The Value of Teacher Presence Early and Often in Online Courses


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by La Cinnamon

I recently was given the opportunity to assist as a guest facilitator for part of Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education professional development course on developing and teaching online high school courses. The course is off to a cracking start with an impressive group of teachers.

One of the questions posed to the teacher/students was pick a strategy from the article “A Dozen Strategies for Improving Online Student Retention” in Faculty Focus and share how they might use it. The question got me reflecting. Here is my response:

Having taught online classes for some years now. I think it is always a good thing to track back and review material that addresses effective strategies and approaches. Teaching, online, face-to-face, or in any capacity, truly is an endeavor where we are always chasing mastery.

What I will share from my experience as both a students and teacher in classes that are either entirely online or blended in some capacity is the critical aspect of item number two from the list – “Never underestimate the importance of instructor presence.” I cannot stress enough the power and necessity of understanding that truth.

In fact, I would go even further and suggest that the importance of instructor presence is never more powerful than the early stages of the course. Considering that you, as the instructor, are never seen physically in an all online course. Early and frequent interactions are paramount. It pays huge dividends over the duration of the course.

First, by responding quickly and substantively, you are setting the tone, expectations, and norms of how the course will function. You begin the course modeling the kind of interactions you hope to see. Moreover, be completely transparent and direct about that. Provide feedback that articulates the very elements you hope to see. Good teachers do this in face-to-face classes as a matter of course. However, it is even more important in the online environment. It is linked with time one, “Make a good first impression,” but carries much further in the absence of a physical presence.

Unless you are working in an open course with dozens, hundreds, or more students, be deliberate about responding to every single student in the early going. You may not be able to respond to every assignment, but be sure to provide feedback of some kind to every student on at least one assignment. And I am talking about individualized, thoughtful feedback, not canned, auto-response type stuff. Front-load your effort for the first few weeks. The impact cannot be overstated and students really respond to it. When done in a supportive way, it energizes and motivates students going forward.

Once you have established your presence and seen the kinds of activity, responses, and interactions you are looking to see, then gradually release and find ways to encourage greater student-to-student interactions. They will need that modeled and coached for them too, but you will have already done some of that groundwork.

Even in hybrid or blended courses, the same dynamics are at play. In fact, I would submit that if you do not approach the online component of a blended class in this way, the implicit message is that this forum is not as valued or important as what we will do when we meet in person. Admittedly, blended courses pose a number of slightly different challenges, not the least of which is finding the balance of how best to use face-to-face time versus online time.

No matter the circumstance, I would submit that a strong, early teacher presence in online or blended courses is the single most valuable strategy you have at your disposal to steer the course and students towards the kind of results and goals you hope to achieve.

Having just begun teaching one of my online courses anew with the semester turnover, I am reminded of just how important all of this remains. I have been logging considerably more hours in the discussion threads in the first couple of weeks. It simply makes a huge difference – invaluable.

Readings & Reactions: To Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody – Really?

Image: EdWeek's Top Performers blog banner

Photo: Marc S. Tucker   Photo: Anthony Cody

By Marc Tucker @ EdWeek’s Top Performers blog

This recent blogpost where Marc Tucker rebuts Anthony Cody’s previous criticisms of education’s impact on the economy is a fascinating window into two very different points of view that more likely talking past one another rather than to one another.

While I certainly cannot speak for Mr. Cody, I would point to a small but significant distinction between the point I think he was making and the point that Tucker is countering.

It seems to me that in Tucker’s rebuttal is making education and schooling synonymous, which is common. However, as one part of a wider discussion, which seems to be Mr. Cody’s major endeavor both in his former EdWeek column and beyond, is that education and schooling are not necessarily as synonymous as sometimes believed.

Of course, it is foolish to argue against many of the facts that Tucker offers about income rates generally being higher for those that complete more schooling, but a much stronger argument could be made that the individuals that complete the various scholastic benchmarks cited begin with an array of advantages that might otherwise enhance their income. This point gets no mention in the column.

I would also add that “higher levels of knowledge, skills and technology,” may be a product of higher levels of education, but is not a guarantee. Ideally, this is true. Yet again, education and schooling are not necessarily the same. The educational system, made up of schools, is not the only source of education, nor should it ever be. Employee training programs can also be a form of education that can enhance income considerably, when done well, and that is only one additional source.

However, many companies cut training and development opportunities to increase their bottom line and satisfy shareholders, while blaming the decline of the educational system for its inability to produce qualified workers.

This raises the spectre of another wider debate about the purpose of an education, and how much of that purpose be strictly vocational, but that easily exceeds the boundaries of one column. Still, education may be the result of schooling, training, apprenticeship, and far more opportunities and alternatives that exist beyond what is considered the traditional educational system.

To suggest that there are not places where the existing educational system can be improved is folly, but admitting that also does not require the admission that the system is failing. Plus, comparing our students to other nations’ students is also not without serious flaws, again far more than would fit in a single column.

It seems to me that Mr. Tucker and Mr. Cody might very well be writing past one another, using common vocabulary but meaning very different things.

Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, is perhaps unlike any book I have read. Part novel, part picture book, aimed at young audiences highlighting a peculiar figure in cinematic history. To start, there is something beautiful about this book but I find it more difficult to articulate.

Many of the illustrations are exquisite. For me the best images were the ones that had the greatest scope, either interior or exterior. The more going on in the frame, the better the illustrations. Plus, there is a definite cinematic attempt being made that gives many illustrations a storyboard-like quality. Generally, this is remarkably successful. Yet, I felt the young characters, Hugo and Isabelle, looked terribly similar.

The prose narrative of the story is also clever. While the premise of a boy living alone in a Paris train station seems a slight stretch, the evolving relationships that Hugo develops with the other characters are built with care. The fact that Papa Georges is revealed to be the pioneer French filmmaker Georges Méliès was not something that I was necessarily expecting, but made the story all the more enjoyable. Being familiar with Méliès’ work and importance in cinematic history but not the man made me wonder how much of the story was true, if any. Even more surprising is how the fictional account mirrors the filmmaker’s life, giving the whole story greater appeal for me.

Even the themes of the automaton and magic was all enjoyable. These elements combined to make Hugo more interesting and well-rounded, more than a stock scamp of an abandoned kid. Plus, the weaving of cinema’s magician with a young would-be magician eased the tension between the two and made their relationship that much more authentic and interesting. Add the mysterious automaton from Méliès’ past and it is no wonder why the old man remained intrigued but the boy, even if at an arm’s length.

In spite of all of these things, something tells me that this book will be more important as a forerunner to other textual experiments of similar combinations of illustrated prose narratives. I am not sure that the two worked as seamlessly as I might have liked, but I admire the attempt immensely. Considering how much I enjoyed it and how distinctly different the reading experience was, I would like to see more efforts like this by Selznick or others. There is a lot of room for it to evolve as a kind of genre all its own, somewhere between traditional novel and the graphic counterpart.

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