Building Presence and Community in the Online Class
Contributor: Michelle Manning
School Affiliation: UNCW English Department
When asked to teach my first online course entitled Teaching of Literature last summer, I had serious misgivings. Like most teachers, I believe my physical presence in the classroom is integral to my teaching success. Ask anyone who knows me: I am an extrovert, always receiving high ratings for my “enthusiasm” on student evaluations. Consequently, while I had taught both reduced seat time and web-enhanced courses using WebCT, I had resisted making the transition to 100% online.
The additional complications of adapting a course to a five-week summer course and the lack of training for the particular nuances of online teaching only added to my anxiety. So I am sure you can understand—and perhaps even share— my concerns. Questions and self-doubt swarmed: How could I create a warm, energetic, safe atmosphere if I never saw the students? How does the extrovert convert to the online environment?
My first step was to assess my personal definition of a successful face-to-face class. Applied learning opportunities, collaboration, community, and engagement were the elements that emerged. Luckily, I made several decisions—some purposeful and some not— that turned my experience into a positive one: first, I relied on a colleague who had extensive experience in conducting online courses who was kind enough to mentor me, often saving me from myself; second, my textbook provided a perfect foundation for the course material; third, I created opportunities for building class community; and finally, I decided to embrace my personality, using energetic writing and reflective prompts to communicate my personality and attitude to the students.
The most important aspect to remember in creating an online course is the old adage “less is more,” since online environments rely on student-centered learning. Similar to a traditional correspondence course where students drive the pace and control how and when they learn the material, online students are really responsible for assimilating the material and for teaching themselves while the instructor facilitates and guides the process. Remembering this caveat became even more critical when designing a summer school course.
Following that same philosophy, I resisted my Type A tendencies and gave myself permission not to incorporate all the “bells and whistles” that WebCT offers that I had not used before to avoid feeling even more overwhelmed. For example, I purposely decided not to use 'Quiz' for the initial run of the course, but I added 'My Grades' around week two.
Next, to replicate the infrastructure of my traditional classroom, I began with a free online survey site, emailing an entrance survey that questioned students on topics such as majors, summer schedules, reading preferences, online/technology proficiency, web access, and other pertinent information that allowed me to make decisions about whom to assign to small, private discussion groups. In addition, the survey guided me in terms of pacing the students’ introduction to different WebCT features.
Fortunately, the class proved more fun and successful than I anticipated. However, while the synchronized 'Chat' feature is an obvious way to generate community and discuss different aspects of the course, the demographics of the students, who have families, work full-time, work night shifts, or are possibly deployed in the Middle East, can cause scheduling challenges for both the students and the instructor. As Chat seemed too unreliable, I relied on imagination and creativity.
Since it is impossible to totally replicate the face-to-face experience, I plan to incorporate podcasts for the occasional mini-lectures and videos as added features this summer to “personalize” my instruction. Like any other course I teach, I am constantly looking for ways to improve the experience for both myself and the students. I found my students’ honest and insightful feedback not only the best way to gauge their involvement and presence in the course, but the best way to judge—and quickly respond—to whatever was not working, which they appreciated.
Based on my experience and my notes for tweaking the class (I will teach it again this summer), here are my suggestions:
Building the Course
- Create a basic infrastructure that evolves by adding different delivery methods for “lecturing,” including PowerPoint or podcasts.
- Conduct surveys throughout the course to gauge student needs, monitor course pace, and to address class issues.
- Use a writing style and tone that fits your personality.
- Use creativity, humor, music, and current events in naming assignments or modules. For instance, my opening ice-breaking unit was entitled “Let’s Get This Party Started!” and the personality and learning style exercise was entitled “Stylin’ and Profilin’.”
- Hyperlink to supplementary web sites. (Using WebCT’s HTML Editor allows one to spell check, hold format, add bullets and color, etc.)
- Provide strategies for the different learning styles when creating your units and exercises. Obviously, visual learners respond well to the online environment, but there are methods that can be used to enrich the experience for other types of learning styles as well.
- Begin the class with an extensive introductory, ice-breaker survey, asking them a wide variety of questions, such as ones about their future plans, favorite books, reading preferences, families, and pets. Have them share this in their small groups and then with the whole class.
- Encourage groups to name themselves as one of the first ice breaking assignments.
- In addition, have students take free online personality tests and learning style tests and have them include their results on the their introductory survey.
Group Formation and Dynamics
- Use the privacy setting in 'Discussions' to create small groups from day one. Make sure to add yourself as a member.
- Create a discussion thread in the small groups that only the students read and use to ask questions, interact, vent or otherwise communicate. Allow students to self-police this forum, so don’t read it unless students request a removal of an inappropriate post. I titled this thread “Group Loop.”
- Whenever possible, have students initially post and respond to their small group discussion to foster the small community and to allow shyer students to gain confidence before sharing with the whole class on the main Discussion board.
- Every morning, use the Daily Announcement on the homepage to give students an inspirational note, instructions and reminders for the day, and background information on the day’s topic.
- Never erase homepage messages so students can scroll back if needed.
Most of all, relax and enjoy the perks of online classes! Conduct your first class in your pajamas or in your favorite coffee shop. Who will know? The more you concentrate on what is great about the course, the students, and the online setting, the more students will sense your enthusiasm and get a sense of your teaching persona.