Staying ‘present’ when teaching from a distance
NCSEHE Adjunct Fellow Dr Cathy Stone, The University of Newcastle Australia
In these very strange times, there is a sudden and understandable rush to move university courses online. Those who are already used to coordinating and teaching online courses are ahead of the game, but for those whose courses are largely taught face-to-face, this presents a challenge, especially when everything is happening so quickly.
A lot has been written about what works better online, with the consensus being that—ideally—courses need to be designed for online, right from scratch, if they are to be delivered most effectively. Most course coordinators and online teachers just won’t have the time to substantially re-design a course, but they need not despair. Students will vouch for the fact that it is the contact and communication with their online teacher, more than anything else, that keeps them engaged with the learning content. Without this, students are more likely to feel isolated and become disengaged. Undoubtedly, a strong “teacher-presence” creates a sense of belonging and is crucial in helping students to engage and stay engaged with the class and their learning within it. Based on lots of great ideas from a wide range of experienced online teachers, here are a few tips to help establish your online presence with your students.
- Create a short welcome video for the class. Nothing fancy, just done on your phone, so they can see your face and hear your voice. Encourage them to do the sam — to post a video or even just some text if they prefer, to introduce themselves to the class. This will also help you to know who your students are and to get a sense of their diversity, strengths and needs.
- Work out a way for yourself that enables you to be consistent in responding to posts, providing comments, encouraging, suggesting, providing feedback etc. The more responsive you are, the more likely they are to be responsive with you and the class. You will need to work out the best way to do this so you are not on call 24/7; for example, letting students know that you are on the discussion board during a certain hour or two each day and/or that you reply to emails by Friday, or whatever fits in with you. You will find that, for the most part, students are very respectful of your time if you set the expectations clearly and positively and respond when you say you will.
- Try to build some interactivity into the class if possible, to develop communication between students as well. Again, your presence in this is important in encouraging this to develop. You might ask each student to respond to another’s post about a particular learning task and then facilitate further discussion between them by posting another relevant question for them to discuss. Again, letting them know you are still there, by perhaps contributing an encouraging word here and there to the conversations, will build that student-to-student interaction more successfully.
The ideal combination is of course to have both a strong teacher-presence and engaging course design, and it would certainly be helpful to give some thought to ways in which content can be made a bit more engaging for an online cohort; for example, breaking up lecture recordings into shorter sections, asking a few questions in between sections, and using the discussion board to generate discussion about the lecture content amongst students. Keep in mind as well that many online students need flexibility to combine study with other home, family and work commitments. Not all will be able to attend synchronous sessions; many will be relying on evenings and weekends to get their study tasks done and if you can be flexible with granting extensions of time for assessment tasks where necessary, this will help to build stronger engagement.
Above all though, it will be your regular, purposeful and supportive communication that will keep your students engaged and involved.
The online student’s perspective: Helen Miller
For Helen Miller, who lives in a remote area and is restricted by a mobility impairment and chronic pain, online study has made university accessible.
Online is my preferred mode of study, which is why I am currently doing my 24th online unit. This means I have a lot of experience with “teacher-presence” in the online space.
It took a bit of getting used to how each unit is run differently: the way the content is presented and the personal preferences of the teachers.
For me, the differences in teacher presence come down to three things: communication, consistency, and courtesy.
Let me compare my experiences by way of explanation, starting with communication.
In the good units, the content has been comprehensive and accessible, catering to all kinds of learners. By this, I mean slides and text are all documented for easy printing and videos can be downloaded. Conversely, it can be frustrating to have videos of on-campus lectures where copies of the slides used are not available. It is good when study materials are uploaded two to three weeks ahead so I can download all materials when they become available, and continue my studies if the internet goes out.
Ideally, teachers have been active on the discussion board, where they have answered students within 24 hours and been accessible by email with even shorter turnarounds.
When a student leaves a question on the discussion board that needs further research to answer, a short response that acknowledges their question and promises an answer as soon as possible goes a long way toward helping that student to feel accepted and valued by their teacher.
Consistency is the next issue.
From time to time, an assignment brief and the marking rubric are not consistent. This disparity wastes valuable time finding out what is expected from the teacher. Further inconsistencies can arise if more than one teacher monitors the discussion board and their answers disagree.
Courtesy is my third issue.
Students are required to be courteous to each other and the teachers. One common courtesy the teachers can give is to make it clear to students when they will be on the discussion board; for example, one teacher said they would be online at the start of each morning. I knew then to have any questions posted the evening before for a quick answer.
My final point is that when students interact with each other, it lessens the load on the teacher.
In many of my units only a few students have been active on the discussion board with most posts being questions for teachers. My best-case scenario was when answers to weekly tutorial tasks were posted on the discussion board with the student required to respond to at least two other students within a set timeframe. The teacher then responded once a week. The driver of that high level of interaction appeared to be its 10 per cent contribution to the final mark.
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