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The term ‘social distancing’ has entered the collective vocabulary in a big way. I think it’s a terrible term. What we should be doing is ‘physically distancing’ and stepping up our social presence using technology.

That holds true for our teaching. 

In the online environment, it’s easy for students to feel disconnected and uninformed. And what our students need now is the exact opposite. 

You’re probably familiar with the Community of Inquiry framework, in which two of the overlapping elements are teaching presence and social presence (with the third being cognitive presence). What I’m talking about here is the intersection of teaching and social presence. But it could also just be described as good communication practice. Theory and frameworks aside (because as useful as they are, at this point in time, practical tips are key), in this post, I want to offer seven practical suggestions for how you can be more present and more connected in your online teaching, and the positive pay off from doing so. 

1. Be yourself

Maintain the personality you present in person in the online environment. You don’t have to be formal and rigid in your communication, and injecting your personality and a bit of informality in your communication will make you seem more approachable. Using a conversational tone builds a sense of empathy. Be human. Forge personal connections with your students. Be a person first, and a teacher second.

2. Come up with a communication plan and tell your students what to expect

Set clear expectations for students so they know when and how they’ll be hearing from you, then deliver on those expectations. 

3. Communicate regularly 

Being informed is a powerful way to manage stress and anxiety. In the current unsettling context, regular communication with your students will help them to feel informed and in control of their studies. At the absolute minimum, I recommend posting a ‘Monday update’ announcement each week. Use it to introduce the content you’ll be covering that week, remind students of when classes are scheduled, remind them about due dates, and share relevant news. I also like to do a post-class update email, if I’m having a synchronous class, to surface relevant information for those students who weren’t there and who may not watch the recording right away (or ever!). 

4. Get out of the LMS

Learning Management Systems aren’t always the best place to foster conversation. To have natural dialogue with students, use the tools they use to stay connected in other parts of their lives. Communicate all essential information on the LMS but invite them to connect with you and their peers via social media, too, for more informal conversation and quick. Set up a Facebook group for the class or use a Twitter hashtag. Using social media can help you to be more responsive because it’s easier to see and act on a Facebook notification than to monitor discussions in the LMS forums. 

5. Use video

Video is a powerful medium for communicating information visually. It’s also a great way to up the ante on teacher presence because it allows students to see you and reminds them that there’s a person on the other side of the LMS. Shoot a three minute Monday update video in your home office using your smart phone and get your face in front of your students. Video of you talking to camera will support development of personal connections with your students. It allows you to communicate “emotional expression” and a sense of “closeness” (see Borup, West and Graham, 2011).

6. Use synchronous classes for interaction, not lectures

Tools like Zoom are great for synchronous online classes, but avoid the temptation to use them to lecture. The value of having students in a live online class is in the interaction that can happen there. Flipped learning models have gotten a lot of press for their use in blended learning environments, where you see students on campus for a face-to-face class, but they also work well online. Instead of running a one hour Zoom session to give a lecture, pre-record your lecture content (preferably in small chunks, but I know that mightn’t be achievable if you’re converting a face-to-face course to online in a hurry), and use the class time to talk with your students, run activities, provide assessment support, bring in guest speakers for your students to engage with, and generally foster a sense of connectedness.

7. Empathise

These are challenging times for everyone. Studying can be tough at the best of times. Studying in the middle of a global pandemic is new territory for everyone. Empathy is always important in teaching, but I’d argue that it’s critical right now. Put yourself in your students’ shoes and think about how they are experiencing study right now, at this extremely unsettled and unsettling time. What can you do to demonstrate care and empathy in your communications with your students? Fuller (2012) provides a discussion of strategies that might be useful in the article Building empathy in online courses: effective practical approaches

Give these seven strategies a try to step up your presence around your online teaching spaces. Being present will increase student confidence and help them feel supported., and you’ll also likely build a stronger sense of community in your courses. 

Articles cited in this post:

Borup, J., West, R. E. and Graham, C. R. (2011). Improving online social presence through asynchronous video. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(3). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.11.001 

Fuller, R. G. (2012). Building empathy in online courses: effective practical approaches. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education (IJICTE), 8(4), 38-48. http://doi:10.4018/jicte.2012100104  

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. and Archer, W. (2010). The first decade of the community of inquiry framework: a retrospective. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1-2). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2009.10.003