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Sharing Personal Gossip Increases Student Engagement in the Online Classroom

Sharing Personal Gossip Increases Student Engagement in the Online Classroom

Learn more about degree programs at American Public University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, at American Public University

While gossip, or “small talk,” might seem a non-starter to educational reform, it helps to keep students engaged in pursuing the five to eight learning objectives in a course’s syllabus. But who would even consider holding chitchat sessions with online college students?

Well, I found someone who did more than just consider the notion. It shocked me to discover that person was yours truly.

Gossip keeps students in the classroom engaged in classroom discussions week after week. It encourages student retention by helping to keep students in the course.

The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of gossip is “Trifling, often groundless rumor, usually of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature; idle talk.” But the “idle talk” can also be used strategically to form bonds with students.

Typical Examples of Classroom Soft Gossip

The gossip in the online classroom is “soft gossip” between my students and me. Here are a few of the typical opening statements from our first week of class:

Student: Good morning, all! I currently work as an Operations Manager for FedEx Ground. I have been with the company for almost 3 years…I know I want to continue in the company and move up, but I don’t know how it is all going to tie in yet. As for any future I am waiting for all my kids to graduate and find their own path. After that I want to move back to Alaska where I grew up.

Professor: I have many friends who work at FedEx and they all love their jobs there. For ten years, I was in Alaska teaching logistics and got to be with the FedEx workers there. Many were students like you. It was amazing how the fax machine was still being used to correct mistakes for customs people and FedEx people on their air bills. Paper still rules.

Student: I live in Arkansas. I like to play outside (when it’s warmer than zero degrees!), travel to new places and work on remodeling the house. I moved down here from Alaska 20 years ago. It couldn’t be more different than Alaska, but I love it. It’s a growing community with lots of outdoor activities.

Professor: Welcome to our virtual classroom way over there in Arkansas. I am way over here in Virginia. And the temperature is about the same in both places today this week. I lived in Alaska for 10 years and see that they are warmer than I am in Virginia. We were there from 2001 to 2010 when we moved Outside. Why were you in Alaska?

Student: Hello Professor, I grew up on the Kenai Peninsula – specifically the town of Soldotna. It’s a small fishing town. I loved growing up there, but now I am used to the Arkansas heat and don’t know if I could handle the cold, dark winters. In my previous category, we had an OTIF (On Time In Full) score of 95%, so it was hard for me to have to “deal” with the 85% fill rate. We get what we get is what I was told. I’m working on a project with suppliers to improve this number by next quarter.

I am also fascinated with driverless trucks. Even though some companies are already using this technology on site, I think it has a long way to go before you see a driverless truck on the highway with the rest of the commuters.

Professor: Know that place well. My cousin and his wife and me and my wife used to drive all over Alaska; well, on the nine roads they have. And a few places where we had to use float planes.

Their percentage is hard to fill. When I was consulting with ASCI in Anchorage which was a 3PL for BP, they had to work hard to convince BP that a 100% rate was not possible.

As for those driverless trucks and cars, I think we are a long way off. But I can see it happening if we get dedicated truck lanes or truck interstates from major port cities like Houston or Miami. If there was a major road used only for truckers, this might happen. I don’t see it happening with all the crazy drivers we have around here now.

This is great. Just like the two of us sitting down over a cup of coffee at the Captain Cook hotel; I used to eat breakfast there each morning; my wife worked at Stephan Fine Arts in there.

Student: I have been a truck driver for over 37 years and in the security field for over 28 years. I also do a lot of volunteer work. For over 25 years now, I have worked for large trucking companies like Schneider, KLLM and Baggett Transportation. I also owned my own trucking and Limousine Company for a short while.

Professor: Wow! Nice bio. I owned a trucking company with my daughter, the trucker, from 2006 to 2010. What a “good” time to start a trucking company! The fuel crisis of 2008 took me down a dark financial road. I had 9 rigs at the high point. I loved my refrigerated truck.

Student: I had four trucks, one refrigerated truck and two limousines until 2002 and then I sold them all. With the fuel prices and all the crazy new government regulations and fees, I just couldn’t do it any more. Did you drive along with your daughter? Some of the best times in my life were spent on the road. Nice to meet you, sir, and thanks for the good words.

Professor: Yes, and you know it.

We started with that one refrigerated truck. My daughter got a Commissary contract from Fort Lee, Virginia to deliver groceries three days a week to a secret Navy base, buried on the back sides of West Virginia mountains. I would go along many days as the old man helper. No one knew who I was.

I still have my Carhart jacket with Hedgepeth Transport, LLC on it and the name Oliver. Most of the time, her husband drove. We had great rides. Stop at Dunkin’ Doughnuts and then pick up the load at 6:00 a.m.

One time, as we were coming back to the truck at the rest stop, he said, “You want to drive?” and tossed me the keys. I climbed into the cab and off we went. It was a nine-speed; a sweet truck. He let me drive for about 30 minutes, then he could not handle it that “he” was not “the” driver. LOL.

Yes, love it. Loved my KW and Volvo rig as well. But the refrigerated truck is my warm spot in the memory.

Student: Currently, I am a driver manager for Ozark Motor Lines of a fleet of 40 drivers. I have experience in trucking – a combination of different positions over about 8 years. I have been a diesel mechanic, driver, dispatcher, fleet manager and load planner. Trucking has been in my family for many years and I am continuing the tradition but hopefully in a better way.

Professor: Wow, a driver. A man after my heart. I owned a trucking company with my daughter from 2006 to 2010. I did not see the impact of the 2008 fuel crisis. So, my company folded. We lost so much money. Lessons learned. And I have a ton of them if you start your own trucking company. Just ask. Do not be afraid to contact me either!

Student: All the free time hobbies are going to come to a crashing halt here in about four weeks, when I have a pretty intrusive surgery on my back and I am laid up for a few months. Hopefully, I will recover quickly and not be out too long.

Professor: Good luck on the surgery. Let me know when and what the impact will be on your classroom assignments. While you are laid up in the hospital and home, you can take some free time and just hang out with us in the class.

And a big congrats on entering the final stages of completing this degree. I will see you at graduation. Do plan to attend. It is a great family vacation and experience.

Student: Hello all…I am recently retired from the Air Force and reside in Kansas. As I intend to one day manage a major supply company, I would need to be able to gather qualified information around the needs of the clients as well as changes to the economy. I am a huge fan of the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Professor: Where in Kansas? I lived in Leavenworth twice, ‘73 to ‘75 and ‘84 to ‘90. Now that is a Midwest ice storm kind of place. We also share the Tar Heels; but then, my wife and I are from Wilson, NC. Gathering information and the communication innovations are a major impact to managing supply chains these days. So, study a bunch of what IT is out there. Some is pretty easy to navigate.

Student: I find my field of study particularly interesting. It is something that I do in my everyday and I have grown to enjoy my job. I am a southern boy from the North Carolina Piedmont area.

Professor: My wife and I are from Wilson, NC. Where are you from? We visit Wilson every month or so for a Parker’s BBQ fix.

Student: I currently work for a small business supporting the government and maintaining their network. I am looking forward to earning my B.A. in business management and someday opening my own BBQ restaurant.

Professor: Now, you have my interest. The heck with the supply chain. The most important point is when will you open that BBQ place? I am from Wilson, NC and know all about (NC) BBQ and coleslaw and corn sticks and sweet tea. The supply chain is usually very short. We have BBQ up here in Virginia, but it is not NC style. My favorite place is Parkers BBQ in Wilson, Gardner’s in Rocky Mount and Wilber’s in Goldsboro. Besides cooking it yourself, what are your favorite places? We’ll get back to class stuff later. LOL.

Student: I work for a major bottler full time as an inventory coordinator. It’s a pretty fun and good job; I have no complaints there.

Professor: I worked with a dairy company in Alaska when teaching there for 10 years, and I was shown all these cute little plastic bottles like test tubes that were shipped in. And then when heat and air are applied to them, they turn into liter bottles. The caps were the only items that were the real size when they came into the plant. There were also the steam-washing operations where the plastic cartons were cleaned in 1,800-degree steam, hot enough to cut you in two. Do you get involved in this part of your company’s bottling process?

The common thread is a bit of insight on how my past or interests link with theirs. It is usually easy to find a link since many of these students are older than the normal undergraduate.

For example, many of them are in the military or are former military, married with kids, or single. Some have been going to AMU for more than 10 years to complete their degree.

With soft gossip, it is usually easy to find a commonality or a small personal link that will form an online classroom bond that lasts well past graduation. For instance, I just received Christmas cards and New Year’s text messages from former students and alumni.

Personal Touches Encourage Forum Participation and Student Bonding

While there are many pedagogical organizations and research studies that examine how to keep students engaged in the learning experience, the personal touch during that first week or so really pays off in student buy-in and retention of the curriculum. In online classroom forums, drag out a personal anecdote or two, spill the beans to your students and see how they react. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Show a caring spirit through gossip, but be firm when necessary; that is critical when you’re an instructor. For example, I may get an email from a student who asks to retake the last quiz because he had too many wrong answers. But since a personal bond was established through gossip in the online forum, the student more readily accepts my polite “No, sorry.” After all, we’ve shared some gossip about each of us.

Finally, if you are an instructor reading this article, please let me know your success story of sharing gossip about yourself with your students.

If you are a student reading this article, bravo. Please share your feelings about a class that you especially remember because you gained knowledge there and had fun.

Learn more about degree programs at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.