You Don’t Know My Story: Feeling Unconnected in an Existing Online Course

As we quickly transitioned from on-campus learning to virtual learning, I focused on the mechanics of conducting classes through the use of new technologies and new pedagogies. As a faculty member, I am constantly reminded, and rightfully so, to maintain the high quality of learning seamlessly. In doing so, I focused on the emotions and adjustments of the on-campus students who transitioned to a virtual environment. I neglected the possibility of emotional adjustments that an existing online student might be experiencing.

I am a faculty member at a private, non-profit university that specializes in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business. I teach accounting and finance courses, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as on-campus and online. I have not been on campus since mid-March when the physical campus closed and all on-campus courses went virtual. One week prior to going virtual, all faculty, both full-time and adjunct, went through mandatory scheduled sessions to learn how to conduct their courses virtually using Blackboard Collaborate. I was already familiar with the workings of Blackboard Collaborate since I teach online courses. All faculty were encouraged and supported in the mechanics of conducting classes virtually. We were reminded to be sensitive and flexible to the challenges and adjustments students would have transitioning from learning on-campus to learning virtually. 

The terms online learning, virtual learning, distance learning, and e-learning are different; although often used interchangeably (Moore, Dickson-Deane, & Galyen, 2011). The common characteristic is the use of technology in learning. The difference between the terms is how students engage in the learning (Moore et al., 2011). Universally, educators do not agree on what each term means (Anderson, 2008; Lowenthal & Wilson, 2010). At my university, online learning is asynchronous with little-to-no virtual, face-to-face interaction and virtual learning is synchronous, face-to-face interaction during a normal class day and time.

I was prepared and confident to be aware and address student concerns or adjustments from on-campus to virtual. However, what about the student who was already learning off-campus in an online environment? I did not imagine I would face challenges or emotional adjustments from students already taking classes in an online environment. I faced the challenges and emotional adjustments from one such student in my online graduate course.

The situation stemmed after the first week of the online course when the students received their grade for the first discussion forum. In my reflection of the first week’s discussion forum, I commented how several students waited until late Friday evening, as discussion forums end on Friday at 11:59 p.m., to respond to fellow students’ posts. I commented how responding earlier can generate more enlightening, informative, and insightful discussions. Responding earlier also allows learners time to respond to any questions, requests for clarifications, or any other new insights made by fellow students and me. These comments triggered a highly-charged, emotional response from a student.

The student sent me an email expressing concern and offense about my comments. The student informed me that his schedule included working a full-time job while facing the possibility of layoff, owning and managing a small business for six years that was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, and administering a food pantry at his church with his wife. The student informed me that only he and his wife administered the food pantry since the other volunteers were over 60 years in age and advised not to help at this time. The student and his wife have four young children, very confused about the current health crisis. The student was facing 17-18 hour days with his schedule and did not have the capacity for working on class assignments every night. The student informed me that my comments lacked empathy and consideration for schedules and what people may be going through during this crisis.

I responded to the student and suggested that we talk over the phone. We ended up meeting virtually via Google Meet. What I most appreciated (and I believe the student appreciated) was we did not have a discussion or debate; we had a conversation. This communication distinction is very important. Garmston and Wellman (1999) described four ways of talking: discussion, debate, dialogue, and conversation. Discussion is talk that has a purpose, often to make a decision. Debate is an extreme form of discussion, in which people take sides and advocate for their side; they leave no room for compromise. Dialogue is more structured than conversation, but less structured than discussion or debate. Dialogue engages people in building their understanding of an issue, without the pressure to make decisions or be right. Conversation consists of casual, friendly talk about personal and social matters; it’s usually not directed or facilitated (Garmston & Wellman, 1999).

The student started the conversation by apologizing to me as he felt he had been disrespectful. I told him while I appreciated the apology, it was not necessary, nor had I in any way felt disrespected. The student did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. Our conversation lasted nearly two hours. The student told me all about what he was going through during this COVID-19 pandemic and how it was impacting his personal and professional responsibilities.

My class was the student’s fifth course in his MBA degree program. He earned A’s in all of his prior courses. His goal is to graduate his MBA program with a 4.0 grade point average. His fear was my class might be an obstacle in achieving that goal. The student’s standards are his work must be exemplary and views grades as a reflection of him and his efforts. The student wished he had not sent the message while his emotional reaction was high. The student just needed to vent his fears and frustrations. The student needed someone to take time to listen and try to understand what he was going through.

As educators, we are called to do more than teach and engage in scholarly activities. We are called to serve our students as coaches and mentors, and even therapists. I have no formal training as a therapist, so I would definitely refer a student to the appropriate individual, department, or agency. However, you do not have to be a trained therapist to listen. The student was not looking for answers; just an interested, disinterested person to express his fears, frustrations, challenges, and hopes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation reminded me of a few lyrics from a gospel song as follows: “You don’t know my story; you don’t know the things that I’ve come through; you cannot imagine the pain, the trials I’ve had to endure…” (Kee, 2012). The student just needed to tell his story. 

Transitioning students from on-campus learning to virtual learning has primarily been about the technologies, the pedagogies, the learning outcomes, the assessments, and the emotional adjustments of on-campus students being quarantined. While we have rightfully focused on a smooth transition for our on-campus students to engage in virtual learning, we cannot get caught-up only in the technology, tools, and logistics. Depending on the situation and the reason for the interaction, I was reminded to replace the word “student” with the word “person or individual”. I was also reminded not to take our existing online students for granted. I learned how online students can feel isolated and disconnected being quarantined, just like our on-campus students may now be feeling.


Anderson, T. (Ed.). (2008). The theory and practice of online learning. Athabasca University Press.

Garmston, R., & Wellman, B. (1999). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Christopher Gordon Publishers.

Kee, J.P. (2012). Life & Favor. On Life & Favor. Kee Music Group.

Lowenthal, P., & Wilson, B. G. (2010). Labels do matter! A critique of AECT’s redefinition of the field. TechTrends, 54(1), 38-46.

Moore, J. L., Dickson-Deane, C., & Galyen, K. (2011). e-Learning, online learning, and distance learning environments: Are they the same? The Internet and Higher Education, 14(2), 129-135.