Power of the ‘Profile Pic’ in Online Learning

Meeting someone with a paper bag over his or her head is a disconcerting experience – conversing with this person can be downright alarming. Trying to carry a meaningful conversation through a thick piece of paper is … awkward. The likelihood of creating any kind of relationship with our masked friend is about nil. I draw this parallel to illustrate how learners might feel in an online learning classroom where there is no visual, or even voice representation of fellow students – which I suggest is a serious barrier to learning. In my own experience as a graduate student in online classes using Blackboard as the learning platform, though there was the capability of uploading pics to a profile, this feature was not utilized. Hence, the  connection I made with peers was primarily through discussion forums, and though we used our names, I found it one-dimensional, impersonal. I had a hard time recognizing classmates in subsequent classes. Working in groups too was impersonal, however in the instances a group used Skype, the experience was far more engaging and personal. Though I would be remiss if I didn’t’ state the truth, that for the most part once involved in discussions that were engaging, interesting and even controversial, this ‘identify’ barrier did disappear to an extent, yet I yearned for the visual.

Social Media is ‘Social’ with the Profile Pic
As I’ve written about in previous posts, social presence is a critical aspect of online learning, and if we consider similar online communities, for example Twitter and Facebook, we do find visual representation [profile pic] is part of the social process. Socializing or the act being social, involves and requires an element of self-disclosure or self presentation, before engagement and involvement with others can occur – which rationalizes why Social Media facilitates self-presentation through the oh-so-familiar profile picture.

Social Media Building Blocks
In a recently published paper, Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media, the authors suggest a framework for understanding social media platforms. The framework includes seven functional building blocks which are: identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation, and groups, all of which contribute to making it ‘work’ in the virtual world  (Kietzman et al., 2011). The authors suggest that companies interested in developing a social media community emphasize certain building blocks over others depending upon their objectives. For example, Facebook emphasizes ‘sharing’ and LinkedIn ‘reputation’, however, identity and presence are common to all. The implications for education are significant nonetheless, as discussed below.

Why Learning Needs Identify
I suggest that any online learning community, require participants to use a profile picture or image to satisfy the ‘identify’ element. Social presence is required for learners to feel comfortable to engage in dialogue with their peers and instructor(s), and to participate in actively in learning, which ultimately creates the foundation for the learner to use critical thinking skills, and construct knowledge.

To illustrate the point of how identify is perceived online – humour me and look at the image below. What do you think when viewing this profile image – perhaps as a recommended ‘friend‘ for you to befriend on Facebook?

Exactly – in most cases the perception is (whether correct or not) that individuals with empty or generic profiles such as the one above, does not use Facebook on a regular basis, are not actively engaged, and are not ‘present.  Do you see the connection?  This person has a paper bag over his head (or hers).

I’m an advocate for making learning social – which begins with learners establishing an identify, a personal profile. However, by using the terms social and learning in the same sentence, I am not suggesting that learning be fluffy, without rigor or shy’s away using critical thinking skills. But, in order that learning and education appear relevant to today’s learners, we need to get-with-the program and incorporate social media components that we use everyday into our learning platforms. Suggestions:

  • Moodle has the capability for uploading profile pics – I suggest educators use it. We use Moodle at our workplace, and though we don’t mandate that students upload profile pics, we strongly suggest it. As a result about 75% of students upload an ‘identify’.
  • Same goes for Blackboard – use the profile features!
  • Check out Pearson’s Open Class [still in Beta] which features a Facebook like interface – making it appear relevant and current.
  • Create a Facebook School Group through Facebook’s platform.
  • Encourage use of  Google + Hangouts, Skype, Elluminate Live for collaborative group work.

These are only a few suggestions – there are many other tools to bring online learning to life, create an identify, and make it personal for students in order that deep, authentic learning happens.

Kietzman et al. 2011. Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media, ScienceDirect.com

Do we Need Social Butterflies in Online Learning?, OnlinelearningInsights

Instructor Presence in the Online Class – Key to Learner Success

Part 1 in a 3 part series on the  concept of ‘Presence’ in the Online Classroom.

Instructor presence in the online environment can be elusive as a shadow – it’s one dimensional, monochromatic and takes on various forms depending upon the point of view. Yet, instructor presence in online learning communities is vital to ‘complete learning’ (by complete I mean student engages with content, applies higher order thinking skills, and produces tangible evidence that learning objectives are met). In the virtual environment the instructor needs to be ‘real’, 3 dimensional, have a personality, be the subject matter expert and as if this isn’t enough, help the student achieve the learning goals in this virtual space. A tall order. In this post I’ll share why and how instructor [virtual] presence is critical, essential instructional design components to facilitate presence, and strategies used by instructors that demonstrate presence.

Community of Learning (Garrison)What is Online presence?
The concept of ‘presence’ in the online environment is in itself complex, involving thought, emotion and behaviours (Lehman and Conceicao, 2011). Presence in this context can be divided into categories of social, cognitive and instructor presence as presented in the Community of Inquiry model, which provides a framework for  learning in the online environment (Garrison, 2003). An uncomplicated definition of online presence is, a sense of ‘being there’ or ‘being together with others’. For students to experience this sense of presence online, the technology must become transparent – the web enabled device, the platform, or site is invisible, in other words:

…the student becomes engaged by the content (whether people, text, images or other) and the technology disappears.

Why Instructor presence is Key to Learner Success
Of course there are theoretical reasons which describe why the role of the instructor is crucial to online learning, but this week as I reviewed student feedback from our most recent session of online courses at my workplace, it became apparent just how important the instructor’s role is, by the level of ‘presence’ as perceived by the student. Below is a selection of student comments which illustrate the value of the instructor. Responses are to this question – “What did you like best about the course”:

Dr. ___  insight and instruction is outstanding. As a student who already holds a Master’s degree in Science, I appreciate a good instructor …

…The best thing about the course was Dr. ___. He really made things so that you could understand them…

Dr. ___ was very helpful, but at this point (the middle of week 8), he still has not uploaded grades for any of the course discussion boards, some of which I submitted 7 weeks ago….[this comment reinforces the value of instructor feedback]

A research study in Journal of Interactive Online Learning supports this observation. The study found that the largest single instructor action that students attributed to their success in the online course was the feedback provided by instructors that helped them [students] understand their strengths and weaknesses. The second most important success factor identified was the “instructor’s ability to focus discussions on relevant issues” (Kupczynsk et al., 2010).

Course Design to Support Instructor Presence
Another concept which is interesting is how the instructional design of the course itself supports ‘presence’. Course design can be considered, the silent instructor. When strong design principles are in place, this frees up the online instructor to invest time in connecting with students in the online community and teaching.

“The need for presentation of clear, concise objectives, instructions and general participation guidelines should be a cornerstone of online course development. Both groups in this study expressed significant frustration when these elements were not present and believed that successful engagement with content and activities was dependent on sound instructional design and organization”. (Kupczynsk, 2010).

How the Instructor can establish presence

  1. The professor as a real person: Our instructors create a one to two minute welcome video. Students watch the clip during the first few days of the class. Instructors create a YouTube video clip (can be private), or create a .mov file on their laptop and upload the clip to our Learning Management platform. I love these clips – each are unique as the professor.  Some are filmed in the instructor’s office, outside, or even in a coffee shop. These clips make the professor ‘real’ and set the tone for an open and interactive learning community.
  2. Communicating regularly: Posting a weekly announcement with course updates, web resources, commenting on course discussion boards and/or upcoming assignments also seems to be an effective method by the instructor communicating ‘en masse’. Using humour strategically can also break the ice and make the class fun, with a humourous YouTube clip or comic.
  3. Feedback on assignments. My absolutely favorite method of feedback that I received as a student, was when my professor recorded feedback on an assignment using the  screen cast format, [Jing is one example]. The file was emailed (and posted in the gradebook). The instructor gave specific, personal commentary, and though it was only 3 or 4 minutes in length, it was effective. Another option is Audacity or Screencast.com.
  4. Feedback/input on Class Discussions. [Not surprising] research also suggests that students respond positively when instructors are involved in class discussions, rating this as a strong indicator of presence.

It takes a completely different skill set to instruct online than in the face-to-face environment. Hopefully this post provided some insight and assistance for those instructors teaching online. I’ll be covering social presence and cognitive presence in part 2 and 3 respectively. Click here for part II, Do we need Social Butterflies in Online Learning Communities?

Lehman, R. & S.C.C. Conceicao. (2011). Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching.
Jossy Bass Publishing. San Fransisco, CA.

Kupczynski, L., Ice, P., Wiesenmayer, R., & McCluskey, F. (2010). Student perceptions of the relationship between indicators of teaching presence and success in online courses. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 9 (1).

Photo Credit: Professor: University of Maryland, Flickr

‘Being There’ in Online Learning with Elluminate Live!

Engage. Empower. Enlighten. After participating in my first Elluminate Live! synchronous (in real-time) lecture two nights ago, I concur with  Blackboard Collaborates’ website (partner company) description of Elluminate Live! as engaging, empowering and enlightening.  In context of previous posts on presence in the online classroom, I definitely felt ‘there’ with 23 classmates and our professor in an Education Statistics course – right at my kitchen table. Collectively we wrote on the white board, asked questions using the ‘raise hand’ icon, and ‘chatted’, even while the prof was talking (whoops).  Sound familiar?  This live lecture experience, across three different times zones, from Canada to Florida was recorded, another worthy feature (lectures can be recorded or even pre-recorded for later viewing and/or archiving).

A screenshot of the Elluminate Live program
Image via Wikipedia

How it Works
Elluminate Live!, by definition a web conferencing tool, is similar to products such as Adobe Connect, or GoToMeeting, yet with its unique interactivity features it’s the best tool I’ve seen for lecture delivery for educational purposes. My favorite tool is the interactive whiteboard. Students can write, draw and highlight text, include pictures on the board, as can the moderator, and is visible to the class.  What if a student writes something inappropriate? The moderator has complete control over all actions and can erase content on the board, and/or freeze participation from one or more students. A handy feature. The audio capabilities are a spiffy feature as well – surprisingly the quality was very good. Instructor and Social presence, is virtually inherent.

YouTube clip which describes this amazing tool in one minute:

What’s the catch?
What are the ‘cons’? Cost came to my mind as the primary barrier – though academic licensing depends upon number of moderators and users. Not much different from any other specialty software used by educational institutions, in other words not cost prohibitive. Elluminate Live website has further details. There is also an option to try it out free for 30 days and even a free version, though this is limited to three users.

Elluminate Live!

Instructor: What’s the Learning Curve?
No user left behind, is the mantra of Elluminate Live! – meaning it’s meant to be easy to use, easy to navigate and user-friendly. I would have to agree, from a user’s perspective at least. Our prof walked us through how to use the tools and in about 10 minutes I got the gist of it. Realistically, I’m sure the learning curve for the moderator is somewhat longer,  but it seems quite intuitive.  There are many resources for learning to use Elluminate Live!, including several quick reference guides, mini sessions on Black Board Collaborate and on YouTube (just type in Elluminate Live). Given the long list of higher ed and K-12 institutions using the tool, I’d imagine the average instructor even somewhat familiar with power point, and with limited tech skills can learn to use it pretty quickly.

Integration with LMS Platforms
According to Blackboard Collaborate, this lecture tool integrates with the majority of Learning Management platforms, Blackboard (of course), Moodle, Desire2Learn and Pearson’s Learning platform. The website has further details.

Final thoughts
Elluminate Live! is an innovative tool that can enhance the online learning class environment. I want to emphasize that it is a tool that can be a tremendous vehicle to build presence, engagement and support authentic learning. Often with the introduction of new technological applications, educators put the tool first, then the learning is designed to fit the tool. We need to remember to start with the learning then select and customize the tool appropriate to the learning needs.  If interested in building further instructor presence in your course, Elluminate Live! may just be what you are looking for! Visit Elluminate Live! for details, and to view demonstrations of pre-recorded sessions.

Keep Learning 🙂

Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom

Teacher Presence: A given in the face-to-face classroom (flickr - CC)

Establishing instructor presence in the online classroom is one of the many challenges for the teacher in the online environment. Is it possible to establish a sense of ‘being there’, a climate for learning and student engagement  while not being physically ‘there’? In my last post we saw an excellent video introducing the concept –  let’s dig in a bit further.

From a student’s perspective
First, let me describe how I would define instructor presence from a student’s perspective. I’ve taken several online courses, and currently I’m enrolled in two. I’ve felt when a prof is there and part of the class, and when the prof is MIA [missing in action] or in absentia. Let me use an analogy of a ghost town to help describe it – a ghost town has the facade of a ‘normal’ town, but is empty – eerie and … lonely. This is what it can feel like when logging onto a course home page, without an instructor being involved, it seems empty  :(.

The online classroom without instructor presence - similar to a Ghost Town (istock image)

This sense of non-instructor involvement can be somewhat unnerving for the student, and potentially overwhelming all at the same time.  I do realize that most  professors may be completely unaware of how their students feel. Hence my effort to explain it – though professor presence is a rather elusive concept.

The Instructor’s Role
The instructor’s role is critical to learning, whether in the face-to-face classroom or online. Studies on distance learning supports the assumption that instructor-to-student, and student-to-student (social presence) interaction is a critical component of learning, and an important factor in learner satisfaction, which leads to learning effectiveness. According to research by Blignaut and Trollip, “Being silent [the instructor] in an online classroom is equivalent to being invisible” and “presence requires action”.

How to Create Online Presence
Though not a tremendous amount of research in this area, there are some solid resources to draw from. As mentioned in previous posts, the book from Jossey Bass, Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Learning  is a good place to start. Below are several other suggestions from available literature:

  • Online instructors’ participation in the online course discussion threads is essential.
  • As stated by one instructor, “When you teach in the classroom, you talk; when you teach online, you participate in threaded discussions. If an instructor is not participating in the threaded discussions, the course becomes a correspondence event rather than an online learning experience.”
  • Use announcement forums or professor news board [within your lms] to communicate with students collectively throughout each week – this helps maintain the focus on learning objectives.
  • Use email, Skype, video messages and/or  feedback on student submitted assignments for instructor-student communication.
  • Instructor presence in the online classroom requires careful planning and foresight, at the earliest stages of course development.
  • Further to the above comment, creating instructor or teaching presence, involves creating a carefully designed course (see diagram below) involving opportunities for interaction and feedback. Threaded discussions are a backbone to interaction.
Published on EdTechTalk (http://edtechtalk.com)