Connecting, connecting: The beauty of asynchronous teaching
A big advantage of teaching writing online in asynchronous environments is that students have the ability to spend time thinking through their responses and contributions. When managed well, discussion in the course becomes deeper and richer, more reasoned and thoughtful. Of course, this dynamic also works for you, the teacher. On days when that splendid information processor above your neck can't quite make connections at lightning speed, you have the time to sit back, mull over the conversational thread, and then respond.
As I've mentioned, your posts in the message board environment are not just another way for you to have the kind of interaction with students that most good writing teachers have. Your responses also do a lot to shape yourself as the audience. In your posts, you can do some amazing things to connect with them, to reach out to them, to clarify your audience role.
You can simply connect their posts to something you recently read or saw. Sharing that specific knowledge provides not only a content connection, but it shows them what you are reading and watching, maybe just that you are reading at all. By providing them with a direct link--it's the Web, right?--to such a resource, you expand the space of the class. Part of online learning, when done well, is to think regularly outside the course walls. Of course, teachers have always connected with students and have always found ways to build on relationships they had with good students from the past. But because I see so many of their ideas written form--not just in their major projects--those ideas tend to stick long after class is over, sometimes many terms later. Students have noted in online evaluations that I had contacted them a few terms after our course ended with readings related to something we had written about together.
The inherent connectivity of this environment also makes every writing course a unique blend of information and conversation. While our outcomes, our top-level goals in a course, are consistent, the students' experiences will be different because each course has its own personality, and by the end of an online composition course, you will have a one-of-a-kind series of links and connections.
Of course, you are bound by the same "problem" that students are bound by in this environment: The Web is present, so we can't ignore it. While in onsite conversations all of us at some point might say, "I remember reading about ___ once," or "I saw this ___ once," online that doesn't work. The artifact or resource must be found. As a teacher, one of my main goals is to build an evidence-based argument, so I have to model that practice by never shooting from the hip conceptually in our online discussions. I need to find that evidence.
So when you interact with them with these splendid, simple message boards, what you're doing is connecting with them in all sorts of ways. Connectivity. It's a crucial part of what we do when we teach writing online.