Although most people wouldn’t specifically take an online course just to increase their professional network, it’s an outcome that’s often cited as something that students hope to take away from the experience. Your actions in the course can help establish connections that can be nurtured for years to come as you grow your professional network. These connections can serve as a sounding board, a resource, and as potential employers long-term. Here are some strategies you can apply during the course to build these useful connections.
Yes, it’s important to be prepared for class, be respectful of your instructor and other learners, and always behave professionally. But beyond expected classroom decorum, online classes also provide the opportunity to distinguish yourself as an innovative thinker, creative problem solver, compassionate caretaker, and supportive teammate. Keep this in mind as you submit your assignments, especially those that will be visible to your classmates. For example, when you are critiquing a classmate’s work, do so in a way that is both honest and constructive. Prove yourself to be authentic and open. Think about the characteristics that matter most to you when hiring an employee or creating a team and exemplify those assets throughout the course.
Form study groups
Most learning management systems provide virtual space to meet with classmates outside of the structured course. Take advantage of that opportunity. You will most likely be in a class with learners that have different experiences, different work environments, etc. When working through assignments, especially those that demand synthesis, interpretation, and extrapolation, it can be illuminating to hear from people with different lenses. (Of course, make sure it’s ok with your instructor to work together.)
Form social groups
Just as it’s helpful to hear from people with different perspectives and experiences, it’s also nice to form groups with similar challenges. For example, you may have challenges with balancing school and work if you’re on active military duty and have an unpredictable schedule. Hearing how others in your situation managed such challenges would be helpful. Think about what other extra pressures you might have, such as caring for young children or aging parents, or working in a specific unit that has unique stressors. Also, consider parts of your life not related to work that may be a way to connect with others. Maybe you really enjoy cooking or have a secret musical talent. Others in your class just might welcome the chance to talk about such things as a way to get a mental break and relax.
The end of your online program ideally won’t mean the end of your interactions with your classmates! There are several strategies to interact with your peers post-course.
Develop a contact list of your classmates
Include where they work, what their job is, and add some personal comments about what impressed you about that person. For example, someone may have had deep experience in managing a significant transition at their workplace, another person may have had to negotiate an unwanted merger, yet another classmate may have had to make hard staffing choices related to an economic downturn. As you go through different courses, your contact list (and related skills and experiences) will grow. These people will become points of contact should you find yourself facing similar challenges.
If possible, collect email addresses during the course so that you have a direct way to reach out to individual colleagues. Having an email can be especially helpful if you have specific questions or want to tap into a colleague’s experience. In addition to emails, invite everyone in your course to connect via LinkedIn. Stay active on LinkedIn by posting and commenting on a regular basis. Your new contacts will see your posts and be reminded of who you are.
Finally and most importantly, no matter what type of interaction you have with your classmates, always be authentic!