When Covid-19 first struck the United States in March 2020, it forced a rapid shift in education delivery at all levels. Abandoning shared physical spaces for the safe distance of online learning, some transitions were smooth, while others were a bit more rocky. In their wake, there have been many discussions about the quality of online education, with detractors claiming that the online environment simply can’t measure up to traditional, face-to-face learning. But we should be wary of sweeping generalizations. It is undoubtedly true that some online experiences lack the engagement of onground classrooms, but some online courses are every bit as robust and rewarding as face-to-face.
This is because there are many ways to teach online. At the university where I work, preparing instructors to teach, classes are conducted in multiple modalities: fully asynchronous online, in which instructors and learners interact in a shared online space at different times; fully synchronous online, where they come together through web conferencing at designated meeting times; blended asynchronous, where that shared online space is used in tandem with brick-and-mortar course meetings in an accelerated timeframe; blended synchronous, where web conferencing takes the place of the onground classroom in that combined and accelerated course; and competency-based asynchronous online, where instructors provide guidance as needed while students interact with content at their own pace. Each of these online formats is different, and what works in one needs to be reworked in another—discussions, for example, have to be conducted incrementally in asynchronous courses, while real-time conversations can be more spontaneous.
As different as these online formats are, however, they all include an instructor, delivering fundamental informationto help make learning easier.Of course, learners also play an important role in setting—or upsetting—the tone in any course. But when instructors are present, when they work consciously (even in competency-based learning) tobuild a network of interactions, communicating with students, providing useful feedback, and sharing content in clear and organized ways, that draws students together into a learning community, that lays the foundation for a quality course experience.
Perhaps you’re thinking that it seems strange to be focusing on these points in a publication devoted to educational technology! Remember, then, that delivery of all of these items in asynchronous or synchronous online classes requires the use of technology, from learning management systems to video production platforms to email. But online courses are not just about technology.Rather, technology provides the tools that allow us to deliver education. Granted, some of those tools can be absolutely amazing, but all the tools in the world won’t help if we forget about the core teaching concepts that form a course’s quality foundation.
At the core of those concepts is presence. Establishing presence as an instructorisimportant in any format, but especially in online courses, where body language cues can’t be seen, or the reassuring sense of togetherness that sometimes comes from sharing a physical space can’t be felt. Online classes connect individuals in their own discrete spaces through technology. That can feel isolating, and that isolation does not breed community. Students need to sense that their teacher is acknowledging them, communicating with them, participating in and leading their course, to help sustain their motivation to learn.This is especially important during these socially distanced times.
Fortunately, the same technology that separates students canbe used to bring them together.Using their learning management system, video production platforms, and email, instructors can to post information students need to begin a course: who (professionally and/or personally) is their instructor, how/when can they be contacted, and what can they expect from the course. In addition, instructors can share what will actually be in that course, helping students to see what they’ll be able to demonstrate by the course’s end, and how content fits together to help them achieve those goals. Being clear, detailed, and welcoming in thisinitial push of information identifies an instructor as trustworthy to lead a class and provide support to the students in it. This begins the instructor’s establishment of presence.
Next, when the course gets underway, instructors can layer in two-way communication. This can include content-driven discussions and replies to individual questions within your learning management system, email, video, webconferencing office hour conversations, even (for those willing to share such contacts) texts, social media posts, and phone calls. Then, once students have begun to turn in assignments, instructors can provide feedback. Helping students to see what they’ve done well, what they need to improve, and how to make those changes, is a critical part of the learning process. Again, technology can help here, as instructors can use communication tools to share individual and group information about student progress.
Please note, though, instructors must maintain these communications throughout each course. Students don’t need micromanaging, but they do need to know that their instructor is still with them as they progress through the learning experience. Using technology to build a dynamic pattern of interactions can help reinforce an instructor’s presence within an online learning environment, and that can help enrich online course quality, during the time of Covid-19, or anytime.