As we transitioned from wrapping up the spring semester to envisioning a fall with space for more intentional online instruction, CITL staff had a chance to host conversations with our instructors from across campus. In a series of coffee hours, we wanted to hear from faculty about their experience and thinking on topics related to the online transition. We had the opportunity to join in the social presence session, and we wanted to share some of the outcomes of that conversation.
Social presence is something implicit in our face-to-face teaching. We put on the teacher hat, in whatever style we’ve chosen for ourselves, walk to the front of our classrooms, and lead our class. Our affect, manner of speaking, and presentation style tell our students as much about our approach to teaching as the course policies we include in our syllabus, the materials we share, and the assignments we create. In the online environment, where there are more filters between ourselves and our students, we have to put in work to recreate our teaching persona and make ourselves visible, human, and engaged with our students. Social presence online, then, can be seen as the tools, strategies, and structure we use to show our students that we are in this with them. They are the starting point for the online classroom community.
For instructors, as they prepare to assess students’ learning, it is their students’ online presence that is front of mind. As we examine how to get students more engaged in conversation on Piazza, our discussion boards, or CourseNetwork (CN Post), a good first step would be to ask, “How do we use our own presence to make these spaces active, populated sites for conversation?”.
As we move from a reactive phase of online teaching to more widespread intentional development of our courses for an online environment, how can we think about who we are in the classroom, how we translate that online, and how we model engagement for our students? Many instructors have found that learning more about their students’ contexts helps them choose course content and activities that students will find more engaging, thus enhancing their students’ interest in the course. When students learn a bit about their instructor–what drew them to their discipline, how they learned key concepts, or what they find particularly exciting about their discipline–that information can similarly increase students’ interest in the course.
Tips that emerged in our coffee hour demonstrate the relationship between social presence and laying the groundwork for universal design for learning. Here are three ideas shared by instructors from across campus:
Share an introductory video of yourself or create a bio page that shows not only your professional self, but shares pieces of your personal life, as well. We often ask students to reflect on their personal experiences in writing assignments and discussion. Prime them for this with your own sharing, then invite them to do their own introductions to each other. For more ideas like these, check out tip lists like these seven tips from eLearning Industry or these tips from Faculty Focus.
Vary the style of communication you offer and create space for students to do the same. This will keep conversation dynamic and also give students an opportunity to use modes in which they are most comfortable. That is, don’t always ask your students to read your words. What videos, graphics, memes, and audio can meet your needs, and where can students use those same tools in assignments?
While giving regular feedback and using tactics like wrapping up discussions to highlight key points, remember that part of our role as instructors is demonstrating how to listen and be open to ideas. How are we gathering input from students about their ability to engage and access materials? (See this CITL blog post for more ideas on ensuring equitable access to your classes.) Avoid responding to each student comment, and instead shift to a less central, facilitating role.
The goal of developing your social presence is to create an approachable space for your students that reflects how you see yourself as an instructor. This will take additional time. Building the elements of your social presence into your course prep timeline and saving space for a variety of kinds of communication with students over the course of the semester will be essential steps to sustaining your online presence as the semester goes on. But because it will help in maintaining students’ interest and motivation, it is time well spent.
Social presence is entwined with inclusive teaching and approachable course design. Learn more by reading this wrap up from a similar coffee hour on inclusion in the online classroom, or by seeing more tips for technology that can support inclusion and both your social presence and your students’.
This post was a collaboration of Lisa Kurz and Megan Betz.