Creating presence in an online course… without working around the clock

Author: 
Laurie Friedman, Instructor and Online MSW Coordinator, School of Social Work

In transitioning to teaching an online course for my first time four years ago, I was initially drawn by the promise of flexibility. Yes! I could work in my pajamas, from anywhere with internet access. I could work around my toddler’s schedule; teaching online afforded me the opportunity to balance work with parenting. While I found that these benefits did exist, what I didn’t expect was feeling burnt out at the end of the semester. I was working around the clock, dutifully responding to students’ questions, actively participating in discussion boards and providing detailed and timely feedback—all the important elements of online teaching I had agreed to when assigned the class. I have since spoken with colleagues who share similar experiences, namely that they are “always working” and that teaching online is “more work” than teaching in the traditional brick and mortar classroom.

Since 2012, our knowledge of best practices in online teaching has expanded, as has my experience. Creating a presence is noted as one of the most important aspects of course delivery; there are elements of course design that contribute directly to course delivery, making planning vitally important. An online presence consists of the relationships we build with and among students to create the learning environment, the role we play as instructional guides, and the personality traits and interests we bring to the course. Research on online classes shows that “students rate contact with faculty as more important than contact with other students.”  Sheridan and Kelly also found that among factors related to course presence, students were most interested in how clearly the instructor conveyed the course requirements and information, as well as the timeliness and quality of their feedback. Creating a presence in an online environment is an intentional process, below are some tips on how I have maintained an online presence while creating boundaries so that I don’t burn myself out.

 

  1. Start with a welcome video. First impressions matter, and help alleviate students’ anxiety about a new course. Introductory videos should be 3-5 minutes long, include our personal and professional interests and give an overview of the course with tips for success. I’ve received feedback from students that my enthusiasm for the course’s content positively impacted their experience in the course. I also know instructors who choose to include a picture of their pet, favorite vacation spot or family member to begin to create a relationship, which helps to personalize the experience (discussed more below).

  2. Create a course tour. A brief 2 or 3 minute video tour of our online classroom space shows students where to find key information (i.e. assignment information, policies, syllabus, course materials and grades) and lets them know we care, are present and available.

  3. Personalize the experience. Each week, I record a 10-15 minute “lecturette” where I review the major points and questions from the previous week and orient students to the goals and activities of the current week. In the video, I may utilize specific comments from students and discuss how current events (including weather!) relate to course materials. Another way to personalize the experience is to use individual e-mails intentionally. For example, if a student mentions she is particularly interested in a topic that is not the focus of our course, I will share news articles and resources with her if I find them. This lets students know I am paying attention to who they are as individuals.

  4. Post regular announcements. Announcements (using text, video and/or pictures) are key to saving time and replacing individual e-mails. One of the benefits of announcements is that they remain on the course site unless you delete them, with the most recent post on top. Send the announcement via e-mail if it’s a priority message and schedule times when other announcements are posted. This leaves us in control of when we are working and allows us to stagger messages without having to log in repeatedly.  

  5. Set up a “Water Cooler” discussion board. Creating a discussion board, sometimes dubbed the “Water Cooler,” for students to ask general questions pertaining to the course helps to create a sense of community and streamline communication. It is important that from the beginning we socialize students to use this forum, and post responses to individual e-mails in this forum.

  6. Use rubrics. The rubric tool embedded within the learning management system can be used for grading course discussions and other assignments. I absolutely love this feature! I used to send each student an individualized e-mail with feedback on their discussion board participation. To save time and maintain presence, I now embed a discussion rubric within the learning management system (we use Blackboard) and simply check off boxes to assign points. I aim to give each student at least one qualitative comment each week, specifically mentioning a post they had and why it stood out.

  7. Establish online office hours. Online office hours are imperative to creating presence. Even if no students show up, the perception and knowledge that faculty are available has a positive impact on students. It also alleviates my need to instantaneously respond to questions if I have let students know ahead of time when office hours are and my response time for emails.
     

So to return to my original question, how do we do all of this without burning ourselves out? For me the key is transparency, communication and boundaries. We need to follow the same advice we give our students taking an online course: check the course site daily at a time that works for them and carve out time for this class as we would any other class, adding specific times to our calendar when we plan to complete activities (for us it’s grade, record videos, check discussion boards and respond to messages). This helps us get into a rhythm, similar to one that develops when a class meets weekly in a brick and mortar classroom. Creating a presence does not mean we are available 24-7 or that students need immediate responses. In fact, this can inhibit the learning process as they become dependent on us for answers. In case you were wondering, yes, I am still tired at the end of my courses, but I no longer feel burnt out as I did four years ago. My online courses, synchronous and asynchronous, “meet” at predetermined times that fit my needs and those of my students.

 

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

How else have you set up boundaries to define the classroom space in an online environment? What other strategies do you use to create presence in an online class?

 
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