Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Being Present: Communicating and Connecting with Your Students Online

Guest Blogger:  Heidi Ashbaugh, MA, MLS, LMT, Online Program Director, Department of Health Studies, Texas Woman's University

We can all probably remember those days in grade school, junior high, and high school when the teacher took roll. She would call out our name and we would answer “Here!”, and then slouch back down in our seat and start daydreaming, confident that we had fulfilled our task of being counted present in the classroom. Well, now many of us are the teachers and if we are teaching in the online classroom we don’t even have the benefit of showing our student’s a body in a seat to try to convince them that we are “present”! So, how do we communicate our presence in the online classroom?

Studies show that one of the main needs expressed by online students is instructor responsiveness and presence in the classroom, and that effective instructor presence can positively affect student satisfaction, engagement, and retention in online classes (please see the literature review by Credence Baker referenced below for more information). Students want us to respond to them and talk to them, and it’s even more important that we find ways to do so since they don’t have our physical presence to look to. However, it can seem daunting when trying to determine what being present “looks” like in the online environment.

An excellent book on this subject is Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching: How to “Be There” for Distance Learners by Rosemary M. Lehman and Simone C.O. Conceição (http://www.amazon.com/Creating-Sense-Presence-Online-Teaching/dp/0470564903/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1322672440&sr=1-1-fkmr0). I like this book because it breaks down different times of the course in which instructors can be present - the beginning, during the course, and end – and then provides ideas of activities and interactions that can be used. Here are just a few examples from their book that can be put into place quickly in any course, and which require minimal technological effort.

Before the course instructors can create a welcome letter that lets students know more about the course and the person who will be teaching. In addition, a scavenger hunt is also a great way to break the ice in the course and help students become accustomed to the online course environment. I have used this technique with great success in my courses and have found that it helps students investigate the more important aspects of the policies and procedures of the course, which gets everyone off to a good start. Another excellent beginning of the course activity is introductions. These can be formal, but there are ways to make this a fun, ice breaking activity, as well. I have heard examples of instructors who had their pets “introduce” them to the class. Or, if you want something a little less wild, you can always just have students answer an interesting question. I have had them provide me with the usual information (name, major, hobbies, etc.) and then had them provide an answer to “Why did the chicken cross the road?” I was amazed at how creative some of the responses were, and it added a nice element of fun to start off the class.

Once the class is in session, there are several tools that you can utilize to help keep students aware of your presence in the course. Announcements are easy ways interject your voice throughout the semester. Some announcements can be created at the beginning of the course and then set to deploy throughout the course at specified times. For example, I like to post announcements for students at the beginning of a module reminding them of the important due dates. I also include a word of encouragement. This is something that can easily be constructed ahead of time. Also, you can add announcements that come up around midterm and close to finals that help encourage students. If you then sprinkle in a few announcements throughout the rest o the semester addressing projects or assignments that were especially well done by the class overall, or providing important information to help clarify ideas and/or keep students on track, you will have a pretty good amount of communication going on using this tool. Feedback on assignments is another area that can be addressed during the class, and students respond well to the simple act of being addressed by name in your response to them. This let’s them know that you distinguish them as an individual, which is important in any classroom environment.

Once the course is over, I like to create a final announcement for my students that wraps the class up, but also lets them know that I appreciate their hard work over the semester. I also offer them a chance to provide me with feedback regarding their experience in the course, which is usually different than the evaluation that the university uses. I want to allow them the opportunity to have a voice, which is another way of acknowledging them as individuals with different needs, likes, and dislikes.

These are just a few of the ideas out there for creating instructor presence in the online class. And, while they may appear simplistic – no fancy tools here! – using this type of multiple approaches at the appropriate times during the course, and on a consistent basis, can provide a good sense of presence and help you connect with your students in the online world.

Additional Resources:

“The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation” by Credence Baker - http://www.thejeo.com/Archives/Volume7Number1/BakerPaper.pdf

“Instructor Presence – The Key to Success” – University of West Florida Academic Technology Center - http://uwf.edu/atc/Guide/Teaching/InstructorPresence/index.cfm

“Eight Ways to Increase Social Presence in Your Online Classes” by Hong Wang - http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/eight-ways-to-increase-social-presence-in-your-online-classes/

“Increasing Instructor Presence in an Online Course” by Jeff Borden - http://www.ecollege.com/Newsletter/EducatorsVoice/EducatorsVoice-Vol10Iss4.learn

Community of Inquiry - http://communitiesofinquiry.com/welcome

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