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.