Emotional Intelligence in an Online Learning Environment: Paradox or Oxymoron?

Written by Ranee Boyd Tomlin, Ph.D.

In 1995, Daniel Goleman published “Emotional Intelligence.” In the years since, I’ve worked in higher education settings, including career services, academic advising, and human resources. I’ve long talked to students about transferrable skills and the most recent NACE Job Outlook Survey of the “Top Twenty Qualities Employers Seek.” I’ve listened to employers provide their perspectives on the ways higher education must prepare future employees. I’ve participated in curriculum design that focuses on meeting job market needs. And while I’ve tried to assist students in finding satisfying jobs, simultaneously I’ve been a participant-observer in my own work environments.

I’ve faced challenges in the hiring process, in dealing with co-workers and supervisors, and in staying employed when funding was tight. I’ve watched, up close and personal, who was hired, who was promoted, and who was let go. I’ve learned from experience: Skills may get your resume some consideration; but after that, it’s all about emotional intelligence.

The NACE Job Outlook Survey is in the ballpark by listing the top employability qualities of communication skills, strong work ethic, teamwork skills, initiative, and interpersonal skills. Daniel Goleman nails it with “abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope.” Regardless of one’s job duties, it’s really about being aware of self and others. And when higher education, advisors, and career centers focus more on technical skills than on emotional intelligence, they do future employees and their employers a great disservice.

Employers get this. Increasingly, I’m seeing human-resource and career-related articles and posts that confirm what I’ve personally observed: Given a Solomonic choice between great technical skills and emotional intelligence, hiring managers go for evidence of self-awareness, empathy, and interpersonal skills whenever they can. In today’s job market, the technical component of many job duties will change rapidly, anyway. Employers can train for the latest technology or process – but they have neither the time nor the money to wait for half-baked beings to develop into fully functioning, emotionally mature adults.

Now for the latest wrinkle: I work for a 100-percent online campus of a public university. We are on the cutting edge of a growing trend, and no one in higher education can deny the increasing demand for online degrees, especially from nontraditional students. I tell my students to sell themselves to employers with online degrees that demonstrate mastery of time management, self-motivation, online collaboration skills, computer literacy, and independent learning – many skills that include attributes of emotional intelligence.

Yet I work with students entirely through the faceless media of e-mail and phone conversations (without the benefit of Skype, since that kind of technology requirement can present an accessibility issue to many students). And for student convenience, our online classes rely primarily on an asynchronous learning environment. I can testify to the negative communication and interpersonal experiences that result from a perception of distance and lack of face-to-face interaction (including body language, facial expressions, and real-time participation in group conversation). Indeed, some students have told me that in addition to convenience and accessibility, this very sense of emotional and social distancing is one of the attractions of online learning.

When I — or an instructor or fellow staff members — become the target of an emotional outburst and verbal diatribe that a student may not have otherwise expressed in a face-to-face exchange, I immediately want to help that student develop the emotional intelligence so crucial in this job market, rather than enable the rehearsal of traits that will, in an employer’ view, override all the other skills we teach. Currently, my best tool is modeling.

I consistently attempt to communicate with my students in a professional, respectful, controlled, and empathetic manner, regardless of their initial tone. Often this defuses an emotionally-charged situation; sometimes it doesn’t. Nevertheless, it shows the student that distance and facelessness are not excuses for bad behavior. I also take the time to explain policies and to provide perspectives that will remind students they’re part of a larger universe, an interconnected web of human beings all engaged in the educational enterprise for a common goal that demands fairness and consequences for everyone.

I never say, “It’s not all about you,” but I’ve discussed why it’s also about the rest of us. I talk a lot about self-awareness and self-management, about how to communicate with instructors and classmates, about motivation and persistence. In fact, I tend to treat students as if they’re already on the job, and we’re their co-workers. If together we rehearse anything, I prefer it be the skills that will get them – and me –hired and retained.

What are your ideas for promoting emotional intelligence (i.e., employability skills) with students you never see face-to-face? If you haven’t thought much about it, you may need to. Online learning is coming your way, ready or not; and it could be important to get clear now about exactly what that kind of learning means for the job market at the end of every student’s degree program.

And in the spirit of collaboration, teamwork, and emotional intelligence, thank you, Daniel Goleman. You’re more relevant than ever.

Ranee Boyd Tomlin, Ph.D., is a student advisor for the 100-percent online campus of a public university.

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6 thoughts on “Emotional Intelligence in an Online Learning Environment: Paradox or Oxymoron?

  1. Ranee Tomlin

    I really enjoyed your feedback, James! You get to the heart of it in referring to maturity and growing up, which are indeed hard to teach. While modeling is an important element of andragogy and of self-efficacy, experience is one way life matures us; yet we all make choices about whether — or not — to learn from experience. So what experiences can we provide our specifically online students to engender possibilities for their mature choices and self-development?

  2. Ranee Tomlin

    David, I appreciate your comments. I think you’ve made a very good point about students self-limiting their contributions in an impersonal context, instead of risking more full authenticity in a dynamic, real-time, face-to-face setting — where their classmates’ sense of identification and empathy can be better seen. There is much debate about the amount of human communication that is nonverbal, but I think we can all agree it’s enough to make a difference when you’re choosing the words to use with the person in front of you. Without those nonverbals, it’s more difficult to know whether you’re addressing a sympathetic audience. And if you can’t quickly gauge another’s humanity, then consideration, respect, empathy, and trust can be a challenge.

  3. Ranee Tomlin

    Ron, thanks for making an intuitive AND logical connection between a 1995 concept of emotional intelligence and the “adaptive unconscious” insight that Malcolm Gladwell shared 10 years later. Both Goleman and Gladwell are still highly relevant to employability skills.

  4. James Cheever

    Great article. Emotional Intelligence, maturity, is what I try to model as well. The Pituitary controls the other glands that release hormones and nuerotransmitters which control emotion. The Pituitary is the size of a pea. That is where the saying “don’t be a pea brain” comes from. Hardest thing to teach is how to grow up! Online teaching eliminates the observation and intuitive side of mentoring which comes from what is said in hallways and outside of class.

  5. David Galbraith

    Ranee thanks for this thought provoking and very relevant posting. Like you, I work largely on line now and feel a strong need to support students by being empathetic and clear. Most of my students are school teachers who need quite a lot of guidance and probably would prefer more face to face teaching. I suspect that some of my students – perhaps you feel the same – are nervous about taking full advantage of online discussion opportunities because they don’t wish to admit mistakes or uncertainty (emotional or otherwise)in what they deem to be impersonal contexts…

  6. Ron Scheurer - 229990 - Class of 1981

    It is an excellent book to read and seems to cover the nature of intuitive leaps of understanding that do not go through the logical steps of order; a process perhaps related to the ‘blink’ response.

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