The End of Anonymity

The End of Anonymity

by Jennie Ruby, COTP

An online class is not a webinar. Webinars have a well-earned reputation for being snooze fests. Often they are required attendance. The speakers are not necessarily experienced public speakers. The content may or may not be intrinsically interesting—think, policy roll-out for next year’s open enrollment insurance period. And the audience may be massive: a required-attendance companywide webinar for a large, international company could well have a couple hundred attendees. All of that is the perfect recipe for attendees to multitask, dip in and out, turn down the audio, and drift away. In an online class, however, you can’t let this happen.

Part of the problem? Anonymity. In a large webinar attendees know that no one notices whether they are present and paying attention or not. In an online class, one of your best tools for student engagement is to eradicate anonymity through the use of name-calling.

No, no, I don’t mean you call your students bad words! I mean you learn the names of your students, and you call your students by name early and often. It all starts with your student introductions.

If you have fewer than about a dozen students, you can do audio introductions. Give each student about 2 minutes of airtime for an introduction. Even if the introductions eat up 20 minutes of a full-day class, the benefit is well worth the time. 

Give specific guidelines on what the introduction should contain: “Now, I’d like to meet each of you. I’d like you to tell us your name, the organization you work for, your job title, and where you are calling from.”

By giving a very specific formula of what you are looking for, you decrease the chance that a student will launch into a lengthy, life-story type introduction. Instead, most students will follow the formula. 

Then, to make the intros a little more personal, have a back-up question for each student. I might ask, in a course about eLearning, “What kinds of eLearning do you typically create?” Or I might ask something specific about the location the student is calling from. Then I react to their answer—not just, “Okay, next.” Instead, I make an empathetic comment about what they said. “Wow, so you do basically all types of eLearning! They really keep you busy, don’t they!” 

Just the little personal touch of listening to each student’s introduction, and reacting with a personal question or comment or two, goes a long way toward creating a positive, and personalized, experience for the student.

And don’t let that personalization lapse! Throughout the class, call on students by name. If possible, tie key points in the class to something you learned about them in the introductions. Even now and then saying something like, “Isn’t that right, Samuel?” makes the class feel personal, and keeps the student from drifting off to email. 

“Wait, did I hear my name?” thinks the student. “The instructor might call on me at any time!”

Don’t let this valuable method for personalization and engagement pass you by. Make sure to do at least some kind of introductions in all of your online learning courses.


Jennie Ruby, COTP, has more than 20 years of experience in training delivery, and is much loved for her enthusiasm and energy in the classroom setting, whether online or in person. She is a published author and co-author of numerous training books, including Essentials of Adobe PresenterEditing with Microsoft Word, and Writing for Curriculum Development


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