SXSWedu Session Recap: Dana Grossman Leeman on Creating Meaningful Human Interaction Online

With more than 400 students in the SocialWork@Simmons online M.S.W. program, Program Director Dr. Dana Grossman Leeman has an in-depth understanding of the impact of online education on student outcomes. In her SXSWedu talk, “Breaking the Fourth Wall: Creating Meaningful Human Interaction Online,” Leeman responded to uncertainty about online learning, and shared her personal experience connecting with M.S.W. students through a virtual platform. Leeman also explained the significance of a personalized and highly relationally based education in reaching students on a digital campus.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Leeman kicked off her presentation by asking the audience a simple question: “Do you know what the fourth wall is?” It’s an invisible boundary that separates the audience from the action on stage and is a term used in film and television. The fourth wall prevents the audience and the actors (in this case, students and teachers) from interacting, which may create a sense of disconnect. Breaking the fourth wall is when the actor intentionally speaks to the audience in a way that fosters connection and intimacy, and allows the audience to know the character in a privileged way.

Leeman learned about the concept prior to filming asynchronous content for SocialWork@Simmons. (Asynchronous content is content that students can access at any time; they can work on asynchronous material whenever it is convenient for them. Instructors provide the materials, such as videos or lecture slides, and students must complete the work by a specific deadline.) During course design and subsequent filming, Leeman was taught to continually break the fourth wall and teach to one student at a time in order to create a sense of intimacy.

“When I film asynchronous content, I do a little bit of teaching and then ask the online student to respond back to me by writing a message or posting a video of him or herself responding to my question. The class can see the video, and then in the live session, we have a conversation and it’s usually a more robust one. This approach has given me a conceptual framework in everything we do,” Leeman noted. “Everything we do at SocialWork@Simmons is to effectively break the fourth wall.”

Leeman said working with online students in a smaller classroom setting was transformative. “It rocked my world a bit to be talking to students from all over the country: Wyoming, rural Louisiana, the Midwest, and west coast. Teaching in such intimate ways was new to me when I normally teach less diverse, larger groups,” Leeman explained.


With the virtual campus as her platform, Leeman reflected on the needs of her class, made up of 80 percent women, 10 percent military, and 41 percent students of color. She knew that ensuring her students felt connected to a community was “exceedingly important.” Ultimately, she created a classroom environment where her students feel seen, heard, and valued — also known as mattering. Mattering is a social psychological construct that refers to an individual feeling like he or she is making a difference in a community.

While the notion of mattering certainly applies to today’s achievement gap in education, it also helps educators understand why students decide to leave an institution or online program. Leeman emphasized the positive correlation between mattering and student retention. Students who do not feel like they matter tend to leave school (e.g., high school or freshman year of college). With that in mind, Leeman developed ways to build meaningful online structures so that her students felt valued by their peers, faculty, and administrators in a dynamic environment.

When it comes to cultivating meaningful interactions online, Leeman said, “If you build it, they will come.” In closing, she shared several ways that educators, social workers, and leaders can influence and engage students in an online environment:

  • Use the virtual campus to engage with students each day. Create a warm and welcoming culture; reach out frequently and convey faith and encouragement.
  • Host or facilitate community meetings and support groups online or in person.
  • Remind students to take care of themselves — a key component in ensuring students feel valued.
  • Plan regional “meet and greets” to foster meaningful relationships and allow students and faculty to meet face to face and feel more connected to the professional community.

By taking initiative and actively investing in students no matter the classroom environment, educators across industries can redirect skepticism. As we continue to technologically advance, meaningful connections across a digital platform are more tangible than ever. As Leeman emphasized, if there is distance in online education, it is because educators created it. The future of education is in the hands of educators. With a touch of humanity, we can continue to promote true connectivity and create powerful digital communities.