Social Presence in Online Education

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pub talk photo by CtrlW (flickr)

Having taught online for a while now, at the end of each semester, I always take time to reflect on how it all went. How did students engage, how often, and why.

What’s clear to me over the years doing this job and providing professional development for teachers new to online is the idea of social presence and what that means for education.

Today, we are connected and actively engaged with social media through our smart-devices — our smartphones, tablets and now watches. We comment on friends’ posts, share our thoughts and pictures of food. We are always engaging, and there is a reason to engage because it connects us to a social community in the real world.

With online education, in many instances this is not the case. I’ve had chats with students over the years that reflect a very different picture of online ed that speaks to a lack of CONSISTENT social engagement for the participants that can leave a class feeling like a virtual empty room of loneliness. Imagine standing in an empty room in the real world and talking, hoping that someone will be there to answer. Just imagining it doesn’t feel good.

The lesson to be learnt here is that online education, specifically online classes need to have a consistent social presence and engagement element, one that does not subside over time. It can be argued that ‘flexible’ education is meant to be flexible enough so students can log in when they want to, but there are limits to this. If some folks don’t log in for weeks then try and engage in a conversation that is long since ‘expired’, no one will respond and they feel even more alone.

So what can you do if you teach online to encourage this behavior?

Model it from the beginning to the end.

Post weekly videos that show your face and feature your voice as a real person, talking about the topic you’ll be covering. Doing this will provide students with confidence that this is a place where conversations will happen.

Be clear about when and how to engage from the beginning to the end.

If your class is meant to be an online class, as a replacement for a face to face environment, then it should involve the same consistent level of engagement as that face to face version. If the class starts with lots of engagement, then in the end no one is talking to each other, something is wrong. It’s fine if you want to offer an online correspondence class where materials are posted and no one interacts, but the second a class transitions from a fully engaged social space into an online correspondence class, the learning experience is degraded.

Ask your students what will help them.

While many online teachers would like to think that their LMS / VLE is the greatest thing, it may not be as accessible as some other technology for maintaining communication with your students. Do a survey at the beginning of the class and see if facebook or Twitter would be a better fit. With that being said, this obviously depends on the technology your school supports. You can normalize behavior in your students that has them logging into the VLE on a weekly basis, and make it a part of the class culture. If your VLE has mobile capabilities, this will vastly improve their ability to engage, but if not, it’s not a terrible idea to create a facebook group to help with the class. The challenge here is to manage where the class actually exists. With the use of a VLE the class exists in one place, and the students know where to go, but if you start adding facebook or twitter to the mix, it gets confusing. An interesting question to ask as the instructor is ‘Why aren’t my students engaging in the VLE?’ instead of just starting a facebook group because they aren’t. Perhaps they want a private space to gossip about the class. Perhaps they want a more accessible place to chat, that they can store in their pocket. Transparency and a willingness to adapt your teaching will help with these issues. Being open to criticism about the class, being flexible with how students engage with it, will also encourage them to engage in the space that you have designated, instead of having to go around the corner, so to speak, to chat where you can’t hear them. To model this transparency and consistency, it’s easy — just say it explicitly. Post a video at the beginning of class and say the words:

“I want this class to be valuable to to you and I want you to learn something and engage with each other. I expect you to log in at least twice a week and contribute to the conversations. If you don’t think the conversations are valuable, or if you have any feedback about how they can be more useful, let me know.”

As we move away from online classes being content dumps and online correspondence courses to engaging virtual learning communities it’s important to know that students will engage unprompted in their social life because they derive pleasure from it. We cannot assume the same is true for their academic life, so they will need encouragement, modelling and clear demonstration of the benefit before this engagement becomes normalized.

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