Universities were thrust into an emergency online response at the start of lockdown, and some students were underwhelmed with the amount of tutor face time.
Those who lecture well and enjoy it, with charisma and great ‘stage’ presence, may also have felt their wings had been clipped. How can you put across that sense of academic prowess in front of a screen, tiny pixelated squares of student faces, mediated by internet connectivity?
It matters to have a presence as an instructor, but how can you have a presence online?
To state the blindingly obvious, it’s different online. But there are many ways to make your presence felt online. After all, online thought leaders on social media are an object lesson in how to build a presence online.
And it’s true that in live online teaching, even with the help of video, many of the body language cues we use to gauge students’ attention, to check that we’re understood are missing - it’s simply not possible to see much on a screen so it’s easy to misread, particularly if it’s a large group.
If we rely, as oft-quoted research indicates, on non-verbal signals far more than verbal signals, and the tone of voice carries more meaning than the actual words spoken, how do you do so in their absence?
So how do you get and gauge students’ attention online?
Online there are more reliable indicators of comprehension and engagement to do so than catching someone’s eye and interpreting facial expression or nodding as assent. Over time, online systems provide clear data on exactly who is engaging with the course and who is not; identifies who has high scores and who is lagging behind; and this allows you to make judicious interventions where needed.
In fact, the amount of on-campus, face-to-face interaction you have with your students may be only a couple of hours once or twice a week in person.
So clearly, you already make your presence felt in other ways in the on-campus experience.
The role of the instructor in the learning experience
It’s worth looking at instructor presence in the overall learning experience. Learning takes place when students think about new ideas; explore these with others; and how you, the lecturer - structures that experience.
And the instructor has a key role in all three: the cognitive; the social and the teaching presences, as the community of inquiry framework makes clear.
The teaching presence is the glue binding all the other ‘domains’: lecturers organise the cognitive experience through careful selection, design and sequencing of course content; they can set up, encourage and facilitate the social experience, key to building the community that students need to support their learning; and, obviously, are present via direct instruction.
Feeling 'cared for’
When teaching presence is high, students succeed, and attrition rates are lower. Research by Columbia University found online students reported feeling less ‘cared for’ than face to face learners. Online they felt they were left to ‘teach themselves’. It’s easy to have presence in a physical space; even the most passive teacher has presence; but online instructors have to overcompensate for the lack of physical proximity.
Yet technology offers so many means of communicating in live and asynchronous means: via emoticons; chat and raising hands, and polls.
When we talk about instructor presence, it’s not only the synchronous aspects of managing groups on live calls/webinars, but about your overall presence in the entire online sphere.
So how do you develop your interpersonal presence online beyond live interaction?
Social presence is put across through emotional or personal aspects; cohesive - how we form a group or community; and interactive - how much to and fro interaction there is between you and students.
People respond to emotions: so do create a personal sense of yourself as an instructor. It’s something we do without thinking in person; but strangely overlooked online.
A profile with personal details and not just a list of formal accomplishments can help. In synchronous online classes always begin with a short icebreaker or a personal check in to humanise the experience.
Videos are found to help enhance a sense of instructor presence in online content. These should be short, in an informal tone, and lively. The ubiquitous static talking head ‘welcome to the module’ will be a bore without some personal colour. Why not comment on topical affairs? Or speak about your passion for your research? Likewise; video briefing can give more sense of your presence than text instructions.
Take part, but also help facilitate communication between others. Lecturers are key in creating cohesive groups, which, in turn, builds learning community. Why not encourage students to create fuller profiles, perhaps using video, on an online board or VLE? That welcome can initiate bonding in your group. Do design in asynchronous small group activities to encourage collaboration and trust.