The largest substantive difference between the face2face and online classrooms is the lack of physical proximity*. This statement is certainly not a revolutionary! One of the great promises of online education is its ability to bring learning opportunities to students who have previously been unable to attend classes. Indeed, lack of physical proximity is perhaps the quintessential characteristic of online education. For the faculty developer,** the lack of proximity is the first, and often the most difficult, conceptual hurdle to leap.
*For more, read my previous post on the nature of the online classroom.
**Faculty Developer: An instructor engaged in the online course creation process.
Most instructors cannot imagine teaching without the constant flow of social and cognitive information closeness affords. Every expression of boredom, blank look, and student “cell phone break” suggests a need for possible instructional adjustments. Additionally, a class’s fixed time frame guarantees at least semi-attention from the learners. It is not feasible for this “captive audience” to fully ignore faculty instructions, expectations, and suggestions. Experienced instructors recognize that much of their success as educators depends on managing these behavioral cues, and making the most of a class’s fixed time frame.
If proximity is critical, how can an online class, characterized by a lack of proximity, hope to stimulate learning?
The good news is that online courses can be a fruitful and satisfying experiences for both instructors and learners. Proximity is a fantastic delivery platform for instruction, but it is not the only platform. Learning management systems (LMSs) are capable of distributing content with surprising effectiveness. Despite this, proximity provides a variety of obvious and subtle benefits.
When the faculty developer begins to create materials, their tendency is to focus on proximity’s obvious benefit, i.e. a platform for delivering lectures, discussions, and assignments. These are the elements of face2face instruction; teachers plan in advance. Subtle details passed “on-the-fly” in the physical classroom, must be explicitly prepared for an online class. These subtle forms of communication include context, expectations, logistics, emotional support, and pathways for approaching concepts.
Physical proximity is a two-way street. Just as experienced instructors pickup information from students, learners gather valuable data from their teachers. Pupils sort through this information, relying on cues to gauge the relative importance of concepts, behavioral standards, and instructor expectations. When developing content for the online classroom, it is critical to supply these subtle cues. Indeed, to meet established learning goals, online learners often need substantially more faculty direction.
Intentionally Simulating Proximity: Goals
- To encourage faculty developers to reflect on previous teaching experiences.
– What types of communication do I facilitate when teaching?
– What is the instructional purpose of these communications (i.e. what is their function)?
– Am I verbally passing important information about logistics, expectations or context?
– Is this information available in a written format (e.g. in syllabus)?
- To create for learners the impression that their online instructor is socially and cognitively “present” in the virtual classroom.
- Demonstrate to the online faculty member how their social and cognitive presence is valued and essential.
- To allow for the smooth functioning of instructional workflows (i.e. keeping students on task with limited disruptions).
- To generate greater levels of student retention, satisfaction and success.
Proximity: Obvious Benefits
As mentioned, being in the same place at the same time provides a delivery platform for lectures, discussions, and assignments; activities that are part-and-parcel of the face2face experience. When prepping for a face2face class, these are the types of activities instructors plan in advance. An LMS also provides a delivery platform for these activities. When asked to develop materials for the virtual classroom, faculty frequently start with content they are accustom to pre-creating: lectures, discussions, and assignments.
This is where the course creation process begins, and all too often where it ends.
Content Delivery (Lectures)
|Face2Face Content Delivery|
Benefits: Proximity has historically provided a flexible platform for delivering a variety content. Until the media age, almost every type of skill and concept has been taught in close physical proximity.
Planned types of communication can include:
As mentioned, a class’s fixed time frame guarantees at least semi-attention from the learners. It is not possible to fully ignore in class activities.
|Online Content Delivery: Limitations & Suggestions|
Possibilities: Learning management systems are capable of delivery the full range of instructional content.
Limitations: Most college students actively multitask while studying, reducing information absorption rates and increasing task completion times. Many face2face instructors have taken a hard line on multitasking, directing learners to shut their laptops and turned off smartphones. However, online students often feel invisible; expecting their actions to go unnoticed. The ability to multitask, without being directly observed, allows learners to leave the virtual classroom over and over again. As a result, students often have trouble retaining their focus.
Benefits: Since the time of Socrates, directed conversation has been an excellent way to facilitate learning. Proximity allows instructors to gauge student understanding, quickly adapting strategies to meet their audience’s needs.
Discussions can be seen as a form of both planned and unplanned communication. Though unscripted, by planning topics and goals in advance, the face2face instructor can keep discussions focused on the specific learning outcomes.
A class’s fixed time frame creates a social and cognitive community, with its own rules, expectations and interests. Similarly, creating a thriving online learning community requires a clear sense of social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence.
(This section on discussions relies heavily on “Strategies for Creating a Community of Inquiry through Online Asynchronous Discussions“ by deNoylles, Zydney & Chen).
|Online Discussions: Limitations & Suggestions|
Limitations: Creating effective online discussions can be challenging. Online interactions are too often structured in the following way: “question, post, reply.” This form of discussion involves an exploration of materials, but learners are rarely asked to draw broader connections, expanding on concepts or apply these ideas in new contexts. In short, most discussions allow students to share a concept of factoid, but fail to facilitate further conceptual development… (e.g. “show-n-tell” for college students).
How can online discussions be moved beyond the artificial, and toward the stimulating?
Social presence is critical in the online classroom. During discussions, instructors and learners want to be perceived as “real people.” Presence can be created through open “safe” communication, productive (i.e. unforced) group collaborations and emotional expression (e.g. humor). When social presence is established, a productive cognitive space can be created. A place where learners can explore, digest, reconnect and apply course concepts to real-world problems.
In order for social and cognitive presence to flourish, “teaching presence” is needed. Teaching presence takes the form of clear organization, defined procedures, regular faculty interactions/feedback and established evaluation criteria.
Let’s look at a few strategies for stimulating an online learning community.
Benefits: Proximity allows instructors to craft and share assignments, based on the needs of individual classes. In this context, it’s easy to clarify directions, provide logistical support and articulate expectations. It is also possible to handout and collect assignment with relative ease.
(This section is drawn from the “Characteristics of Effective Online Assignments,“ developed by Brown University).
|Online Assignments: Limitations & Suggestions|
Limitations: All assessments types used in the face2face classroom can be implemented in the online classroom. However, in the virtual classroom, learners need greater levels of direction and support. Remember, in the face2face classroom this information can be passed verbally, but online it needs written down and included within the instructions.
Lectures, discussions, and assignments are critical but do not by themselves constitute a course or simulate proximity.
In my previous post, I asked the following:
If provided with lectures, assignments and discussions, but denied your presence, would your face2face students be able to reach established learning goals?
The subtle benefits described below, allow online instructors to simulate proximity.
Proximity: Subtle Benefits
Proximity provides a platform for communicating important information pertaining to logistics, expectations, and context***. Unlike more obvious forms of instruction (lectures, assignments, discussions), these communications are generally not preplanned. More often, these interactions are adaptive responses to active and passive in class stimuli. A student seeking to clarify course logistics is an example of active stimulus. Similarly, a content review, triggered by an unfocused learner response, would be an adaptive solution to active stimulus. Passive stimuli may include: looks of confusion, heavy sighs, texting, packing up early and constant clock watching (i.e. body language cues that suggest the need for a change in instructional method).
***The distinctions drawn between types of subtle communication, exist only to facilitate the conversation. In reality, instructors move fluidly between these modes, forming them adeptly onto an integrated whole. In the eLearning world, these interactions are collectively referred to as social presence.
Though unplanned, these subtle forms of communication are far from unimportant. Much of what keeps participants “on task” is generated spontaneously to satisfy specific instructional needs. Unfortunately, the ability to organically pass and receive mission-critical information is not native to the online classroom. Despite this fact, learners still need these cues so planning for their loss is critical.
Let’s examine several of the subtler benefits of proximity, the obstacles inherent in the online classroom and strategies for retaking this critical instructional ground.
Logistics: “When & Where”
Information learners need in order to function effectively in the classroom, including: due dates, grade weights, location of resources, contact information, etc.
Benefits: During a face2face class session, instructors invariably supply students with a variety of logistical data including announcements of schedule changes/requirements, due dates for assignments, reminders of upcoming exams, lists, and locations of reading materials, sign-up for individual meeting times, library information, study center support, etc. In short, everything a student needs to know in order to keep up with the class’s flow.
The face2face classroom’s fixed time frame ensures that students will receive this critical information regardless of whether they care to receive it. For example, one of the most critical events in a face2face class is the syllabus review. Though never an entertainment highlight, it is essential for outlining critical course policies, behavioral standards, due dates and large assessments pieces.
Students want to know “when” things are happening and “where” to find instructions, resources, and support.
|Online Logistics: Limitations & Suggestions|
Limitations: Without the regularity of a fix meeting time, online learners need clear and prominent logistical prompts. Lucky for instructors, LMSs provide many ways to keep your students up to date. In fact, LMSs often overwhelming learners with mountains of notifications. Some of these notifications are important, some are simple reminders and others are junk. Often instructors send announcements out on top of these notifications, leaving student’s feeling badgered.
Context & Emphasis: “What & Why”
Instructional indicators suggesting: the relative importance of materials, approaches for understanding content and conceptual frameworks.
|Face2Face Context & Emphasis|
Benefits: When students understand how lessons fit within a unit, how units fit within a course and how a course fits within the field of study, learning outcomes improve. Learners want to know “why” they are being asked to master content and complete assignments. Learners hate “busy work,” i.e. homework without discernible purpose. As such, assessments should allow students to practice working with concepts in “real world” settings and situations.
When approaching difficult concepts, students appreciate hints and tips. Face2face instructors routinely parse content for learners: “this material is critical, this is interesting but will not be on the exam and the following will be important in the future.” This added emphasis helps students prioritize their efforts and reduces cognitive load.
Students what to know “what” they need to learn and “why” they need to learn it.
|Online Context & Emphasis: Limitations & Suggestions|
Limitations: Using an LMS, it is possible to provide learners with indications of contextual importance. However, there is no built-in functionality that supports these indicators. Without physical proximity, the best way to communicate background information is to “write it down!” Weekly announcements, unit overview pages, assignments instructions and content pages are ideal places to include contextual information.
Standards dictating how student progress and behavior will be measured.
Benefits: How many times have you heard the following: “what do I have to do to get an A in this class?” Learners appreciate knowing “how” they will be evaluated. Ambiguity can be a source of fear and frustration. Sensing this, instructors provide students with valuable assistance in the form of exam study guides, discussion feedback, assignment reviews, rubrics and sample questions.
Additionally, proximity allows instructors to monitor and adjust student behavior. In the higher-ed classroom, behavioral issues usually revolve around excessive absences, late arrivals, early departures, plagiarism, texting/multitasking, lack of participation and missed assignments. Disruptive conduct affects the entire classes’ learning experience. Laying down clear expectations helps keep everyone on task.
Students what to know “how” they will be evaluated.
|Online Expectations: Limitations & Suggestions|
Limitations: LMSs allow instructors to convey their expectations in a variety of ways. As with “context and emphasis”, the best way to broadcast your expectations is to “write them down!” Most LMSs allow instructors to attach rubrics to assignments. A well-constructed rubric can communicate expectations with surprising clarity. Additionally, assignment instructions are a great place to include clarifying information.
Student behavior is relatively easy to track through an LMS’s analytics suite. These systems provide a wealth data including time spent in lessons, progress through assessments, the relative success of individuals, areas of group confusion, and levels of participation. Additional services allow instructors to scan written assignments for plagiarism (e.g. TurnItin.com) and remotely proctor exams (e.g. ProctorTrack). Lastly, online students commonly report technical issues. Tracking information makes judging the veracity of these reports easier.
Unfortunately, there are no tools that will keep online students from multitasking. Statements outlining the dangers of multitasking are helpful.
Takeaway Message for Faculty:
If you talk about it in your face2face class, you need to talk about it in your online class. Whether you call it proximity or social presence, students need the full range of communication from their instructors. You have all the knowledge you need at their fingertips. Reflect on your experiences and trust your instincts!