physical proximity

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.


“captive audience.”

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.

nullPhysical 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

  1. 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)?
  2. To create for learners the impression that their online instructor is socially and cognitively “present” in the virtual classroom.
  3. Demonstrate to the online faculty member how their social and cognitive presence is valued and essential.
  4. To allow for the smooth functioning of instructional workflows (i.e. keeping students on task with limited disruptions).
  5. To generate greater levels of student retention, satisfaction and success.

Proximity: Obvious Benefits

nullAs 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:

  • Lectures
  • Demos
  • Media
  • Guest Speakers
  • Interviews
  • Readings

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.

  • Lectures – Prerecorded Video
  • Lectures – Live Class Sessions
  • Demos
  • Media
  • Guest Speakers (Live & Prerecorded)
  • Interviews (Live & Prerecorded)
  • Readings

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.


  1. “Chunk” material into small digestible bites (5-10min). Without physical proximity, keeping students focused for more than a few minutes can be hard. Chunking your material acknowledges this reality. In the face2face classroom this happens naturally when you answer questions, test student understanding, reexplain confusing concepts and summarize content. In the online classroom, we must plan these lecture “interruptions” deliberately.
  2. No-Risk Questions: Provide opportunities for learners to “check their understanding” of each lecture’s content. No-risk questions allow learners to gauge their understanding outside of pressure usually inherent in formal assessments. Putting these questions between lecture chunks, gives learners mini-cognitive breaks and improves focused attention.
  3. Track student activity with your learning management system’s (LMS’s) internal data analytics. Understanding how students spend their time will make answering a host of questions easier. Tracking data also allows the instructor to identify under performing/absent pupils.
  4. Never answer open-ended questions. Learners often attempt assessments before reading the associated lessons. Failing to understand concepts immediately, students often insist that the instructor needs to reexplain the content. Don’t fall for it. Insist that your students ask specific and targeted questions before providing answers.
  5. Remind students that good time management skills, quiet environments and concentrated study periods are essential. – Consider starting a multitasking debate/discussion. In her article “Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t,” Maryellen Weimer has challenges students to draw their own conclusions about multitasking. Have your students debate each side of this issue.


Face2Face Discussions

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.


  1. Social Presence Cues: Model good social cues by addressing everyone by name, describing personal/professional experiences, encouraging participation, and by being funny where appropriate. Building a safe social environment goes a long way towards encouraging participation.
  2. Required Discussion: If discussions are not required, students will not participate. Studies suggest that discussions should be worth between 10%-20% of the overall course grade.
  3. Reward Participation: Giving micro rewards for insightful or productive contributions has been shown to improve communication.
  4. Problem-based prompts: Write questions focusing on problems related to important course topics. Ask students to discuss and propose solutions to these problems. Problem-based prompts work well as group discussions. Ideally, there should be several ways of “correctly” solving each problem.
  5. Project-based prompts: These are similar to problem-based prompts, but in this instance, learners are asked to research and prototype a plan for addressing conceptual problems. Several guidelines are suggested: 1) allow for multiple iterations over the span of a module or course, 2) set up clear milestones for development, 3) ask learners to reflect on their undertakings and 4) provide increased support as learners reach the end of the process.
    – Be sure to carefully outline your evaluation strategy for this activity.
  6. Debate Prompts. Ask students to research and debate a contentious topic. Learners do not need to be assigned based on preference and should understand that it is their responsibility to clearly articulate their side’s position. Beyond simply outlining their position, learners should challenge opponents, formulate arguments, examine preconceptions and work through areas of disagreement. Lastly, students should attempt to persuade others of their assigned position.
    – In this type of discussion, it is important for the instructor to model and enforce respectful and productive forms of communication.
  7. Question: It is not enough to simply allow learners to present concepts or factoids. If the learner proposes a solution to a problem, one technique would be to ask for more details about their plan’s implementation. The important thing is to get the learner to reexamine and re-conceptualize the content they are presenting.
    – Make it clear in advance that you will be asking these types of questions. Students do not like to feel singled out.
  8. Challenge: Play the “devil’s advocate” and provide alternate solutions and/or evidence. Ask learners to respond to these different viewpoints.
    – Use this technique in moderation. It’s easy to accidentally take over a conversation.
  9. Feedback: Respond promptly to your students, but don’t overwhelm them. You are there to facilitate/focus the conversation, not to become its center.
  10. Peers: Assign students the role of “devil’s advocate” or ask them to “challenge” their colleagues with requests for clarification.
  11. Audio & Video Feedback: Remember that you can respond to students with audio and/or video feedback. This is a great way to create presence, clarify intentions and to make certain the emotional “tone” of your remarks are understood.


Face2Face Assignments

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.


  1. Make Use of the Web: The web provides an enormous creative repository of online tools, platforms, services and content. Feel free to incorporate these resources into your assignments! Encourage your students to explore concepts through the varied lens the web provides. Do not feel constrained by the limitations of your LMS.
  2. Start off with a Bang: A student’s initial performance often indicates their future prospects. As such, take some time to develop an interesting and engaging first assignment. Don’t bore learners to lethargy before your course even starts going.
  3. Why! 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, so provide context.
  4. Clear Evaluation Criteria: Students want to know how they will be evaluated. Providing clear rubrics and criteria in advance, allows students to focus on the important aspects of each assessment.
  5. Clear Directions: Detailed directions help students understand what to do and how to do it. It is considered a “best practice” to keep directions short. Learners are more likely to finish reading directions if they are short.
  6. Flexibility: Provide several ways for learners to complete assignments. For instance, allow students to give presentations in a variety of formats: video, white paper, long form paper, blog post, etc.
  7. Provide Examples: When assigning essays or discussions prompts, provide examples of “high quality” work. These samples will help students understand what you are looking for. Keep a repository of samples (good & bad) for future use. Remember to ask permission before using a student’s work.

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

nullProximity 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.

Face2Face Logistics

nullBenefits: 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.


  1. Deliberate Communication: Cultivating social presence is essential, but a blizzard of communications will not accomplish this. In fact, the more messages you send, the more likely students are to miss them. Limit communications to once a week or once a module. Include in these messages a review of logistical information, suggestions on how to approach the material, feedback on class performance, reminders to seek assistance, etc. For the sake of organization, use the communication tools built into your LMS (email and announcements).
  2. Plan Ahead: Students understand when a change in schedule is needed. However, too many adjustments can be disorienting and frustrating. Where possible, work out an entire class schedule in advance.
  3. Important Information: If a message is critical, say so in the subject line.
  4. LMS Notifications: Most LMSs contain a notification system. Take the time to understand and test this system before your course starts. Understanding how these systems function will result in less fruitless/embarrassing communications.
  5. Display Information Prominently: Make sure that each assessment lists due dates, expectations and when possible, a rubric. It is also helpful to provide students with a list of tasks to accomplish in each module. This information can be included in the module’s text, provided as a downloadable file or included in your weekly email (or all three).
  6. Track Students: Most LMSs provide instructors with a suite of data tools. By monitoring participation and assessment completion data, it is easy to see which students are most “at risk.” Reach out directly to these individuals with reminders, clarifications, appropriate feedback and offers of assistance. A little attention can go a long way towards creating a student success story.
  7. Syllabus: Online students are notorious unwilling to read the syllabus. One solution is to review this key information with a syllabus quiz. A sample true/false question might be: “I understand that all work for unit 1 is due by the third week of class.”
    – Syllabus scavenger hunts are also popular activities. A quick Google search will provide countless examples.

Context & Emphasis: “What & Why”

Instructional indicators suggesting: the relative importance of materials, approaches for understanding content and conceptual frameworks.

Face2Face Context & Emphasis

Context is key

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.


  1. Weekly Updates: As mentioned, sending out periodic updates is a good way to focus student attention on important concepts.
  2. Assignments: Student should understand how an assessment fits in with module and course level learning goals. This information can be included in the instructions. Alternatively, a short audio or video recording can sometimes be an enjoyable way of establishing context.
  3. Readings: Students should understand why they are being asked to read an article, chapter or book. Readings should never be included solely to “beef up” weak content areas. When assigning a reading, make sure to highlight important concepts, interesting author perspectives/biases and critical “take away” messages.
  4. Summaries: During lectures, it is useful to periodically highlight important concepts and outline major instructional components. This allows students to create a cognitive framework.
  5. Live Reviews: Many video streaming platforms (e.g. YouTube) allow instructors to host live teaching events. Even if a course is fully asynchronous, it is still possible to facilitate periodic reviews of content. These live events are great ways to demo techniques and suggest approaches for mastering difficult material.
  6. Chunking Material: One way to communicate emphasis is to break your lecture content into smaller chunks. Studies have shown that online students tend to multitask while studying. As such, many learners digest information in small bites. Creating a series of small lectures allow instructors to focus on single concepts/issues, without losing student attention.
  7. Learning Objective: Creating clear and measurable learning objectives is beneficial for both the faculty developer and the learner. Specific instructional goals help faculty developer clarify and focus their content. In turn, learners can use learning objectives to decide which content to focus on and why.
  8. Guest Speakers & Demos: Targeted media can be a good way of highlighting important concepts, allowing students to consider things from a different perspective. Changes in media can also be a way to relieve cognitive fatigue.
  9. Say What you Think: One of the best ways to improve student understanding is to explain your thought process. As you breakdown materials, articulate your decisions making procedure. This provides students with a wealth of contextual information.

Expectations: “How”

Standards dictating how student progress and behavior will be measured.

Face2Face Expectations

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. 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.


  1. Self-Check Questions: Students like to gauge their level of understanding. Providing no-risk questions and prompts help students identify problem areas.
  2. Rubrics: As mentioned above, rubrics are a great way to communicate your expectations. Online students will often aggressively “grade grab.” Explicitly articulated performance requirements make this less common.
  3. Sample Exam Questions: When requiring high-risk exams, provide learners with sample study questions. Be sure to include answers and explanations for each question.
  4. Expectations Video: Consider creating a video introduction that details your expectations. This can include a discussion of important assessment pieces, an acknowledgment of common student concerns and support suggestions.
  5. Expectations Quiz: A short quiz, addressing course policies and behavioral expectations can also be useful. Most LMSs allow quizzes to function as gates, restricting full course participation until completed. A simple true/false question might be: “I understand that working on projects collaboratively is prohibited.”
  6. Discussion Forum: Students appreciate the opportunity to ask questions and seek advice. Provide a class forum that allows general questions to be asked and answered.
  7. Feedback: Provide targeted and appropriate feedback. If a student is not meeting expectations, determine if the given instructions are adequate. Provide feedback to individuals and groups, clarifying your expectations and providing strategies for improvement.
  8. Auto-Graded Assignments: Remember to included targeted feedback in your auto-graded assignments.

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!