Journey with Online Presence

Ryan Edel — 1 March 2020

Responses to the Alternative Delivery Certification Course

This week in the ADC course Anna Catterson is guiding us through best practices for instructor presence.  Again, it's a lot to learn and take up — not simply understanding the concepts, but gearing up for necessary habits of instruction to be a successful online instructor.

Please respond to the following prompts either in written format (text or visual images) or video response.

Similarities: Online and Face-to-Face

How is cognitive, social, and/or teaching presence in online and/or hybrid learning environments similar to that of traditional, face-to-face learning environments?

Theoretically, the course material should be the most important similarity between online and traditional courses — theoretically, this course content should be shame, whether a course is delivered online or in person.  Ideally, the interactions between students and the material should be identical in both course scenarios because in an ideal course every student would be fully engaged in the material.

Therefore, cognitive presence should be the strongest similarity between online and face-to-face teaching because, ideally, all courses would present the same material and hold the same expectations of content mastery.  Naturally, we don't live in an ideal world — I wouldn't expect two students in the same section of the same course taught by the same teacher to have an identical cognitive engagement.  Each student will have their own experiences with a course, especially when considering the differences between online platforms and in-person classrooms.  In general, however, the online instructor has an obligation to present material and activities that are of equal academic rigor, regardless of whether the course is online or face-to-face.  Because of this, most online courses will have the same readings and many of the same major assignments.  I've seen this in my own teaching style — when I taught and online English 101 course at Illinois State, my one assurance of course quality was that my online students could be expected to show the same mastery of information as my face-to-face students because they could prepare the same essays and follow the same grading rubric that I used for my face-to-face students.  A few of my online students met this standard, but it was a far, far lower percentage than in my face-to-face classes (more on that below).

After cognitive presence, the next strongest similarity would be the authoritative aspect of instructional presence.  In every course, regardless of the teacher's personal style, there is a general assumption that the instructor is the subject matter authority within the educational space.  Because of this, an instructor's statements regarding the course content typically carry far greater weight than the same information stated by a student.  In my experiences, this can be either good or devastating, depending upon how the instructor employs their authority.  For example, I was once in a face-to-face classroom as a student when fellow classmate submitted a paper that I felt was racist and sexist against African American females.  As a white male, I felt "safe" saying this, albeit uncomfortable.  My classmate disagreed with my assessment — he felt that his work explored sex, whereas I though his piece promoted stereotypes.  Within creative writing, these are crucial concerns — finding the boundary between understanding and interrogating discrimination versus perpetuating it creates all kinds of disputes, some of them very heated.  This classroom discussion was no different — I and two other classmates (an African American male and a white female) ended up in a heated debate with the author and another white male classmate.  And we found no resolution — the instructor never spoke up.

I found this troubling, especially since the instructor was African American and very well known for his interrogations of race in his writing.  After class, the three of us who protested the story had a short conversation with our instructor.  We weren't looking for his thoughts and feedback by then — by the end of class, we were more frustrated than anything, and we were venting.  At some point, however, the instructor complimented the three of us — he was glad that we had (correctly, in his eyes) identified the difference between understanding verus perpetuating discrimination.  "And I'm glad I didn't have to say anything," he said, "because the three of you already said it."

Unfortunately, our words as classmates little little to no effect on the writer — in his eyes, we didn't understand his artistic vision.  Without the instructor's public feedback, there was no final acknowledgement for why both sides had valid points — as far as I can tell, the author of that story left the class with no acceptance of the fact that his writing would be viewed as offensive by many, let alone an understanding of how to address that critique.  In my opinion, he could have made the stories about racism or about sexism and their roles in sexual relationships — instead, he came away believing that I was entirely hostile to everything he was trying to write.

Thus, in both online and face-to-face courses, I think the weight of the instructor's presence is very similar because of how students are raised to see teachers as authority figures.  The key differences between online and face-to-face courses involve the amount and the format of the instructor's presence.

In terms of social presence, the similarities are much more constrained.  Without the regular face-to-face meeting, it's much less likely that students will naturally start up conversations, but I believe the types of conversations they're likely to have would remain similar, particularly when two or more students bond over a shared interest.  I've had this happen myself in online creative writing classes, especially when I've been in a discussion with another writer who loves science fiction.  Sometimes, I've had conversations that go back-and-forth over the course of days, just posts and replies about stories, ideas, and favorite books — the same kinds of "off topic" conversation related to the course theme that I'd expect in a face-to-face classroom.

Differences: Online and Face-to-Face

How is cognitive, social, and/or teaching presence in online and/or hybrid learning environments differ to that of traditional, face-to-face learning environments?

I think a crucial difference between online and face-to-face classrooms comes in social presence.  In a physical classroom, students will see an be aware of each other's presence, and this makes it more likely that students will naturally start up conversations without the instructor's input.  However, the nature of technology has also changed how students interact with strangers, so there are more barriers to conversation in the physical classroom now than in the past — students today have smartphones with instant access to their friends outside the class, and so there's less likelihood of students forming natural bonds without some form of instructional activity.

In the online class, however, the teacher creates the classroom, and most of readings and lectures from this week have been centered on how the instructor creates a space where students feel that their contributions are worthwhile.  In physical space, that sense of reward comes through audience expression — and attentive look from the teacher signals a student that the instructor is listening and inviting further contribution.

In the online setting, these "easy" interactions become not only more difficult, but they carry a higher "cost" in time and energy.  As Terry Anderson writes, "Interaction has long been a defining and critical component of the educational process and context (1), but there has been long debate about how interaction should be defined, measured, and promoted.  I appreciate Anderson's "equivalency theorem" in identifying three modes of interaction as "student-teacher; student-student; student-content," and then her discussion of the fact that meaningful learning happens when there is a strong connection through at least one of these modes — as she points out, learning occurs more readily when there are meaningful connections across multiple modes, but "these experiences may not be as cost or time effective as less interactive learning sequences" (4).  This, I think one of the reasons why UDL and instructional presence may have somewhat conflicting goals.  In the effort to provide multiple modes of engagement through static online resources, an instructor may sacrifice time that could be spent having one-on-one interactions — on the other hand, the numbers of students assigned may make it impossible to provide sufficient cognitive engagement through interpersonal interactions alone.

Because of this, I think there's a greater challenge in the online course to develop a positive persona on the part of the instructor.  In a face-to-face classroom, an instructor automatically manifests as persona simply by walking through the door — for the online course, an instructor who simply gives assignments and reads papers and posts grades isn't really "present."  Unlike the authoritative aspect of instructional presence I described above, persona is a more personal aspect of instructional presence, and I think that it's more easily forgotten in the online setting.  Even if students have lists of course expectations, they have little means of actually gauging how the instructor prioritizes those expectations.  For example, when I tell my students "I don't mind typos in your rough drafts," that doesn't tell them whether they need to proofread their rough drafts.  On the other hand, if I explain that "taking time to correct typos really slows down my writing, and I want you all to write as fast as you can to maximize the creativity you show in that rough draft," then students get a sense of who I am as a writer and how that affects my expectations as an instructor.  Now, in a face-to-face classroom, I could simply say "I don't mind typos in your first draft," and then give a hand gesture of "sweeping them under the rug" to communicate the same information much more quickly.

This same issue comes up with social presence to an even greater degree.  Since students don't have the training or impetus to "make" the classroom, there's greater pressure on the teacher to create the conversational activities that students might naturally engage in on their own in a physical space.  This does, however, provide the online instructor with an opportunity to better guide students in conversational activities that are more closely tied to cognitive presence.  Students can be more carefully "managed" in an online setting, but Michelle Everson raises an key point instructor contributions to online discussions. the degree to which that's appropriate.  To what degree should an instructor let students run the discussion, and to what degree should the teacher keep talking?  From student feedback, Everson feels the instructor should be posting as much as possible — students seem to welcome this — but it's clear that she's advocating using persona to share personality in a conversational manner rather than showing up as an authority figure to only "correct" what's been said.  As Everson explains, students look to the instructor to acknowledge both correct and incorrect assertions from the students, thus helping establish a sense of trust among students that they and their classmates are accurately representing the course.

Personal Challenge: Social Presence

Which "presence" (e.g., cognitive, social, or teaching) do you think might be more problematic for you and why? What are your plans to address this concern?

For me, I think the hardest part of online teaching will be maintaining positive instructional presence.  As a teacher, I tend to be very articulate when writing course materials and when speaking in a face-to-face classroom, but scheduling that daily time to post replies and feedback will likely be difficult for me.  As a teacher, I tend to do my grading in batches, and I usually sit down with my students to talk with them individually in class to to give most of feedback.

To make sure I connect with my online students, my plan is to invite phone calls, as Joni Dunlap and Patrick Lowenthal describe, and then set aside times each day to read and post replies.  In this, I tend to be someone who "dives in" to writing for hours and hours — this could create a problem if I spend hours and hours posting discussion replies without going through and giving feedback on written work.  My goal, then, is to set up effective discussions that will guide students into posting informative posts, go in and provide enough replies to keep the conversations going among my students, and then set aside enough time that I can connect with each student individually in discussions about their assignments and how they see the course helping their lives beyond the course.