Desie Damaso, a 28-year-old earning her online bachelor's degree at Daytona State College, had no qualms about asking her professors for a recommendation letter.
Sure, she hadn't grabbed coffee with her instructors, or spent afternoons chatting in their offices. But she had no doubt that after hours and hours of emails, Skype chats and phone calls, they knew each other well.
After Damaso put in a request, she received a letter with no problem.
"I tried to make a point to show them I wanted to understand the information and not just pass a class," says Damaso. "I would email or Skype them during office hours, and they would talk to me until I was blue in the face."
For undergraduates looking to land a first job or go onto graduate school, scoring a strong reference from a college professor can be key to professional success.
But to create the kind of bond that matters, digital learners will need to take different steps than their counterparts at brick-and-mortar institutions, experts say. If online students want to make a lasting impression on an instructor, they'll have to follow in Damaso's footsteps and go out of the way to initiate contact.
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Students have a variety of different ways to get on a faculty member's radar, experts say.
One tactic is to impress instructors by showing interest in their work or their subject.
Before students enroll in a course, they should research faculty members and try to take a class offered by a person who inspires them, says Sher Downing, executive director for online academic services in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.
Some schools post faculty introductions online that provide information about an instructor's hobbies and interests. Students should take advantage of those resources, she says, and use their knowledge to start a conversation via email, Skype, Twitter or another kind of communication.
"If you are interested in the same things they are interested in, say to them, 'I really want to learn more about this,'" she says. "If students do take that initiative and build a rapport, asking for a letter of recommendation at the end of the semester is much easier."
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Another approach, albeit a bit bolder, is for students to introduce themselves to an instructor before their course has officially started.
"Send the faculty member a brief, bulleted email about where you are in your career and what your goals are," says Carlos Campo, president of Virginia's Regent University and a former faculty member. "It speaks to the seriousness with which you are approaching the class."
Once a course is underway, students shouldn't be shy about reaching out to instructors to ask questions about the class or their career path, experts say. Having a one-on-one chat, even through phone or video conference, is a great way to make a personal connection.
"I always recommend using Google Hangout or Skype during office hours," says Campo. "It really does change things and it gives you an open portal to that faculty member that you can use later in the semester. You want to meet them in a virtual environment and say, 'What are the expectations? What are the ways you can advise me to be a better student?'"
Of course, even the most outgoing students aren't likely to get a glowing letter of recommendation if their schoolwork isn't up to par. And in online courses, faculty members have easy access to information about every aspect of a student's performance, experts say.
"As an online learner you should always keep in mind that your dialogue in online discussion boards in the classroom with your peers and instructor, and your papers and instructor feedback are permanently electronically stored," Becky Takeda-Tinker, president of Colorado State University—Global Campus, wrote in an email. "Instructors have the ability to refer back to those exchanges to provide potential employers with valuable insight into important workplace abilities."