Teaching presence and the loneliness of the long distance learner
Research has clearly indicated that ‘perceived instructor presence’ is a critical factor for online student success and satisfaction. Students need to know that the instructor is actively participating during the course.
A skilled instructor can create an active online learning environment, in a way that controls the instructor’s workload,through a deliberately planned and designed learning process.
The importance of teacher presence
Your presence as the teacher in an online learning environment is crucial. Students need to feel that the teacher is present, listening and contributing to their learning through feedback, validation of ideas, constructive criticism and class management.
Consider the following.
- Teacher presence can be achieved effectively in a variety of ways. Leading by example, well structured lesson plans, participating in discussions, giving feedback, and responding to questions in a timely manner
- Your presence is motivational. If students notice your absence for an extended period of time, they may feel that you regard that their online activities or contributions as unimportant. This can have a demotivating effect which can substantially reduce levels of participation.
- Don’t be afraid to show your personality online. Allowing your own personality to show in your online contributions and facilitation is a good way to enable students to see you as a ‘real’ person rather than an entity behind a screen. This can help you become more approachable and makes it easier for students to relate and interact with you.
Creating a learning community
Learning online has the potential to be an isolating experience if the class is not prepared and facilitated correctly. The development of an online learning community however, can help make the experience rewarding and inclusive. The strength of such a community is that students have an opportunity to share knowledge and support each other, and reflect upon their learning with peers. An active online community can also help to build communication and collaboration skills. As they are not bound to set times or locations, online communities can offer more time to explore higher levels of discussion and idea sharing, and enable each student in the class the chance to contribute to a discussion equally. Similarly, some students who may have confidence issues in a face-to-face classroom because of language issues or shyness, tend to participate more because they have time to adequately compose their thoughts before making a contribution. The following points may be useful in helping you establish a learning community online.
Use online technologies appropriately to improve communication. Become familiar with the online technologies students may already use in their day-to-day lives (such as blogs and other social media). This will enable you to better understand the benefits and limitations, and to determine whether tapping into these existing conventions could be beneficial in developing and sustaining the community
- Socialization is important. Allowing students freedom and space to build personal relationships online can help improve engagement and foster the building of trust that is necessary for effective collaboration. Create places online (such as discussion threads, blogs etc) where students can talk about non-class related topic.s
- An online learning community is democratic. Everyone has a say in how the community works. Embracing this and giving the students the opportunity to collectively shape their own learning can be an effective method of increasing commitment to the group.
- Construct knowledge collectively. Through carefully planned activities and assessments, students can share and build upon existing knowledge and skills. Designing learning activities that encourage students to interact with others is a good way to facilities this. Ice breakers where students introduce themselves and describe their interests and goals, peer review, team work, discussions etc are some examples.
Time is different online
One of the many myths about teaching online, is that it is always saves time for both students and teachers. The issues surrounding management of time are in fact much more complex. Online teaching does not necessarily save or increase teaching time, but it highlights how teachers need to use their time differently. In an online environment the use of time tends to be more flexible and fragmented, so it is more effective practice for teachers to work in smaller blocks of time, more often, rather than concentrating their teaching on one large block of time once a week as they would in the traditional face-to-face class environment.
Time benefits of teaching online
- Flexibility of time. Teachers and students are able to work at a time which is convenient and more productive for them. This flexibility also allows for study to be incorporated more easily around the many other commitments of time poor students and teachers. Where teachers or students need to travel during semester (to conferences for example) they can continue with their teaching and learning while away
- Continuous discussion. Online discussion forums, blogs, etc allow the discussion surrounding content or a topic to develop and continue between face-to-face class times
- Time for reflection. Most online discussions take place asynchronously over a period of time. This offers opportunities for both students and teachers to reflect or further research a topic before responding
- Global classroom. Online education is able to include participants from various international time zones which promotes a greater and more diverse mix of students and teachers. In addition, overseas guest lecturers or institutions can easily be given access to the course online to participate and share their knowledge
- Maximizes face-to-face time. Online learning can allow teachers to transfer certain components (eg. administrative matters, resources, etc) online which can free up face-to-face class time
- Class available 24/7. Course material, resources, etc are always available and accessible at any time.
Effective online time management strategies
- Work in smaller, more fragmented blocks of time. To prevent feelings of isolation and to maintain motivation, it is important for students to feel their teacher‘s presence online. This can be achieved by teachers ‘checking in’ online more often, but for smaller amounts of time (daily for 15 minutes for example) to join the discussion, answer any queries and guide the students support
- Avoid burnout – set boundaries. It is easy for teachers to become a slave to the online environment, and to be checking in frequently to see how students are progressing. This can lead students expecting their teachers to be online constantly. It is essential therefore for teachers to set clear boundaries up-front about how much time they will spend online and how frequently students can expect them to be present
- Expectations of Students. Teachers should set clear guidelines up-front for their students outlining their expectations of how much time and how frequently they expect them to be online. Where online participation is assessable and forms part of their grade, teachers need to clearly outline how this will be assessed.For example.
- Satisfactory Contribution – two posts per discussion topic which indicates a sound understanding of the content
- High Distinction-multiple posts throughout the development of a discussion topic; demonstrates a high level of understanding and synthesis of the content; also includes several responses to issues raised by other students.
- Project submissions and deadlines. Plan carefully when projects are due. While most students prefer to work on an assignment over the weekend and submit early on a Monday morning, the days preceding submission is often the time that students have the most queries or requests for extensions of time. If the teacher does not intend to be available over the weekend, it is essential they clearly indicate to students that any such issues need to be forwarded to the teacher before the weekend
Setting students’ expectations
It is essential right at the start of a course for the instructor to make it clear to students what is expected of them. Develop a set of specific requirements for student behavior that is related to the needs of the particular course, and deals in particular with the academic requirements of studying online.
- All students on the course are expected to read and contribute comments in the instructor-set online discussion topics within the specified timescale for each discussion.
- Always respect other students’ contributions. If you think that someone else’s comment is dumb, politely provide an alternative view.
- When commenting, always add something new to the discussion, rather than merely agreeing or disagreeing.
- If you have a question, post it in the Cyber Cafe discussion forum, so that other students as well as the instructor can contribute to the answer.
- If you want to discuss something privately, send the instructor an e-mail
- The instructor will respond to questions and e-mails within 24 hours, except over holidays.
Create small tasks in the first week of a course that enables students to immediately apply your guidelines.
- Ask learners to post their bio and respond to other students bio posts,
- Ask learners to comment on a topic related to the course and their views before the course really begins, and
- Use the discussion forum in Laulima.
- Phone or e-mail non-respondents in the first week.
Research indicates that students who do not respond to set activities in the first week are at high risk of non-completion.
Make your presence felt and let your students know that your are following what they do from the outset.
- Participate in discussion forums. Different courses may require different guidelines. For instance a math or science course may not put so much emphasis on discussion forums, but more on self-assessed computer-marked multiple choice questions.
- Provide an activity within the first week of a course, and follow up closely with those that avoid the activity or have difficulties with it.
- Your comments should be helpful and constructive, rather than negative.
- You should actively encourage discussion by
- being ‘present’ and stepping in on a discussion where necessary – for instance if the comments are getting off topic.
- Asking how and why questions. Don’t provide answers.
Learners usually feel more committed to a course where the instructor’s own views or approach to a topic are made clear. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as
- a audio on a topic,
- a summary of a discussion, or
- a short video.
Positive personal interventions make a big difference to student commitment and participation.
Choice of medium
Communication media falls into two categories: synchronous or asynchronous media. Asynchronous media would include e-mail, text or voice messages on mobile phones, podcasts or recorded video clips, online discussion forums within an LMS, Twitter, and Facebook. Synchronous media would include voice phone calls, text and audio conferencing over the web and video-conferencing (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate).
Asynchronous communication advantages:
- Asynchronous messages are more convenient for busy students.
- Posts are permanent and can be accessed at any time.
- More time for reflective learning.
- Convenience for instructor.
However, asynchronous communication can be frustrating when complex decisions need to be made within a tight timescale, such as deciding the roles and responsibilities for group work, the final draft of a group assignment, or a student’s lack of understanding that is blocking any further progress on the topic. Then synchronous communication is better.
Synchronous communication advantages
- to bring your students together once or twice during a semester,
- to get a feeling of community at the start of a course,
- to establish ‘presence’ as a real person with a face or voice at the start of a course,
- to wrap up a course at the end,
- to provide plenty of opportunity for students to work among themselves.
However, these synchronous ‘lectures’ are always optional as there will always be some students who cannot be present (although they can be made available in recorded format).
Managing online discussions
Use the discussion forum to identify areas of misunderstanding and to develop skills such as critical thinking and clear communication.
- Use discussion forums to;
- identify misunderstandings,
- encourage active participation of students,
- raise topical issues related to the course,
- develop student communication skills,
- enable students to increase deep understanding or ‘knowledge construction’ through the testing of ideas and the questioning of the content, the instructor and other students.
- Choose topics that promote critical thinking and avoid a ‘yes/no’ or ‘I agree or disagree’ response.
- The topic should require students to draw on the course content, but also to go outside the course content and relate the topic to external events, either in their own lives or in the news.
- The topic should allow students to draw from their own experiences.
- Don’t take over the conversation.
- It is a mistake for the instructor to respond immediately to every comment.
- Encourage other students to respond and build a ‘culture’ of the students being in control, while knowing that you are there, watching and stepping in where necessary.
- Ask how and why questions. Don’t give answers.
- Give students clear roles.
- Take it in turns to summarize a discussion.
- Take it in turns moderating a discussion (keep an eye on it in case it gets out of hand).
- Monitor thatallstudentscontribute to discussions.
- Use phone calls or private e-mails sometimes to prompt students or to check if there is a problem.
- Discussion forums are an excellent way to track whether students are ‘missing’ or not keeping up with the course.
- Be ‘present’ in each discussion topic at least three times a week, more often if possible.