by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Within a traditional classroom an instructor provides the direct delivery of information, while nurturing face-to-face student interactions and participating in live, synchronous class discussions. It also means this classroom environment is still teacher-led, which is similar to the teaching approach that is used in primary education. The benefit of this approach is that an instructor is able to gauge the level of student engagement, and even their level of interest and motivation, and adapt the instructional methods used based upon what is physically observed. Another benefit is that meeting in class allows them to reach out to students when there are performance issues to address.
The online classroom has changed this traditional format of learning. An online classroom environment can become mechanical in nature or nurtured as a meaningful learning experience for students, which requires an instructor to develop a new type of classroom presence, relying upon indirect methods of presenting information and participating in asynchronous classroom discussions. The online instructor is also responsible for guiding and assisting the students as they work in this technologically-enabled environment, changing the nature of instruction from a teacher who transmits knowledge (teacher-led) to an instructor who facilitates the learning process (student-centered). In a student-centered environment it is possible that an online instructor can still guide the development of classroom relationships and interactions by creating conditions that are conducive to and supportive of productive exchanges.
A common challenge for instructors who are teaching in an online classroom is modeling active engagement so that students are motivated to also be actively present. The reason why this is challenging is that a virtual classroom is always “open” and students expect to “see” their instructor in the classroom on a regular basis. Most online schools also expect instructors to be available for more than one scheduled class meeting and establish a minimum number of days that they are expected to be present in the classroom, usually associated with participation in class discussions.
The issue of instructor presence is natural for some faculty to adapt to as part of their instructional practice while others struggle to maintain an active online presence. There are strategies which can be implemented as a matter of instructional practice which can create visibility and assure students their instructor is present and engaged in the course.
Virtual Classroom Discussions
An instructional presence becomes evident to students when the instructor is active in the discussions and proactively responding to class conditions. While the format of the learning environment may have changed with an online platform the students’ need for one-on-one interactions does not change. Scheduling planned participation within the discussions, on specific days of the week, is a method instructors utilize to demonstrate their active role in the process of learning. Through frequent postings that begin early in the class week, along with the use of questions that engage students further in the discussion, instructors are able to replicate – to some extent – the interactive nature of the traditional classroom.
Instructors can ask directed questions and help encourage students to be responsive to the ongoing conversations, while remaining focused on the required topics. However, the development of substantive participation does require an additional investment of time, especially for adjunct instructors who are balancing numerous responsibilities. A common challenge for instructors who teach in this environment then becomes their ability to model active engagement in the class so that their students are also motivated to be actively engaged, which is why instructor participation must be considered an instructional strategy that needs to be cultivated, over time and through ongoing practice.
5 Strategies to Become Visible in a Virtual Classroom
The online classroom has changed the format of traditional learning but not the basic principles of adult education. Written words now form the basis of communication and interactions occur more frequently as the online classroom is almost always accessible and available, and the learning process now relies on digital interactions in a virtually created environment. There are steps that any online instructor can implement to create a strong virtual classroom presence.
#1. Introduce Yourself to Students
Most online classes that I’ve taught had a requirement during the first week for introductions, both on the part of the instructor and the students. This presents an opportunity to become a “real” person to students by sharing something from your background, along with your professional experience. Some instructors believe their introductory post should be casual in nature and others maintain strict professionalism.
My approach is to try to find a balance in between so that my introduction does not appear to be a written resume. I share highlights of my academic accomplishments, areas of ongoing research, and something about a personal hobby, along with social media links that are professional in nature so students can learn more about my background and connect with me. This includes websites such as Twitter (if used professionally) or LinkedIn. I also find it helpful to share a professional photo, which helps to further humanize the learning experience.
#2. Utilize the Full Potential of Class Announcements
Most online schools provide courses that are pre-developed for instructors and that means they do not have to set up the discussion forums, lessons, gradebook, and other required technological tools. However, one of the elements that instructors generally do have control over is the use of class announcements. This is another opportunity to demonstrate to your students that you are actively involved in the class as you can share tips, resources, and strategies based upon what you’ve observed in the class and the needs of your students.
As an example, when I have observed students struggling with class participation, I will post an update with suggestions for developing substantive posts. What I have also found useful is to include a photo at the top of the announcements, something that is related to the subject matter, as this helps to create visual interest in the message. And if you have the option to generate an email version of the announcement, this is an effective method of sending the information directly to your students.
#3. Begin Participation Early in the Class Week
Based upon my work with online faculty development, some instructors look forward to class discussions and others see it as a tedious task where students are posting the same type of responses, making it difficult to engage them in an interesting discussion. It is really up to the instructor to set the tone and establish a model of participation for students to follow. I begin posting my responses early in the week, as soon as students start posting.
I will have already provided tips and tools for developing discussion posts and then I will use each response, no matter how well or poorly it was developed, as a springboard for engaging students in the topic. Typically, I’ll acknowledge something the student has written, build from it with my experience, expertise, and/or information from the course materials, and then conclude with a thoughtful question. This can take student responses that seem similar in nature and transform them into something meaningful.
#4. Establish Multiple Methods of Availability
The usual method of contact that instructors offer is email, along with a phone number for pressing issues or questions. Some instructors also utilize instant messaging and/or Skype as a means of being available for their students during specified times. Some learning management systems have a built-in tool such as Adobe Connect, Zoom, or something similar for contact. I offer students these options and I also establish weekly office hours at a time when students are most likely to be online and working on the class requirements.
It is easy to establish office hours while you plan to work on feedback and you’ll find it helpful to schedule more than one session during the class week, especially towards the end of the week when students are working towards completion of the learning activities. I make it a practice to check for and answer emails frequently, most days of the week. The reason why is that I remember what it was like as an online student to wait for an answer so I make certain my students don’t have to wait long for a reply.
#5. Demonstrate Your Responsiveness to Students
When you are actively involved in your class, managing it effectively, and addressing the developmental needs of your students in a proactive and thoughtful manner, you are demonstrating your responsiveness to them. Being responsive means that you care about the academic well-being of your students and they will quickly learn that they can count on you to help them when needed, even if you aren’t online and in the classroom every time they are – especially if they know when you are scheduled to be available and that you respond to their questions or concerns within a fairly reasonable time.
You must be readily available and accessible for your students based upon whatever conditions you can establish. You can establish a working schedule and communicate your availability to your students. It is helpful for them to also know the general time frame you have planned to answer emails and their questions, and when you may be available for direct contact through office hours, chat, phone, or other options that you have established for them. Your active presence is also needed to assure students you are in control of the class and aware of the conditions of this virtual environment. Your involvement also has another effect, you are humanizing the learning experience for students and it will help them feel a sense of belonging to a community of real people rather than a collection of student identification numbers.
The interactions you have with students are most effective when you have developed a strong virtual presence, one that is focused on the needs of your students, and creates positive feelings for them about being involved in their class. Being actively present in the class results in a positive experience overall for both the instructor and the students, and promotes a highly productive learning environment. An instructional presence needs to be planned, scheduled, and occur frequently throughout the week. My recommendation to faculty is don’t be present because you have to but instead because you want to, as a means of showing that you truly care about your students.
Dr. J is the author of Getting Down to Business: A Handbook for Adjunct Faculty Who Teach Business.