10 Tips for Building Relationships as an Online College Student

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We had a Blackboard discussion forum in the hybrid doctoral program I attended. One of the discussion threads was called “Water Cooler.” An introvert by nature, I tended to disregard the Water Cooler conversation. I was a busy Mom, and unsure about how to engage in this online banter. On the evening my qualifying papers for doctoral candidacy were due, I learned an important lesson about relationships and online learning.

As the clock approached my deadline, I gathered my courage, uploaded my document, and hit submit. It felt like I was sending my life’s work through the internet. To my horror, I received an error message, “closed for submission.”  Panicking, I scoured through my calendar and the email I received with the date and time. This was the correct date. I am very timely and never miss deadlines, I thought to myself. It was the correct time…or was it?

Suddenly it clicked, and I noticed AM or PM missing from the notice about submissions. In my laser-like focus to get the task completed, I had missed this detail and assumed. It was a long night of berating myself for not noticing this. I reassured myself by thinking I could not possibly be the only one who made this mistake. To my surprise, indeed, I was the only one in my cohort who did not get the time right. Why? Because I never visited the Water Cooler where a lively discussion about this miscommunication of time had taken place the day before the deadline.

Sometimes we fail to extend ourselves and build relationships with our colleagues and professors. Maybe we feel uncertain about how to initiate a relationship. Maybe we believe we do not have time, or there is no value in the effort. Avoiding relationships is a missed opportunity, even if nothing serious like late qualifying papers is the outcome. The connections you make in a university will serve not only your current learning but will be valuable to you in years to come.  There may be times when you are searching for a new job or learning opportunity, seeking to hire talented professionals, looking for collaboration around a new venture, identifying ways to give back to your field, or networking the new business you launched. You and your connections will benefit from the relationships you cultivate. If this does not come naturally to you, consider trying out these tips:

10 Tips for Building Relationships as an Online College Student:

At the start of your course, contact your professor to let them know a little about you. You can keep it brief. Offer a sentence or two expressing your interest in learning the course content. Be sure to review the professor’s biography or welcome materials to identify potential connections, such as similar hobbies, experiences, or geographic locations.

  1. Create a LinkedIn profile and send an invitation to connect with every student and professor you encounter whenever possible.
  2. When a professor offers to speak with you, take up the offer gratefully. Be open to connecting and both hearing and offering feedback.
  3. Post on the university’s online networking site and the course room discussion board. Ask a question or two in your post to solicit responses. Take time to respond to others and invite dialogue.
  4. Participate in webinars and presentations hosted by the university. Send a LinkedIn connection request to the presenters, letting them know you enjoyed attending.
  5. Ask your professor for suggestions on how to get involved in the university, recommended professional organizations, or ideas for moving forward in your field.
  6. If you particularly enjoyed an assignment, let the professor know in what way.
  7. If an assignment challenges you, let the professor know in what way.
  8. If you are experiencing personal or professional challenges interfering with your coursework, let the professor know and ask for what you need.
  9. At the end of your course, send a follow-up thank you email to your professor, letting them know you hope to stay in touch.

Building relationships in the online learning environment may take a little more effort than attending in-person courses. Nevertheless, such relationships are far from impossible. It is important to take ownership for initiating and sustaining these relationships. You can mistakenly believe it is someone else’s job to do this. Yet, it will be you who potentially misses out on opportunities and enjoyable professional connections, including the chance to clarify miscommunications and possibly head off unforeseen troubles!

Find more tips for online students at VESC:



  • Episode 6: Building your Systems of Support as an Adult Online Learner


Amy E. Lyn, PhD