Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

Creating a Sense of Presence in the Online Classroom

Of all the things we’ve lost in this pandemic, the loss of presence has been the most pervasive. We’ve all felt it as we’ve watched the casualty numbers tick up, as we’ve smiled uselessly at strangers from behind masked faces, and as we’ve engaged with students in the online classroom. In order to alleviate this sense of distance, some of us have chosen to hold live classes. While live classes can certainly increase visibility and interaction, especially when instructors use the new breakout group features in Webex, live sessions are limited to synchronous interaction. Students who can’t participate in synchronous classes due to illness or unanticipated burdens end up watching long videos that magnify their sense distance from the rest of the class. 


Creating a feeling of presence is particularly important for students who attend asynchronously. If you’re teaching your course asynchronously, or if you are looking for some ideas to create a sense of presence for your students who aren’t able to attend live sessions, we’d like to share some ideas that we hope you can adapt for your courses.


Communication is the easiest and most productive way to establish visibility and create a sense of presence in your class, so make sure you’re always keeping the lines of communication open. Come up with a communication strategy for your class, and rely on it to keep your students engaged.


Use the announcement tool throughout the semester to alert students to updates or to praise them as a group for keeping up with the work. Schedule announcements in advance if you know that you’ll be busy so that you keep a steady stream of communication going. Remember that you can use the {firstname} string in your iCollege announcements and the system will personalize the announcement for the viewer. Use a combination of text and video messages, and keep them short and focused.


Reach out to them through email not only when they’re missing assignments, but also when they’re doing really well. You can use the intelligent agents in iCollege to contact students who are missing assignments, but consider reaching out to them personally as well. Divide your students into groups and make a point to email all the students in each group during a given week with an update on their status. If you have a large class and can’t write individual emails, come up with a stock email that you can copy and paste into individual emails. If you have a TA working with your course, have your TAs send out individualized emails to the students in their group.


If you can, set aside time to hold online student conferences to discuss their work. Conferences don’t have to be long, but they will give you a chance to speak to your students individually and connect. Most of you are using your Webex rooms for office hours, but if you’re not, consider adding Webex office hours so that students can drop in with questions.


Keep them engaged by giving them assignments early and often. For example, give them a very small assignment or part of an assignment that is due every week. Doing this keeps them engaged in the class and keeps them communicating with you through their submission of work. Some of these assignments may just be checked for completion, but they give you an opportunity to touch base with them, see who is still engaged, and catch them before they fall.


Be responsive. Make sure you respond to their emails within 24 hours, and hold them to the same standard. Also, make sure they know that if you have not responded in 24 hours, it’s ok to email again. Nobody is perfect. We all miss emails every once and a while, so make sure they know you’re comfortable with them sending out another message if they don’t hear back from you.


Protect your own time by setting some boundaries. While it’s important that they can trust that you will respond to them in 24 hours, they cannot expect you to respond to them immediately or at all hours of the night. That said, it’s also impractical, and a bit unfair, to limit your email responses to business hours especially before a big assignment is due. It’s not at all unreasonable for you to take a break from email on holidays or weekends, just communicate your availability to your students. If you will take longer to respond on the weekends, let them know. If you answer all emails received after 8:00pm the next morning, then let them know. Likewise, if you will be at a conference or travelling, let them know that, too. Setting boundaries early and repeating them often helps your students feel that you’re predictable.


Predictability is more of a quality than a communication strategy, but it’s important to note that predictability can also act as a form of communication to your students and keep you visible in the classroom even when you’re not doing much of anything at all. Whenever possible, keep your assignment due dates predictable so that every Tuesday your students will wonder, do I have something due for my class? Keep your responses predictable so students will think, “I haven’t heard back from my professor. I wonder if she got my email.” Keep your feedback predictably tied to the learning outcomes for the class so that they’re not surprised by the expectations or their scores. 


Recreating a sense of presence in the online classroom requires some thought and practice, but it can be done through minor alterations to the way we present out materials and ourselves. Just like everything else in the world of online teaching, creating a presence in your classroom takes a little bit more work on the front end, but once you get the strategies in place, they pay off in lower levels of student confusion and attrition and in higher levels of student engagement.


jenniferhall • October 15, 2020

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