January 08 2007 (Revised July 23 2012)
eCoaching Tip 31: Being Present and Communicating with Your Students
This tip has two quick messages and reminders:
- The importance of “being present” in your course site
- Trends in communicating with your students
The Importance of Being Present in Your Course Site
What works best for you for being present for your students? Do you like to focus on your online class on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays with lighter monitoring the other days? Or do you prefer to work almost daily, providing posting feedback on Mondays, monitoring early postings on Wednesday, and facilitating in depth Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, possibly posting discussion wraps late on Saturday and monitoring for criticals on Sunday?
Just as the students in your classes stay on track better when they schedule specific times and places for learning, it works best for faculty to schedule specific times and places for working on your course, and to communicate this schedule to your students, probably in your welcome message and your syllabus, with occasional reminders in your announcements.
There are months of the year, such as January, June and September when personal and work schedules often shift around a bit. Being specific about when and where we do our work makes a real difference. Regular, daily comments and coaching is the real key to student and faculty satisfaction with the online learning experience. The most effective teaching and learning occurs within the context of personal knowledge and attention.
The Importance of Students’ Presence
Just as faculty presence is essential, so is the presence of the students. Your expectation for the number of hours that your course will require is an important message to include in your syllabus. This tells the students how many hours a week they should plan for on a regular weekly basis for being dedicated and involved in the class. Then they can plan for that time and space and make arrangements and manage expectations with family and friends.
Being Present from the Very Beginning with Students and with Content
It’s often easy to slip into old habits of teaching in a campus classroom and forgetting about how important it is to be fully present as a three-dimensional person to your students and to discuss course goals and competencies with your students. Here is a five-item checklist to use as you design and finalize your syllabus and course design.
- Have you incorporated ways of “making yourself known” to your students? Are you finding ways to share personal and professional activities and experiences for making personal and professional connections with your students? This is part of social presence.
- Do you have a Getting Acquainted discussion forum as the first discussion forum in your course? Have you customized one or two questions to your course content and goals?
- Your virtual presence. Have you communicated to your students your preferred ways and whens of being in the class community? And encouraged student-to-student dialogue and support?
- Do you make provisions for checking with every students to ensure that they have access to content, materials, and can use the course site? One way of doing this is to required some initial tasks, such as posting in forums, and submitting practice questions, goals or background material.
- Does your syllabus include the performance goals for the course and do you have a forum or discussion space for discussing these with your students? In other words, do the students understand the goals for how their knowledge and competencies will develop and be enriched over the next 8 to 15 weeks? What skills or goals do the students have individually for themselves?
It is hard to overestimate the importance of presence and interaction with students. The reasons for this, I believe, is that presence and interaction and coaching conveys the message that we care about our students and care about their learning.
Trends in Communicating with My Students or Should I Text Twitter or Email?
Tools for communicating are changing so rapidly that what was “in” is now probably “out.” A 2012 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project summarizes their report on Teens, Smartphones & Texting as follows:
63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. This far surpasses the frequency with which they pick other forms of daily communication, including phone calling by cell phone (39% do that with others every day), face-to-face socializing outside of school (35%), social network site messaging (29%), instant messaging (22%), talking on landlines (19%) and emailing (6%). (p.2)
This report analyzed use of tools by teens, rather than students in higher education, but the trends are clear. The dominant use of fast communication is texting and probably on a smart phone. At the time of the report, 31% of teens 14-17 had a smartphone while 77% had cell phones. So this type of communication is mobile, fast and ubiquitous. What impact does this have for online learning? Does this mean we (faculty) should be using texting for communicating with our students.
Before you lean back in quick rejection, here are some of the possibilities identified by an arts teacher in a 2009 conference presentation (Lominé & Buckhingham). In some cases, texting can be an effective stop-gap tool when access to wifi is not an option.
Direct Teaching:Interactions with questions or sharing views; learning activities’ instructions or clarifications, keeping in touch with a team on a project.
Teaching-related:Providing personalized support, motivational messages, feedback on ideas, alerts to check course site.
Generalized communication:Reminders of key dates, schedule changes, updates, or reminders to read a certain article for a project or assignment.
As reported by the Pew project, teens seem to be rejecting email, now perceived as only marginally better than snail mail, while embracing the “near synchronous” capabilities of texting. While most knowledge exchanges of any significant nature require more time and sophistication than what is usually available with texting, texting can be a good tool for quick questions, and for setting up times and avenues for longer discussions.
An earlier (2002) study by Grinter and Palen that analyzed the use of instant messaging in teen life uncovered an undergraduate teaching assistant who set up times that he would be available to “discuss programming problems with students” (p. 25). In that same study the authors noted that there was anecdotal evidence that IM was being used by other faculty to “field questions from students.”
All these tools do come back to the recommendation of setting times and channels for being accessible to students. The form of the communication is not as important as finding and setting times and places and tools that work.
Grinter, R. E. and Palen, L. Instant Messaging in Teen Life.Proceedings of the 2002 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work New Orleans, Louisiana, pp. 21 to 30, 2002. Retrieved July 17 2012 from http://www.cs.colorado.edu/~palen/Papers/grinter-palen-IM.pdf
Lenhart, A. (2012). Teens, Smartphones & Texting. Report from Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. March 19 2012. Retrieved July 24 from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Teens-and-smartphones.aspx
Lominé, L. L., & Buckhingham, C. (2009). M-learning: texting (SMS) as a teaching & learning tool in higher arts education. Paper presented at the ELIA Teachers’ Academy 2009, Sofia.
Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016 in the second edition of the book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.