In this post I stress the importance of ongoing, continuing communication between instructor and students in an online environment, and in particular for this to be carefully managed in order to control the instructor’s workload.
This is the ninth in a series of 10 posts on designing quality online courses. The nine steps are aimed mainly at instructors who are new to online learning, or have tried online learning without much help or success. The first eight posts (which should be read before this post) are:
A condensed version covering all the main posts in this series can be found on the Contact North web site: What you need to know about teaching online: nine key steps. (French version: Ce que le personnel enseignant doit savoir sur l’enseignment en ligne: neuf étapes clés‘)
The ten posts are also being translated into Portuguese by Professor Luis Roberto Brudna Holzle, Federal University, Brazil, available at Science Blogs: Nove passos para uma aprendizagem on-line de qualidade
Instructor 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 following the online study activities of students and is actively participating during the delivery of the course.
The reasons for this are obvious. Online students often study from home, and if they are fully online may never meet another student on the same course. They do not get the important non-verbal cues from the instructor or other students, such as the stare at a stupid question, the intensity in presentation that shows the passion of the instructor for the topic, the ‘throwaway’ comment that indicates the instructor doesn’t have much time for a particular idea, or the nodding of other students’ heads when another student makes a good point or asks a pertinent question. An online student does not have the opportunity for a spontaneous discussion by bumping into the instructor in the corridor.
However, a skilled instructor can create just as compelling a learning environment online, but it needs to be deliberately planned and designed. It also has to be done in such a way that the instructor’s workload can be controlled.
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 during the delivery of the online course. Most institutions have a code of behaviour for the use of computers and the Internet, but these are often lengthy documents written in a bureaucratic language, and are more concerned with spam, general online behaviour such as ‘flaming’ or bullying, or hacking. Consequently I tend to develop a set of specific requirements for student behaviour that is related to the needs of the particular course, and deals in particular with the academic requirements of studying online. I give some examples below:
- 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
- discussion topics are related to marked assignments; thus students who fully participate in the online discussions are more likely to be better prepared for the assignments
- 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
- keep on topic; if you want to discuss something else, establish a new discussion topic or thread, or establish a blog or wiki. If you want to discuss topics outside the course, use Facebook or the student online ‘cafe’ that goes with the course.
- if you have a question, post it in the appropriate 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
- use quotations from other sources to support your point where appropriate, but always fully reference material taken from another source (with examples of how to do that, including web-based material and quoting other students’ comments). Lay out the consequences of plagiarism in terms of institutional policy and show how easy it is to detect plagiarism.
- before posting a question, check that the answer is not already there within the course materials – you may have missed it on the first reading (and direct the student to it if they still can’t find it rather than answer the question yourself.)
- the instructor will respond to questions and e-mails within 24 hours, except over weekends and public holidays.
I usually set a small task in the first week of a course that enables students to immediately apply these guidelines. For instance I may ask them to post their bio and respond to other students bio posts, or ask them to comment on a topic related to the course and their views on this before the course really begins, using the discussion forum facility in the LMS. I pay particular attention to this activity, because research indicates that students who do not respond to set activities in the first week are at high risk of non-completion. I always follow up with a phone call or e-mail to non-respondents in this first week, and ensure that each student is following the guidelines. I find it useful to do this, no matter how experienced students are in studying online. What I’m doing is making my presence felt. Students know that I am following what they do from the outset.
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. It should be made clear whether students must do these or if they are optional, or how much time should be spent as a minimum on doing such non-graded activities, and their relationship to activities that are graded or assessed. They should get such an activity within the first week of a course, and the instructor should follow up with those that avoid the activity or have difficulties with it.
Lastly, instructors should follow their own guidelines. 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.
Teaching philosophy and online communication
Instructors who have a more objectivist approach to teaching are more likely to focus on whether students are not only covering the necessary content but are also understanding it. This often requires students going back over content, providing misunderstood or difficult content in an alternative manner (e.g. a video as well as text), and instructor or automated (computer-based) feedback. Most LMSs will provide summaries of student activities, and it is important to track each individual student’s progress. Instructors with a more constructivist approach are more likely to emphasize online discussion and argument.
Whatever your approach, students want to know where you stand on some of the topics. Thus while it is necessary often to present content objectively with an ‘on the one hand… on the other…’ approach, students 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 podcast on a topic, or an intervention in a discussion, or a short video of how you would go about solving an equation. These personal interventions have to be carefully judged, but can make a big difference to student commitment and participation.
Choice of medium
There is now a wide variety of media by which instructors can communicate with online students, or students can communicate with each other. Basically, though, they fall into two categories: synchronous or asynchronous communication 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 (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate), or even video-conferencing.
I much prefer asynchronous communication for two reasons. Students are often working and have busy lives; asynchronous messages are more convenient for them. They are permanent and can be accessed at any time. Also, they are much more convenient for me as an instructor. For instance I can go to a conference even in another country yet still log on to my course when I have some free time.
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. I also sometimes use Blackboard Collaborate to bring all the students together once or twice during a semester, to get a feeling of community at the start of a course, to establish my ‘presence’ as a real person with a face or voice at the start of a course, or to wrap up a course at the end, and I try to provide plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion by the students 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 discussion
Whole books have been written on this topic (see the end of this post for a list of references). However, there are some basic guidelines to follow.
- Use the threaded discussion forum facility in the LMS (in some LMSs the instructor has to choose to switch this on). I like to use the LMS forum discussion tool because I can organize the discussion by separate topics (a forum for each topic). In a threaded discussion, a student comment on someone else’s post on a topic is posted next to the post, allowing either the student making the original post or other students to respond to the comment. This way a ‘thread’ of comments linked to a specific topic can be followed. The alternative, comments posted in time order, makes it difficult to follow a thread of an argument. A well chosen topic or sub-topic will often have 10 or more threaded comments, and the instructor can tell at a glance which topics have gained ‘traction’. Also I like to keep a least some of the discussion ‘private’., i.e. just between the students on the course, as I am using the discussion forum to identify areas of misunderstanding and to develop skills such as critical thinking and clear communication.
- have clear goals for discussion forums. This will vary from subject to subject, but I use discussion forums to identify misunderstandings, to encourage active participation of students, to raise topical issues related to the course, to develop student communication skills, and above all to 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. Even in numerical or science-based courses, there is often scope for discussion of experimental results, theory, or the relationship of the course topics to real events (e.g. discussions around recent research on the Higgs boson, the collapse of a mall roof in engineering).
- choose topics that lend themselves to discussion, or which 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 experience as well.
- the topic should directly relate to assignment or assessment questions for which students get a grade. I don’t assess the discussion contributions themselves; I prefer the students to see the intrinsic value to them of participating. However, many instructors do give a grade for discussion contributions.
- don’t hog the conversation. It is a mistake for the instructor to respond immediately to every comment. This prevents other students from making their own contribution; they will wait until they see your reaction. Also it increases the workload. 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.
- give students clear roles. For instance ask them to take it in turns to summarize a discussion. You may ask some students to moderate a discussion, but keep an eye on it in case it gets out of hand.
- ensure that all students contribute to discussions in some way. I keep a spreadsheet of all students and when they contribute to a discussion. Some LMSs will now do this for you automatically. I use phone calls or private e-mails sometimes to prompt students or to check if there is a problem. The discussion forums are an excellent way to track whether students are ‘missing’ or not keeping up with the course.
- I try to be ‘present’ in each discussion topic at least once a week, more often if possible. I allow at least one hour a day to track discussions.
- you need a minimum of 20 students at graduate level to get good discussions going, and 30 at undergraduate level. Over 50 students in a group is probably too many.
Take a look particularly at Gilly Salmon’s book ‘e-Moderating’ and the Paloff and Pratt books for more guidance on handling online communication.
Cultural and other student differences
The most interesting and exciting courses that I have taught have included a wide range of international students from different countries. However, even if all the students are within one hour’s commute of the institution, they will have different learning styles and approaches to studying online. This is why it is important to be clear about the desired learning outcomes, and the goals for discussion forums. Students learn in different ways. If one of the desired learning outcomes is critical thinking, students can achieve that in different ways. Some may do a lot of reading, seeking out different viewpoints. Others may prefer to work mainly in the forums. I don’t really care how they achieve the learning outcomes so long as they do. Some students learn a lot by lurking but never contribute directly. Now if you are trying to improve international students’ language skills, then you may require them to participate in the online discussions, and will assess them on their contributions. However, I try not force students to participate. I see it as my challenge to make the topic interesting enough to draw them in.
Having said that, much can be done to facilitate or encourage students to participate. I taught one graduate course where I had about 20 of the 30 students in my class with Chinese surnames. From the student records and the short bios they posted I noted that a few students were from the Chinese mainland, several more were living in Hong Kong, and the rest had Canadian addresses. However even the latter consisted of two quite different groups: recent immigrants to Canada, and at least one student whose great grandfather had been one of the first immigrants to Canada in the 19th century. Although it is dangerous to rely on stereotypes, I noticed that the further away ‘psychologically’ or geographically the student was, the less they were inclined to participate online. This was partly a language issue but also a cultural issue. The mainland Chinese in particular were very reluctant to post comments. Fortunately we had a visiting Chinese scholar with us and she advised us to get the three mainland Chinese women on the course to develop a collective contribution to the discussion and then ask them to send it to me to check that it was ‘appropriate’ before they posted. I made a few comments then sent it back and they then posted it. Gradually by the end of the course they each had the confidence to post individually their own comments. But it was a difficult process for them. (On the other hand, I had Mexican students who commented on everything, especially the World Cup soccer tournament that was on at the time).
This is a big topic and difficult to cover adequately in one blog post. However, I cannot overemphasize the importance of instructor online presence in getting students to successfully complete an online course. (Incidentally I suspect that the lack of instructor online presence in the MIT and Stanford MOOCs is one reason so few students complete the certificates. It is probably not unconnected that Udemy, one of the platforms used to support MOOCs, has recently completely redesigned its web interface to allow for more interaction between the instructor and students).
There is an unlimited number of ways in which you, as an instructor, can communicate now with online students, but it is also essential at the same time to control your workload. You cannot be available 24×7, and this means designing the online delivery in such a way that your ‘presence’ is used to best effect. At the same time, I find communication with online students the most interesting and satisfying part of teaching online – but then that is a result of my philosophy of teaching.
Further reading (this is just a small sample of many publications on this topic)
Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No.2.
Baker, C. (2010) The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation The Journal of Educators Online Vol. 7, No. 1
Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 3
Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge
Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J. and Haag, B. (1995) ‘Constructivism and Computer-mediated Communication in Distance Education’, American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp 7-26.
Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities San Francisco: John Wiley and Co.
Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating London/New York: Routledge
Sheridan, K. and Kelly, M. (2010) The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 6, No. 4