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.

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