular topic. This is a great time to offer a virtual, synchronous review session for all students.

  3. Modular Leadership Meetings - Sometimes, class structures can lend themselves well to small group student leaders. In classes where there are many students, selecting a handful of student leaders can be helpful. In such cases, teachers can meet regularly, synchronously, with this small group of leaders and they would be able to report back regularly to their groups. Very much a “Republic” style of communication.


Overall, faculty providing an empathetic presence in an online classroom can truly help students feel connected to both their courses and their teacher.  Doing so will elicit the feeling of empathy that students desire, ultimately enhancing the feeling of belonging, ultimately, positively impacting the learning in the course.