A Lesson on Empathy

Good course gone bad. But an effective lesson on empathy.

Earlier this year, I was assigned to assist with an online course development to be delivered in the fall. The faculty developer of the course was not able to teach the course, and another instructor was hired to do the job. In efforts to assist him in getting the course site ready, I contacted him via e-mail. He was extremely slow to respond, but we finally connected via both e-mail and phone.

I noticed as the start of the term drew nearer that the new instructor had done little to his course site, though he was supposed to review it, add due dates and the like inside the shell, and basically update it for the fall term. Seeing that nothing was going on inside the site in advance of the course’s going live was a warning of a possible disaster. Sure enough, shortly into the term, I began hearing of students complaining—they didn’t understand what to do, textbooks were supposedly being changed, etc. The course site was changing a bit, but not for the better. Even so, I saw little new information from the instructor on the Announcements page. Instead, I learned that the instructor was attempting to contact individual students via e-mail (not efficient or wise when you have about 100 students enrolled in a course).

I, as well as my manager, tried to contact the instructor to make suggestions and offer assistance where we could. Eventually, the online coordinator of the course’s program was notified of the student complaints and withdrawals and attempted to help rectify the situation. She worked with the instructor to ease things for the rest of the term, but in an 8-week course setting, even a few days of issues can be detrimental.

Throughout this entire time, as I communicated (primarily via e-mail) with the instructor and coordinator, I was frustrated and annoyed. How could an instructor wait until after a course begins to make major changes to the course? Why would he try to make changes via e-mail messages rather than via the announcements and course site content? How could he, or anyone else working with the course, not push for assistance from my instructional design area, given that we could likely help significantly? Nothing seemed rational, and I had no empathy for either the instructor or the coordinator.

Finally, last week, the online coordinator met in person with me and my manager to discuss the situation so that next term the course will be much improved. I had not looked forward to meeting her, I admit, as I was tired of the whole situation. What a surprise upon sitting down and talking with her to discover that she was as concerned with the matter as I had been and that she was trying hard to make things better! Shaking her hand, talking with her in person, being able to see her expressions and emotions, understanding that she was a human being just like I am: I empathized and felt a sense of camaraderie that no number of e-mails or even phone calls could ever replace.

Electronic communication is great, but to get inside others’ heads and really see their perspectives and feel their own frustrations, joys, and concerns, meeting face to face is nearly essential. Yes, e-mail can make communication faster and more efficient, but it can also hinder effective communication by not allowing us to empathize when that’s what’s needed.

Extending this into the online learning environment, we need to realize that the virtual classroom poses similar problems. Often, online courses lack any face-to-face or synchronous elements, so instructors may never “feel with” their students. What can they do to make empathy happen? Instructors, introduce yourselves to your learning audience. Ask students about themselves—their interests, needs, and honest thoughts; care enough to find out what you can about your learners, and let them see a bit of you, too. Provide some synchronous class sessions, or even virtual office hours, with web conferencing. Have you considered having a brief telephone conversation with each of your students at the beginning of the course, simply to introduce yourselves? Offer feedback through webcam videos or audio clips throughout the term. Encourage students to make their forum posts “live” by recording a webcam video or audio clip. Include yourself in forum discussions, and comment on blog posts, addressing your students by name when you do. Stop relying on the coldness of e-mail and pure text and, instead, use techniques that are more likely to create a feeling of understanding and caring.

Empathy is best developed through personal encounters.

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