Do you know how to maintain an active presence in an online or virtual classroom? Do you understand the connection between an active presence and students' perception of your involvement in the class?

If you have taught an online course you know firsthand what it is like to teach in a virtual environment, along with challenges that are inherent for working and interacting in this type of classroom. Online teaching is viewed by some instructors as a function that must be managed, and others see the true potential that it holds and that it is a process to be nurtured. If instructors are going to create conditions that are conducive to learning they must do more than manage a class, they must be active, present, and available for students. This requires the development of a virtual presence, one that sustains social interactions, while never being able to actually meet the students face-to-face.

Students that attend a traditional classroom have the benefit of visually observing the instructor and their involvement in the class, which provides important clues and feedback about the learning process. The nature of those visual observations change with an online classroom environment and students look for other indicators that let them know their instructor is actively present and engaged in the class. Students develop perceptions not only about the instructor, but the school as well, based upon how the course is designed and the level of involvement by the instructor.

As a result of the absence of direct contact, online instructors need to establish their instructional presence so they become visible to students rather than viewed as an anonymous person off in the distance. Through the development of an engaging classroom, utilizing techniques that increase and enhance their visibility in the class, instructors can connect with students and develop productive working relationships that encourages student motivation, performance, and engagement.

Developing an Active Online Environment

An online classroom can become mechanical in nature or nurtured as a vibrant learning experience for students. Instructors who are used to a physical classroom will likely discover that new techniques are required when making a transition to teaching in the online environment, as communication and relationship-building now occurs through posted messages (asynchronous) rather than scheduled (synchronous) classroom meetings. A common challenge for instructors who teach in this environment then becomes their ability to model active engagement in the class so that their students are also motivated to be actively engaged.

Another perspective to consider is that the virtual classroom is always "open" and students expect to "see" their instructor in the classroom on a frequent basis. Students can be online and in the classroom almost any time of the day and that establishes an expectation about their instructors. What instructors can utilize is planned participation within discussion threads as a means of demonstrating their active role in the process of learning. Through frequent postings that begin early in the class week, along with the use of questions that engage students further in the discussion, instructors are able to replicate – to some extent – the interactive nature of the traditional classroom. Instructors can ask directed questions and make certain that students are responsive to the ongoing conversations.

How to Become Visible in a Virtual Classroom

The online classroom has changed the format of traditional learning but not the basic principles of adult education. Written words now form the basis of communication and interactions occur more frequently as the online classroom is almost always accessible and available, and the learning process now relies on digital interactions in a virtually created environment. There are steps that any online instructor can implement to create a strong virtual classroom presence.

#1. Introduce Yourself to Students.

Most online classes that I've taught have had a requirement during the first week for introductions, both on the part of the instructor and the students. This is a very good opportunity to become a "real" instructor to students by sharing your background and experience. Some instructors believe that their post should be casual in nature and others maintain strict professionalism.

I try to find a balance in between so that my introduction does not appear to be a resume. I will share my academic accomplishments, areas of research that interest me, something about a personal hobby, and I provide social media links so that students can learn more about my background and connect with me through websites such as Twitter or LinkedIn, which are professional in nature. I also find it helpful to share a professional photo, which helps to further humanize the learning experience.

#2. Utilize the Full Potential of Class Announcements

Most online courses are pre-developed for instructors and that means they do not have to set up the discussion forums, lessons, gradebook, and other required technological tools. However, what instructors generally do have control over is the use of class announcements. This is another opportunity to demonstrate to your students that you are actively involved in the class as you can share tips, resources, and strategies based upon what you've observed in the class and the needs of your students.

As an example, when I have observed students struggling with class participation, I will post an update with suggestions for developing substantive posts. What I have also found to be very helpful is to include a photo of some kind at the top of the announcements, something that is related to the subject matter, as this helps to create visual interest in the message. And if you have the option to generate an email version of the announcement, this is an effective method of sending the information directly to your students.

#3. Begin Participation Early in the Class Week

Based upon my work with online faculty development, some instructors look forward to class discussions and others see it as a tedious task where students are posting the same type of responses, making it difficult to engage them in an interesting discussion. It is really up to the instructor to set the tone and establish a model of participation for students to follow. I begin posting my responses early in the week, as soon as students start posting.

I will have already provided tips and tools for developing discussion posts and then I will use each response, no matter how well or poorly it was developed, as a springboard for engaging students in the topic. Typically I'll acknowledge something the student has written, build from it with my experience, expertise, and/or information from the course materials, and then conclude with a thoughtful question. This can take student responses that seem similar in nature and transform them into something meaningful.

#4. Establish Multiple Methods of Availability

The standard method of contact that instructors offer is email, along with a phone number for pressing issues or questions. Some instructors also utilize instant messaging and/or Skype as a means of being available for their students. Some learning management systems have a built-in tool such as Adobe Connect for contact. I offer students these options and I also establish weekly office hours, at a time when students are most likely to be online and working.

It is easy to establish office hours while you plan to work on feedback and you'll find it helpful to schedule more than one session during the class week, especially towards the end of the week when students are working towards completion of the learning activities. I make it a practice to check for and answer emails frequently, almost every day of the week. I remember what it was like as an online student to wait for an answer so I make certain my students don't have to wait long for a reply.

#5. Demonstrate Your Responsiveness to Students

When you are actively involved in your class, managing the class effectively, and addressing the developmental needs of your students in a proactive and thoughtful manner, you are demonstrating your responsiveness to them. Being responsive means that you care about the academic well-being of your students and they will quickly learn that they can count on you to help them when needed, even if you aren't online and in the classroom every time that they are – especially if they know when you are available and that you respond to their posts within a fairly reasonable time.

The interactions you have with students are most effective when you have developed a strong virtual presence, one that is responsive to students, and creates positive feelings for them about being involved in their class. Being actively present in the class results in a positive experience overall for both the instructor and the students, and promotes a highly productive learning environment.  

Interactions Matter More Than Ever

The format of the learning environment may have changed with an online platform; however, the students' need for one-on-one interactions does not change. Instructors can guide the development of online classroom relationships by creating an environment that is conducive to and supportive of productive exchanges. This requires an investment of time on the part of an instructor as online interactions do not occur with just one scheduled class meeting. Within a technology-enabled learning environment an instructional presence is possible not only when instructors are active in class discussions, but when they are quickly responding to students' questions and the overall classroom conditions.

Students develop perceptions about the class, the process of learning, and the school based upon their classroom interactions and they are likely to find it reassuring to know that their instructor is dedicated to classroom management, along with their progress and overall development. An instructional presence needs to be planned, scheduled, and occur frequently throughout the week. My recommendation to instructors is don't be present because you have to but instead because you want to – to show you care about your students.

Dr. J

About Dr. J

Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, and online teaching. Dr. J's roles included Chief Academic Officer, Dean, Faculty Director, Faculty Development Manager, Dissertation Mentor, Faculty Workshop Facilitator, and online instructor.

Dr. J has extensive experience with curriculum development, having authored courses and curriculum for bachelors, masters, and doctorate programs. He also developed a Faculty Performance Model, Faculty Orientation Program, Faculty Training and Mentoring Program, Faculty Professional Development Courses and Workshops, and a Faculty Remedial Program.

Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.

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