Successful Online Learning: Teaching Presence and Social Connections

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Online learning can easily feel like a very lonely and isolating experience, especially for students used to in-person learning. Students miss easy interaction with their instructor and classmates. They miss being able to ask questions on the spot and being able to learn with others. Instructors miss these social aspects, too!

In fact, social connections are essential to successful learning experiences! Learners learn better when they interact with their instructor and classmates and when they feel like they are part of a learning community.

An online learning experience will never exactly replicate an in-person experience, but there are ways to “humanize” online learning that will allow students to form the social connections that they need and that allow learners to learn the way in which they learn best.

I recently presented a webinar on humanizing online learning. (It resulted in an interview with my campus newscenter!) Here, I will share a couple of strategies for instructors to “humanize” the experience to help online learners be as successful as in-person learners.

Teaching Presence

The biggest thing missing from online learning is the ability for students to ask questions on the spot and for the teacher to be able to look at their students and talk to them and make sure that they’re understanding as they’re learning. It’s very easy for students to get lost online because the onus is on them to check in to the class and to check their email and to reach out to the instructor if they have problems.

Faculty can begin to bridge this “human” gap between in-person and online learning by cultivating “teaching presence.” This is the first step to helping students connect socially to their online courses.

“Teaching presence” is both the act of developing an online course and then facilitating it. Instructor presence is important because it helps motivate students and reminds them that they’re part of a learning community. Careful development of an online course includes thinking about what students need to learn, how they’ll learn it, how they’ll know they learned it (via assignments and feedback), and how the instructor will help them along the way.

An instructor begins to cultivate “presence” by designing a course that has opportunities for student-instructor interaction (and student-student interaction) built in. Then, once the course is in session, an instructor continues to cultivate presence by interacting with students and facilitating learning activities. For instance, the instructor should moderate class discussions, including asynchronous discussions. The instructor should offer feedback to help guide student learning. Additionally, the instructor maintains presence by responding promptly to student communications, by holding office hours, and by proactively reaching out to students as a class as well as individually if they seem to be struggling (e.g. not logging into class, missing assignments). An instructor can record short weekly videos to explain what’s going on that week, and to go over specific class topics.

The more of a presence the instructor cultivates, the more likely students will view the instructor as a friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable person that cares. If a student feels like their instructor cares about them, they’re more likely to participate in the class and reach out to the instructor with any issues or questions.

Regularly cultivating “teaching presence” is also a method of adding a social aspect to online courses. An instructor can help prevent students from feeling isolated by building in lots of activities that have a social aspect. With social activities, students will feel more of a connection to the course and feel more motivated to participate. Building in social interaction from the very start helps keep that instructor presence going.

Importance of Social Connections

Going to class in-person is often something to look forward to. A student might look forward to chatting with the instructor and with other students, participating in the social life on the campus, and other campus amenities.

In contrast, online learning has a lot of pitfalls for students. They have to remember to log into class, which ironically is harder to do because they don’t have to really go out of their way to do it. Students have more distractions at home to keep them from logging in or participating fully.

While students are online in a class, they don’t see the faces of their classmates except as very tiny icons. They don’t see their instructor except as another icon and maybe through some occasional emails or announcements. On Zoom, most students keep their cameras off. If students want social interaction, they would have to intentionally reach out by email to the instructor or to their classmates. This can feel unnatural and inauthentic, and students may even perceive it as unwelcome by other students or their instructor. Feeling disconnected socially is a barrier to successful learning.

Incorporating social aspects to a learning experience have been proven to lead to greater student retention and in greater student educational success overall. This is the traditional college experience that many students seek when they go to college. They want to be part of a community of learners, they want to discuss what they’re learning with others, and they want to interact with their instructor easily.

Cal State Fullerton (where I teach) often emphasizes High-Impact Educational Practices. These are eleven practices that lead to greater student retention and success. Interestingly, of the eleven practices, four of them relate to a social aspect of learning. I find this really significant. This shows how important it is that we try to replicate these experiences as much as possible in an online environment.

Building in social opportunities better connects students to their classes – even online. When students are better connected, they are more likely to log into class and participate. They are also more likely to reach out to their instructor and classmates!

Instructors should model healthy social interaction in class. Display empathy and help students connect with you and one another. Design assignments that require students to interact with each other, and with you!

Takeaways

When teaching online, keep in mind that students easily feel isolated and disconnected from their classes. Cultivate a “teaching presence” by being intentional in creating social opportunities and regularly reaching out to students. Students that feel like their instructor cares about them are more likely to care about class.

Build in social activities to class so that learners build connections to their classmates and feel like they are part of a learning community. Class discussions and group work are two ways to help students get to know their classmates and instructor, which will help motivate them to log in and participate.

It can feel awkward at first to cultivate a teaching presence and social opportunities, but it’s essential to create successful online learning experiences.