Establishing Presence and Building Community
The P3 Collaboratory is pleased to continue “Teaching Tuesdays,” our summer weekly series centered around best practices for remote instruction and teaching effectiveness.
One of the principle challenges and necessities of teaching an online class is to be “present” --that is, to be active in the course in a way that students know and understand that they are not alone in their learning experience. Students should feel confident that someone is paying attention to their activity in the course and, ideally, feel connected to the instructor and their classmates in the process. Cultivating presence (also “co-presence”) is about getting students to understand that there is a real person on the other side of the computer screen who knows them as a student. Without that human connection, and without the sense of a shared classroom community, students feel isolated and can lose motivation for persisting in their studies. But with advanced planning, open communication, and by using best pedagogical practices, both presence and community can be cultivated in the online classroom.
Course requirements and expectations should be explained in an orientation module, but the work of establishing the social and relational norms of your course is a more iterative process, one that begins with first contact.
As in all “first day of school” scenarios, it is up to the instructor to set the tone for the class. In an online space, especially an asynchronous one where not every student has the exact same “first day” experience, instructors should create welcome messages (video, audio, and/or written) for students to read when they initially gain access to course content. An introductory video is a great option since it provides your students with a chance to see you as a real human being, right away!
When creating a personal introduction video, keep the following guidelines in mind:
Students often put in more effort in courses where they feel they know something about you as a person. Consider including personal (yet appropriate) details about your work, career, or everyday interests. For example, What do you enjoy doing outside of academia?
If appropriate, draw connections between who you are, your professional qualifications or experience, and your intellectual engagement in the subject at hand. For example, What excites you most about teaching this class? How is your “take” on class content situated (e.g. what lens are you using)? What inspired you to be a teacher or researcher?
In the spirit of transparency, consider describing of your role within the online course. No, it is not necessarily obvious! In a self-paced course, your role might mainly involve evaluating assessments and responding to student questions. In a standardized course, your role may be to support and guide students as they engage with course content. Alternatively, you may be designing and facilitating all of the activities, assessing the learning, and guiding and mentoring the students. A clear understanding of instructional roles is especially important if you are co-teaching or working with a teaching assistant.
No one expects you to make a Hollywood movie. A simple, uncluttered background and short introduction to yourself will suffice. Brevity is appreciated!
Videos can be informal and creative, but it helps to lightly script what you are going to say beforehand in order to stay on task.
Be sure to strike a friendly tone. You may want to address nervousness about online courses directly.
You should also email all your enrolled students at least one week prior of the course’s start date. You can choose whether to use your LMS’s email or announcement features for this, or to simply use your Rutgers email account. Sending a welcome note directly to your students’ inboxes is important for several reasons:
It alerts all students to the existence of the Course webpage, therefore reducing confusion around how to begin or where to go for content.
It lets students know how to reach you and opens up the possibility for further conversation.
Your email can and should serve to marshal traffic to the other course supports (i.e. orientation modules, syllabus, intro video) that you’ve developed and explain their purpose.
Once you have introduced yourself, it is time to have your students introduce themselves. While you can create a traditional discussion board for students to provide short descriptions of themselves, below are several ways to facilitate student introductions with a distinctly “human touch”:
● Create a Video Based Introduction Forum
◦ Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of their peer can help your students feel more connected to each other and to the course. There are several easy to use digital tools that you help you establish a video discussion board.
■ Recommended Tool #1: Flipgrid
■ Recommended Tool #2 : VoiceThread
● Facilitate an introductory icebreaker using a traditional (written) or video discussion board. For example, “Describe the view from a window that you love and why” or “If you could have dinner with any person, alive or dead, who would it be and why?” Encourage students to share pictures of their answer!
**TRAINING ANNOUNCEMENT: Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) will be hosting a VoiceThread and FlipGrid workshop on July 16, 10am (1hr) with Joy McDonald of ATS (RU-Newark) and Joseph Yankus of TLT (RU-New Brunswick). Register here!
Bear in mind that presence, both your own and your students’, will need to be continually nurtured. Your students will implicitly or explicitly seek continued evidence that your course exists in a collective space with accountable and invested participants. Several future Teaching Tuesday installments will be dedicated best practices that help cement the social and pedagogical cohesion of your class.
Sample pre-start course emails can be found in Chapter 6 (“Motivational Theory,” 13pp) in T. Stavredes, Effective online teaching: foundations and strategies for student success.
For general information on how to design engaging discussion boards, see Ch 12 (“Establishing Social Presence Through Learner-to Learner Collaborative Strategies,” 19pp ) in Stavredes, T., Effective online teaching: foundations and strategies for student success.
Dozens of online icebreakers can be found in Chapter 5 (“Online Icebreakers,” 15 pp) in Conrad, R.M., & Donaldson, J. A., Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction.
Connections: Get Students Engaged and Build Community, “Architecting Online Courses (University of Texas at Austin)
Raygoza, M,. León, R., & Norris, A., Humanizing Online Teaching
Teaching in Higher Ed podcast episode featuring Dr. Ramesh Laungani (Associate Professor of Biology, Doane University) on why and how he uses FlipGrid in his classes: “Engaging Students Using FlipGrid”
As always, a snapshot of the synchronous TLT workshops being offered this coming week. Visit the links to register!
July 9, 11am (1.5 hours): Intro to Canvas Part 2: Assign and Assess Student Work
July 13, 2pm (1.5 hours): Intro to Canvas Part 1: Setting Up and Building your Course in Canvas
July 14, 1pm (1 hour): Intro to Teaching Online: Best Practices for Supporting Student Learning
Browse upcoming Center for Teaching Advancement & Assessment Research (CTAAR) workshops here.
Brought to you by the P3 Collaboratory for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly-Engaged Scholarship at Rutgers University-Newark