Communicating Online

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in May 2014.  Enjoy!

In past posts, I’ve discussed the Community of Inquiry framework  and how it relates to our work in online classes.  The framework, developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000), identifies the need for instructors to attend to three different domains in an online class:  a social presence, a cognitive presence and a teaching presence.  As instructors build and manage online classes, they need to thoughtfully and purposefully build these presences into the learning environment and consider how they will be present to instruct students, challenge them cognitively and interact and communicate with them.  I think most online instructors find the cognitive and teaching presences easier to visualize and foster than the social presence.  In response to this, I wrote a post last year where I offered some suggestions to build social presence in online classes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social presence online in response to research I shared a few weeks ago.  In work conducted by Chambliss and Takacs, they found that undergraduates were more likely to major in a field if they had an inspiring and caring faculty member in an introductory course.  Students were also equally likely to write off an entire field if they had a single negative experience with a professor.  With communication mediated through electronic means in an online class, I worry that negative experiences may occur at a greater frequency.  I’m not saying that online instructors are treating their students poorly or demonstrate less compassion than instructors in face-to-face classrooms.  I just worry that the means of communication may undermine how students perceive a message.  I think we’ve all sent or received an email whose tone was misread.  That’s why communicating and interacting online requires great care and attention.  And sometimes some creative thinking.

Let me provide a scenario.  Last week, I started a new online class and one student did not log in for the first two days of the course.  Although the class was being offered asynchronously, I was worried that the student would not be able to meet the first due dates of the course and would be a potential problem through the remainder of the class.  My initial reaction was to send an email saying something like:

“Student,  Our online class started two days ago and you have yet to log into the course or complete any of the first modules.  Without consistent attention to the course, you are likely to fail the class.  Please log in and start working.  The first modules are due tomorrow.

As I thought about the reasons a student may not have logged in, I started creating fictional scenarios in my head.  Maybe there was a death in the family.  Or maybe the student was having technical difficulties.  Or maybe…  There were a bunch of possible scenarios that didn’t necessarily fit the email I was planning to send.  In light of these, I sent this email instead.

Student, I see that you have not contributed in our online class yet.  The first modules are due on Thursday by noon.  Are you having any technical challenges of which I should be aware?  Just checking in.   I hope all is well.

It turned out that the student was having some serious medical issues and appreciated that I reached out through email.  We discussed whether she would be able to complete the class and what accommodations could be made to help her be successful.  I’m happy to report that she is now feeling better and is actively participating in the class.   I wonder whether the original email would have been received as positively or had the same impact.

I understand that communication is a two-way street and that the student should have taken some responsibility in contacting me about her situation.  The student and I discussed this responsibility in our email exchange.  As instructors, however, we have to remember the power we have in establishing the social presence in our courses.  In some ways, it conjures up images of Old Fezziwig in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up.

In online communication, the power lies in carefully crafted words, which should never be considered slight or insignificant.

Online instructors, show yourself?

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in January 2016.  Enjoy!

Last week, while helping to coordinate an online teaching workshop for faculty on campus, a colleague asked about the importance of having an instructor appear visually in a synchronous classroom space.  We had just demonstrated our institution’s online classroom tool and one of the faculty members wondered whether it was important for students to actually see the instructors who was leading the synchronous online lesson.  My first thoughts went to Mayer’s multimedia principles.  As I’ve shared before on this blog, Mayer’s multimedia principles outline ways to successfully design and incorporate multimedia in educational settings to foster student learning.  Mayer’s image principle says that incorporating an image of a speaker in a multimedia presentation has no significant influence on students’ learning of the content being presented.  Using Mayer as guide, I explained to my colleague, one could conclude that incorporating an instructor’s face in a synchronous classroom probably wouldn’t have much impact on learning.

My colleague, however, was persistent.  While student learning may not be impacted by instructor visibility, maybe there were other areas to consider?  Maybe the instructor’s image could foster more social presence in the class?  Or maybe the instructor’s image could motivate students?  Needless to say, my colleague’s questions motivated me to do a little digging and see what I could find.

I came across some research that examined the use of video tutorials with students.  Published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the study examined the impact of having an instructor’s face be visible in recorded lessons.  While not a direct match with my colleague’s questions, the results were pretty compelling.  In the first phase of the study, the researchers found that the vast majority of students preferred to see the instructor during the recorded lessons.  While 35% of the participants found the instructor’s image distracting, most would choose to have the teacher be visible in the lesson.

With this in mind, in the next phase of the study, the researchers examined whether having the instructor constantly visible or visible only during strategic times would have any impact on student learning.  In this phase, participants were placed in two groups (constantly visible and strategically visible) and a host of different factors were examined.  Researchers examined learning outcome, attrition, cognitive load, social presence and assessment taking.  For most of the areas, the researchers found no significant differences between the two groups.  For both groups, the participants completed similar numbers of assessments, watched the same amount of the videos and demonstrated similar levels of learning.  When looking at the social presence and cognitive load, however, the groups differed greatly.

Students who watched the instructors appearing strategically during the lessons reported higher levels of social presence than the students who saw the instructors who appeared constantly.  When the instructors appeared only at certain times during the lesson, the students reported feeling more connected to the class and developed a sense that the instructor was there to support their learning.  When the instructor was constantly visible, the students eventually began to ignore the teacher’s image completely.  Since they were ignoring the image of the instructor, the students didn’t report similar levels of belonging to the class and reported lower levels of social presence in the class.

Ignoring the instructor has some positive value, however. The students in the strategic group reported much higher levels of distractions than the students in the constant group.  While this self-reported “cognitive load” didn’t translate into lower assessment scores for students, the research suggests that this could create challenges for students who prefer to learn visually.

So, what does it all mean?  When instructors are visible in online spaces, they can help to foster more social presence with students.  While it won’t impact student learning or their participation in the class, being visible can help students feel more connected to classes.  Instructors should remember that this is a case of diminishing returns.  More instructor visibility in video lessons (or synchronous classrooms) doesn’t necessarily lead to more social presence.  Much like many things in life, a little can go a long way.


Kizilcec, R. F., Bailenson, J. N., & Gomez, C. J. (2015). The instructor’s face in video instruction: Evidence from two large-scale field studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 724–739.

Tips for Building Social Presence in Your Online Class

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in May 2013.  Enjoy!

You’ve been assigned your first online class to teach and you feel like you’re ready. You’ve done your homework and learned the ins and outs of the institution’s course management system. You’ve structured your content in purposeful ways and developed thoughtful guiding questions to situate student learning and motivate them. When the class starts, however, you realize that while everything is technically functioning correctly, many of the students are not engaged. While you were looking forward to teaching online and interacting with students, the students are approaching your course as if it’s an independent study. This wasn’t what you anticipated when you agreed to teach online!

In their framework outlining educational experiences for students, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) identify and explain the critical elements of a Community of Inquiry that supports instruction and learning. The elements include: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. For online classes, many new online instructors tend to focus on the cognitive presence and teaching presence, and overlook the necessity of the social presence. They’ll build great online modules that help students enhance their understanding of course content but forget to attend to the critical social aspects that engage students and foster community building. While these aspects can happen naturally in face-to-face courses, they must be intentionally built into online classes.

Here are five ways you can build social presence in your online class:

  1. Have your online students introduce themselves. This may sound simple but the first module of my online courses asks students to introduce themselves to their peers. I create a discussion board where students share short introductions with the group either through text or through a short multimedia production using Fotobabble, MyBrainShark or some other Web 2.0 tool. I usually try to connect the introductions to course content in some informal way to assess the students’ prior knowledge and experience with the material. More than anything, the introductions are designed to foster open communication amongst students outside of course content.
  2. Introduce yourself to your students. When I ask my students to create short introductions of themselves, I offer my own introduction as an example. I also create a short orientation video where I provide an overview of the course and share a little about myself. Presented in a short video where students hear my voice, students can connect with me outside of the written text that I provide for most of the class material.
  3. Create a “commons area” for off-topic discussions. In a face-to-face class, it’s easy to engage in off-topic discussions. Students walking into the classroom will argue about last night’s football game, discuss the latest movies, or talk about their favorite music. This type of engagement is extracurricular but it can help students build relationships that are advantageous inside the classroom. Without purposeful inclusion of risk-free environments for sharing, online students’ affective needs will not be met and they may not fully engage with course content or with their classmates. In my online classes, I create a discussion board labeled “Commons Area” or “Water Cooler” and offer some guidance to the purpose of the area. While I’ll often peek in to add a question or respond to a post, I generally give the students some free rein over this forum.
  4. Use synchronous tools for office hours. Most course management systems offer chat rooms or synchronous online classrooms as tools for teaching and communication. I schedule online office hours where students can meet with me to discuss course content and ask questions. While not every student takes advantage of the office hours, publishing their availability communicates to students that I am committed to their success in the course.
  5. Don’t be the center of every discussion. Many new online instructors try to respond to every post in a discussion board. This habit can actually limit student-to-student interaction and discussion. In a face-to-face class, few instructors would break up lively classroom discussions by evaluating every remark from students. In online classes, however, instructors will do exactly that. Instead of excessively participating in discussion boards, provide some thought-provoking questions and allow the students to discuss course content openly on their own. Offer guidance when necessary and communicate that you’re present in the discussion through carefully chosen posts. Give the students some space to interact with one another and build their understanding through collaborating with their classmates.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Note:  This post was originally published on Faculty Focus on May 13, 2013.

Five ways to build a more engaging online class

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in October 2015.  Enjoy!

A few months ago, the US News and World Report identified 6 signs of a bad online instructor.  The list includes such markers “no set timetable for emails” and “an unclear syllabus.”  The list was primarily designed for students enrolling in an online class so they could easily assess the quality of a class and withdrawal if needed.  It’s kind of like the brown M&M story for Van Halen.  In their concert contracts with venues, Van Halen would require a bowl of M&Ms backstage with all of the brown M&Ms removed.  While many people felt the band was just exerting their excessive celebrity status, the reasoning was actually much different.  Since the contracts usually outlined explicit safety considerations that were needed for the band to perform, the brown M&M’s gave the band manager an easy way to assess whether the venue had done their due diligence.  If he saw brown M&M’s in the bowl, he would know that the venue hadn’t followed the contract to the letter.  It’s a quick and easy assessment.

While these “signs for bad online instructors” may provide the same easy assessment for students, it’s not that helpful for people wanting to develop engaging online classes.  An online instructor could essentially correct the “6 signs” and still have a poorly constructed online class.  Rather than focus on these areas, I offer the following strategies for building more engaging online classes.  Most of them are directly or indirectly related to Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis’s work with the Social Presence Model.

1.  Be involved.  Students find online courses more engaging when they know the instructor is participating herself.  I’ve blogged about this before and discussed the need for instructors to be VOCAL (visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example).  When students submitted an assignment, provide individualized feedback to students.  If you’ve assigned participation in discussion forums, respond to their discussion posts.  It’s important that you’re e a participant in the online class and not just an observer.

2.  Get students talking early.   In the very first module of my online courses, I usually have students introducing themselves to their classmates.  This helps to break the ice in the class and fosters a larger community across the group.  I find early involvement in online classes leads to more extended engagement with course content and in the discussion forums.

3.  Use a mix of media.   Students like to hear the voices and see the faces of the people in their online classes.  Rather than having students submitting papers or taking online tests, have them use online tools (MyBrainShark, Screencastomatic, etc.) to record their voices as they present their ideas.    Instead of uploading text-based documents, create short lesson videos that teach the content.  By using a variety of modalities with your online students, you can help them engage with the class at multiple levels.

4.  Connect the content to students’ lives.  While this may be difficult with some subject matter, it helps to build social presence with students.  By having students connect the content with their experiences, you tap into the element of the Social Presence Model that Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis call “Knowledge and Experience.”  When students share their knowledge and personal experience with a topic, they feel more connected with the content.

5.  Seek out new alternate forms of content.  The Internet houses a wealth of educational material. From blogs to videos to simulations, the online instructor really has a world at their fingertips.  Not finding anything valuable on YouTube or through Google?  Check out some of the sites for Open Source Educational Content.

Ten Thousand Hours

It’s kind of surprising that after publishing over 400 blog posts during the last eight years that I’ve never written about a concept that has so significantly influenced my perspective on parenting, on teaching and on life.

10,000 hours.

That’s the amount of time a person needs to dedicate to develop expertise in an area. The concept comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In the book, Gladwell examined different studies across a variety of fields to determine what made some people excel and reach a level of expertise and become an “outlier” amongst their peers. Gladwell writes that he found “an extraordinarily consistent answer in an incredible number of fields … you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good” (2008).

Before we move on, it’s necessary to discuss a few things. First off, 10,000 hours isn’t the only ingredient for excellence and success. A person also needs to possess a natural affinity for success in that area. Standing at barely 5’6″ I am certain that after dedicating 10,000 hours practicing trying to dunk a basketball that I’d ever become an NBA star. Practice isn’t enough but it makes a difference. While I will become a better basketball player by practicing, becoming an “outlier” also depends on other factors.

Another caveat is that not all practice is created equal. Beginning musicians typically utilize repetitive practice when they learn to play a song. They’ll work through a song from start to finish over and over without examining which areas may be more difficult than others. While they’re dedicating a lot of time practicing, they spend equal time practicing easy parts and more difficult ones. More accomplished musicians will study a piece to find the hardest parts of song and focus their attention on these areas first. This deliberate practice helps them dedicated more time on improving their performance and growing their skill set. This deliberate practice factors more heavily in the growth attributed to the 10,000 hours concept than repetitive practice.

The last area that needs to be addressed is that deliberate practicing for 10,000 hours doesn’t yield the same effects across domains. In a meta-analysis published in Psychological Science, Macnamara, Hambrick and Oswald found that “deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions.” Looking at the results, they write that “the effect of deliberate practice on performance tended to be larger for activities that are highly predictable than for activities that are less predictable.” They also surmised that “one possibility is that deliberate practice is less well defined in these domains.” Regardless of the causes, it is clear that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will have different yields depending on the domain in which you work.

With all of these qualifiers, why do I like the 10,000 hours concept so much? It really comes down to mindset. I’ve written about the growth mindset before and how I’ve tried to embrace this in my teaching role. I incorporate the growth mindset in my work with students and when parenting my children. While I don’t necessary agree with Gladwell when he writes that 10,000 hours “is the magic number of greatness,” in a way, the concept almost numerically represents the growth mindset. It acknowledges that people have to commit time and energy to improve their performance and grow.  As Macklemore raps in his song Ten Thousand Hours,

The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great cause they paint a lot

Greatness is earned through hard work and focused practice. While it may take more than 10,000 hours in some fields, Gladwell’s position communicates that it’s a journey.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK.

Macnamara, B. N., Hambrick, D. Z., & Oswald, F. L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions a meta-analysis. Psychological science, 25(8), 1608-1618.

Poverty and Cognitive Function

It was another odd intersection of work and media for me last week. Let me start with some workplace observations. For the last five or six years, I have served on my university’s Academic Standards committee. The committee adjudicates dismissal hearings for students who have had academic difficulties. Typically, students who don’t perform well will go through a semester or two on academic probation before being suspended from the university. Depending on mitigating circumstances, the Academic Standards committee may rule that a student deserves a second chance and will reverse an academic suspension. While many of the students who are dismissed lack the maturity or self-discipline for collegiate work, it’s not always the case. During my tenure on the committee, I’ve heard all sorts of heart breaking stories involving illnesses, death, assault and so much more. It’s a difficult committee on which to serve.

We had academic hearings last week and it usually causes me to reflect on my work on campus and whether we as an institution are doing enough to support students who have encountered academic challenges. Looking back over the cases we adjudicated last week, I remember several students who were juggling jobs to pay for school and tuition and to maintain a decent quality of life. Although many of these students were probably receiving financial aid, it wasn’t enough to cover their schooling and life expenses. Throw in the academic challenges from their collegiate classes and these students had a lot on their plates. As our committee meets with these students and discusses their futures, we usually recommend that the students dedicate more time to schooling and reduce their work hours when they return to school. It has always seemed like a pretty reasonable recommendation, but now I’m not so sure.

My doubt comes from a study I heard on the Freakonomics podcast last Friday. The research studied 464 sugar cane farmers over a harvest season and the impacts that changing states of wealth had on the farmers’ “cognitive capacity.” Sugar cane farmers harvest their crops once a year and they’re usually the wealthiest immediately after their harvest. As the year progresses, however, the farmers gradually become poorer until they’re barely making ends meet as they ready to harvest their crops again.  The researchers wondered what impacts these financial changes would have on the farmers intellectual ability. To study this, the researchers administered several cognitive tests pre-harvest and post-harvest and surprisingly found statistically significant differences.  The authors write:

“We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress. Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity.”

This study has forced me to re-evaluate my work on the Academic Standards committee and some of the recommendations we’ve made. I know that poverty is a complex issue and lots of smart people have dedicated their careers developing policies to combat it. I worry, however, whether colleges and universities (or ANY school, for that matter) has done enough to recognize and overcome the educational impacts that poverty can cause. While “reducing work hours” may sound like good advice, it’s difficult to defend if it may actually be causing economic hardships that further “diminishes cognitive performance” for students.

Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science, 341(6149), 976-980.

What motivates you?

As some regular readers may know, I’m the Director of the Teaching and Learning Center on my campus. Technically, the Center is called the Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) but part of the mission is “to provide professional development across the teaching-learning scholarship spectrum.” With the busy lives that many faculty have, some of my colleagues find it difficult to participate in the professional development opportunities that the Center offers. As I prepared my year-end report, I could see that some faculty members engaged regularly in professional development offerings while others hardly participated at all. While I don’t pass judgement on my colleagues’ professional development choices, I often wonder what motivates some faculty to participate and engage while others do not.

I came across an article recently which may help to shed some light. Written by Jon Wergin in 2001, the article examines forty years of research on faculty motivation and found that four common factors emerged across different studies: autonomy, community, recognition and efficacy. While the factors are interdependent and intertwined, they also act independently to impact and guide faculty decision making. As I thought about the different factors, I reflected on how each played a role in my work, not only as professional developer but as a faculty member on campus.

“Professional autonomy,” Wergin writes, “is the freedom to experiment, to follow one’s own leads wherever they may go and to so without fear of the consequences.” While autonomy arises from our pursuit of new knowledge and understandings, it is also the foundation upon which academic freedom is built.  We can feel empowered when we have the flexibility to participate or shut down when we feel controlled or manipulated.

Despite our autonomy as faculty, we are also part of a larger community. Wergin writes that faculty possess a “desire to belong, to feel part of a nurturing community.” As we serve on committees and engage in activities in campus, we get to meet new colleagues and develop a sense of our roles in the larger collegiate environment.  When we lack a sense of community, we can feel isolated, uninspired and unmotivated.

I think everyone wants their work to be appreciated and recognized. Whether it’s receiving a thank you note from a student or receiving a compliment from a colleague, we all want “to feel valued and to know that others see (our) work as worthwhile.” The lack of recognition can also impact our work. I’m sure we’ve all experienced moments when our contributions were forgotten or our efforts weren’t highlighted.

Efficacy, Wergin writes, “is a sense of having a tangible impact on our environment.” As we work to have our work be appreciated and recognized, we also want to know that our efforts made a difference and have contributed to some greater goal. Our lack of efficacy can also impact our work. I know I’ve participated on several committees and initiatives that I realized would have little impact on campus. In hindsight, the lack of efficacy was demotivating.

As I reflect on my own experiences as a college faculty member, I can see these four factors as playing a role in the high points and low points of my career over the last decade. While I plan to use Wergin’s work to inform programming and efforts in the CAE, I will also use it as a guide for interacting with colleagues and supporting their work.

Wergin, J. F. (2001). Beyond Carrots and Sticks: What Really Motivates Faculty. Liberal Education, 87(1), 50-53.