PRINCIPLE #1: Effective online teachers are present within their course.
Effective online teachers mindfully cultivate their presence at the course level and one-on-one with students. These interactions foster a relationship based on trust, which is the foundation of a learning community. – Online Network of Educators
Online classes can often contribute to goal-oriented learning where students are motivated to “check the box” – moving forward as quickly as possible toward the finish line. This type of learning sacrifices the richness and depth of learning that can occur within community centered practices. Students completing assignments and creating content with no feedback or discussion from instructor or peers can be an isolating and limited learning experience.
Learning is a social process, and digital learning must foster social presence between both student-teacher and peer-to-peer interactions. The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University completed a study that examined 23 high-demand, entry-level online courses at two community colleges. Researchers highlighted a link between an engaged, caring instructor and student success. Students in the study stressed the value of interacting with their instructors and the study found that higher levels of interpersonal interaction were correlated with higher grades in online courses. (CCRC, 2013)
My teachings reflect this principle through the following practices:
Unlike a traditional course where my presence in the classroom comes without consideration, online presence requires thoughtful consideration. Throughout the semester, my presence is cultivated systematically in a variety of ways.
Pre-semester: Welcome Email
Personal interaction in my courses start before the semester begins. Students receive a welcome email with a short introduction to their instructor, course content, and syllabus. They are directed to the course OER textbook link and both the cost-savings and increased access these materials provide are highlighted. I consider what information I would review on the first day of the semester in my face-to-face courses. What questions do students have? What resources are necessary to begin instruction? View a sample of a welcome email here:
First Week: Meet Your Instructor Video
On the homepage of the course, students access a short video with a personal welcome. While much of the same content is included in my syllabus and welcome letter, it reinforces the instructor-student presence and gives a ‘face’ to their instructor through the use of images, music, and expression. There are many styles to experiment with, although I commonly use Adobe Spark to create my introductions. See a few samples below, which are uploaded via YouTube and close-captioned for accessibility.
Example Video 1: Sociology Intro Video
Example Video 2: Abnormal Psychology Intro Video
Communicating with students at routine intervals contributes to the learning community. Regular announcements highlighting connections between course content, campus activities, and assignments can all foster your social presence outside of the classroom. These interactions provide opportunity for students to engage with the instructor and one another. Announcements can also be used to foster presence and draw attention to current events that are relevent to examine in the context of course materials. For example, I regularly teach “Social Problems and Critical Thinking,” and it is important to highlight current news events that relate to the weekly topics. We then examine the sources and use sociological theories to frame or deepen understanding of complex issues. Similarly, when relevant research related to psychological health or intimate relationships pops up in the news, I share them online and spark a discussion of how students might apply what they are learning to the real world.
Individual and Collective Feedback:
Additionally, students want to hear from their instructor – whether they are doing well, or need feedback to improve. Canvas has great tools for providing detailed individual feedback via Speedgrader on assignments outside of the traditional rubric markings. When themes emerge where students center on the same ideas, or struggle with concepts, I highlight these experiences via collective feedback. I also highlight student contributions, observations, or questions that can then benefit the class as a whole.
These practices regularly remind students of my presence and can be powerful in building trust and humanizing the student-instructor relationship. I have found that students are more communicative with me when I initiate conversations via announcements or private feedback. It is important to be creative and diverse in the way you cultivate your online presence – using a combination of assignment reminders, announcing upcoming events, and highlights of themes from previous module discussions. Don’t be a robot!
When you show students you are genuinely interested in their success, it can be hugely impactful – often, the difference between dropping the course or showing perseverence and resilience in working through challenges. When I show commitment to my students, they show a commitment to their coursework. Check out just a few examples and the positive outcomes that can result from these practices in the following photo gallery: