Essential Resources for Educators of Online and Blended Courses

back-to-school_imageIt’s that time of year when educators seek fresh ideas and strategies to create meaningful learning experiences for their students. I too have plans for the upcoming school-year; one of my goals is to create a robust selection of useful resources accessible here on Online Learning Insights. This resource bank will be a list of links by topic targeted to professors, instructors and instructional designers looking for ideas, inspiration and/or skill development specific to online or blended learning and instruction. The resources are carefully selected; I’ve included only those that I refer to consistently, are of high-quality and support knowledge and skill development.

This post [part I] is the beginning of the resource section—it will grow over time. If you have ideas for additional topics, or would like to suggest a resource, please do so by adding a comment to this post.

I. Skills for Teaching Online [Introductory]

Though there are a plethora of available resources specific to skill development for teaching online, I’ve chosen resources to share here that are targeted to educators that are in the developmental phase of teaching blended or online courses.

1. Shifting from a face-to-face setting to an online classroom requires not only a different skill set, by a different mindset. Georgian College’s Center for Teaching and Learning site includes excellent information on online and blended teaching skills for the novice instructor including this article—Key Shifts in Thinking for Online Learning. It’s a good starting point for instructors moving from face-to-face to the online classroom.

2. The most comprehensive resource for teaching online [in my opinion] is the COFA series, Learning to Teach Online produced with University of New South Wales (UNSW).  The program features a series of videos [maximum of six minutes each] available on Youtube. The primary objective of the program is for viewers to gain an understanding of successful online teaching pedagogies. One of the twenty-five videos in the series is  Planning your Online Class which explores the key elements educators need to consider when planning an online or blended class.

3. Teaching presence in the online environment occurs when students feel that the instructor is ‘there’. Though online presence sounds vague, it’s instrumental in supporting meaningful learning. This slideshare Understanding Teaching Presence Online provides an overview of how to establish presence and outlines why it’s essential.

4. Thanks to University of Minnesota State Colleges for this excellent mini-course on how to teach online, Getting Started Online, Advantages, Disadvantages and How to Begin. Open to anyone—this resource is applicable to novice and experienced educators.

II.  Using Rubrics for Effective Instruction and Course Design

1. Chico University created this site for instructors and designers of online courses with the concept of the Rubric for Online Instruction (ROI).  It includes excellent tools for educators wanting to evaluate their own online courses and can be used for course redesign. Though it is geared to faculty teaching within a higher education setting, it can be adapted to other environments.

The Rubric for Online Instruction (ROI) is a tool that can be used to create or evaluate the design of a fully online or blended course.  The rubric is designed to answer the question, “What does high-quality online instruction look like?” http://www.csuchico.edu/roi/the_rubric.shtml

2.  University of West Georgia created a webpage specific to rubrics and included resources about online instruction for faculty including the Five Star Rubric for Online Instruction.

3. This slideshare presentation, Rubrics for College – The Easy Steps Way,  provides a good overview of rubrics that instructors can create for students—tools that provide clarity and guidelines for student assignments and assessments. The presentation covers the why, and the how of rubric implementation applicable to face-to-face and online environments.  More resources specific to student rubrics to follow.

III. Blended Learning and Teaching [Introductory]

Blended Learning Panel @richardgorrie et al [v...
Blended Learning (Photo credit: giulia.forsythe)
Blended learning has several definitions, though overall the idea is that a portion of the face-to-face class time is augmented or replaced by online instruction. In most cases it involves reduced class time, but not always. Results from numerous studies show an increase in student performance with the blended format, more so when the curriculum is adapted and modified to maximize each instructional method.

1. The Clayton Christen Institute gives an overview of the blended model for K-12 and higher education on its site in a section dedicated to defining Blended Learning. The pages include links to several research reports on Blended Learning specific to K-12.

2. This resource, the mother-of-all resources on blended learning from EDUCAUSE, is a comprehensive tool that provides links to numerous research reports on blended learning outcomes as well as how-to tools for educators wanting to implement their own blended learning programs.  The Blended Learning Toolkit: Improving Student Performance and Retention also includes the Blended Learning Toolkit, a how-to resource provided by the University of Central Florida, is an open educational resource licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike license.

3.  Georgian College is one of several higher education institutions implementing the blended model. The schools’ site provides an overview of the pedagogy associated with blended learning, and compares it to online and face-to-face instruction – Blended Online/Face-to-face Courses.  Purdue University, another school recently implementing  blended courses across campus, has a web page designed for its faculty, though it still offers helpful insights for educators of any institution.

Closing
I’ve only just started sharing the many resources that I’ve collected, and in my next post, I’ll share resources on fostering discussion in online environments, learning theory—exploring how people learn, and finally, the pedagogy of MOOCs.

The second post featuring resources for online instructors is available here.

How to Motivate Students in the Online Learning Environment

“Correction does much, but encouragement does more“
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

How can course instructors encourage  their online students to learn?  In this post I’ll describe how course instructors can foster learning in their online classes. I’ll also examine how the needs of online learners differ from students of traditional  learning and how instructors and institutions can support non-traditional students.

This is the third post in a four-part series on strategies for online instruction. In post one and two I introduced the Online Learning Support Framework that divides an online course by weeks into three distinct learning phases. In a twelve-week course for example, phase one comprises weeks 1 to 3, phase two weeks 4 to 8, and phase three weeks 9 to 12. The model describes the learner’s level of self-direction and prescribes the type of academic support required within each phase.

Self-Directed Learning (willingness and capacity to conduct one’s own education)
The Online Learning Support Framework is a model that can help educators understand the distinct needs of the online student. Research suggests that students taking online classes require a sense of self-directed learning (SDL)  (Song & Hill). Yet how can an online learner acquire and develop these skills? This model applies the concept of self-direction and suggests how instructors and institutions can support and guide students through each.

Phase-Two: The Not-so-Needy Student
In the previous post I described phase one where the learner was dependent, subsequently requiring a high level of academic support. Provided the student did in fact receive the support as needed in phase one, then he or she will be equipped to engage with the course content and be ready to learn in phase two.

And what about the Teaching?
In phase two there is a considerable amount of teaching that needs to occur, along with a high level of relational support. Relational in this context means personalized support. Students do not require hand-holding; they are past the ‘needy’ phase but they do require feedback, reinforcement and acknowledgement for the time and energy they have already invested. It is the personal connection and encouragement that is so very needed in online learning. It is the instructor’s encouragement that can make the difference between whether a student is successful or not. Yet how can the instructor bridge the virtual divide of time and space to encourage and motivate?

How to Encourage Online Students
Encouraging can take many forms, though encouragement within this model means that instructors encourage and are ‘there’ for learners providing support on the sidelines, yet are ready to step-up when needed. Students need to know that someone is ‘there’ – someone committed to their learning.

Below I’ve listed several strategies that have great potential to encourage students. I can personally vouch for the strategies listed here – they work.  Most have been used by the  very best of professors that I had when completing online courses for my graduate work.  I’ve also included one or two other methods identified in the research studies already referenced in this post. See resources below for details.

  • Provide timely feedback on assignments. At the beginning of phase two, the student should ideally receive feedback on at least one individual assignment. This provides the instructor with the opportunity to make a connection with the student, thus encourage and motivate a student just at the point when the student is moving towards becoming an independent learner. This reinforces the student’s increasing level of self-direction.
  • Respond to student questions within 24 hours. Doing so encourages focus and commitment – the student senses that someone ‘cares’.
  • Include constructive and personalized feedback on assignments. Specific comments about a student’s work sends a message that his or her learning matters. Even if a grade is poor, constructive and supportive feedback from the instructor is appreciated.
  • Craft a weekly message in the form of a text or video message to post to the course home page. Doing so demonstrates to students that the instructor is indeed involved and engaged in the course.
  • Acknowledge academic challenges. If a given week is challenging academically, provide encouragement and suggest additional resources that students might find helpful.
  • Comment strategically within discussion boards – making note of insightful or notable comments made by students.

Notice from the image of the model below how the need for relational support peaks around the middle and then declines towards the end of phase two. As students become more confident with the course and its content, the need for encouragement in the form of relational support declines. Learners are learning how-to-learn, how-to use the resources, and are becoming less dependent on the instructor and the institution.

How can Institutions Encourage?
Though we did see in phase one the need for a high level of academic and technical support, in phase two the student requires relational support from the institution as well as the instructor.  Institutions can provide encouragement by providing:

  • Easy access to resources that students will need as they become further involved in the course including: library resources, writing skill support and time management instruction.
  • Academic counseling and/or planning.
  • Career service support and/or counseling.

Online students are not unlike traditional students in their need for encouragement. But online learners need encouragement and support at the right time and the right place to keep them on their path to learning. Check back next week as I close this series with a review of phase three – the need for instructors to monitor and guide students to successful course completion.

Resources:

  • Lowe, S.D. Responding to the needs in distance education providing academic and relational support (PARS), (2005). PDF
  • Song, L. & Hill, J. A conceptual model for understanding self-directed learning in online environments, (2007). Journal of Interactive Online Learning, v 6 (1).

Strategies for Online Instructors: Understanding the Needs of the Online Learner

This is the first post in a four-part series that presents instructional strategies addressing the unique  needs of online students. In this post I’ll present a model that outlines three distinct learning phases inherent to an online course and how instructors can support the learner through each.

Cognitive overload. There is no question that online learners suffer from cognitive overload at the start of an online course. Many learners struggle, are ill-equipped to handle the volume of information inherent to an online course. Frequently, students lack the technical skills needed to navigate through the course itself. In a traditional setting the process of assimilating information is different – course material is often distributed throughout the course, the syllabus reviewed, quite often the instructor further clarifies course requirements at various intervals throughout the course. Not so for an online course. Course information is abundant, often delivered all at once. Students can feel as if they are drowning in information and not sure where to begin. I’ve been there.

In the virtual environment a unique skill set is required, quite different than what is needed within a face-to-face (F2F) setting. A high level of motivation is required for online learning, as are time management, organization and self-directed learning skills. Granted, these skills are needed for a F2F class, though at a much higher level in the online course.

Why a Framework of Support is Needed
Students learning online need a different level and type of support. Often there is considerable guidance for first-year students in a F2F setting – yet not for online students.  Research suggests that learners of distance education classes are at a higher risk for dropping out,  performing poorly, or not completing the course. There has been much discussion in higher education circles lately about high drop out rates within online course, yet few resources exist to explain the process of learning in an online environment. A framework to guide instructors is needed.

 Online Learner Support Framework
The framework presented in this post, the Online Learner Support model is based upon  the PARS model, Providing Academic and Relational Support adapted by Stephen D. Lowe (2005). The model is both descriptive and prescriptive, providing insight for the educator into the needs of learners (part I) by analyzing their level of dependence over the duration of the course in three distinct phases. Building on part I, part II is prescriptive in nature outlining specific strategies for instructors and institutions to support online learners. These two parts, when layered together create a practical framework for the instructor and institution.

Part One: Self-directed Learning Phases of Learner
This part of the model is informative as it illustrates the learners inclination to drive the learning process through the phases within a course based upon their level of dependency. Moving through the weeks of a course, the student ideally will learn how-to-learn and become less dependent. Within phase one when the student is dependent, he or she requires direction, instructional and/or institutional support to learn how to navigate and manage the course. I’ll discuss this concept further in my next post, and will elaborate on how instructors can apply this information.

Part Two: Levels of Instructor Support (academic and relational) for Learner
This part outlines specific types of support required to help the virtual student throughout the three phases. Support is divided into two categories: first is relational support. Relational support takes the form of personal interaction and social connection which creates a foundation for student motivation and engagement. The second category is academic and technical support. This level of support requires competent and responsive faculty, technical support, quality materials, tutorial assistance, knowledgeable support staff and orientation to the learning platform.

Next in the Series
The model is dynamic and relevant. Over the next 3 posts I will review each of the three phases in-depth, outlining characteristics of students and providing specific strategies course instructors and institutions can employ to support online students effectively. Check back later this week for my next post titled, Strategies for Online Instruction: How-to support and guide the Dependent Learner.

Resources:
Smith, K.T. (2006). Early Attrition among First Time e-Learners: A Review of Factors that Contribute to Drop-out, Withdrawal and Non-completion Rates of  Adult Learners undertaking eLearning Programmes. JOLT.

Lowe, S. D. (2005). Responding to Learner Needs in Distance Education: Providing Academic and Relational Support (PARS). PDF

Are Video Lectures effective in Online Courses?

  “The instructor-made videos helped me understand the material better.” (Rose, 2011).

100% of the students taking an online course indicated some level of agreement with the above statement. Though the research study was small, the findings are consistent with what we discovered when surveying our own students in an anonymous end-of-course survey that asked a similar question. In my previous post, Mobile or Not? How students watch video lectures I reported the viewing patterns of our students when watching the prerecorded lectures inherent to each credit course within our program. In this post I’ll share the student response results to a question asking about the effectiveness of video lectures in communicating course content. I will also discuss factors that institutions should consider when implementing video lectures within their own online courses.

Our college uses prerecorded videos in two ways, 1) for course welcome messages, a 2-minute clip where the course instructor introduces the course and gives an overview, and 2) (the topic for this post) as the primary method to deliver the course content to the student. To put this into context, each of our courses has between 20 and 30 prerecorded lectures.

What the Students Say:
The following question was part of the recent student survey, and I’ve included the results after each choice in blue text. Though the goal of this question was to identify how effective the lectures videos were in facilitating content delivery, we acknowledge that this method is one-dimensional, that there are multiple methods and approaches to assess effectiveness of prerecorded lectures. An accurate and efficient method is an assessment in the form of a quiz, given to the student immediately following the lecture. This is the method used by Coursera, which I’ve experienced while taking a course this summer. Our program is not capable of implementing this method currently, though I do like this option and plan to explore this at a later date.

Question: The video lectures were effective in communicating the course concepts and content. [Student Respondents n = 76]

Strongly Disagree: 0%
Disagree:  6%
Neutral: 4%
Agree: 33%
Strongly Agree: 57%

Even more helpful in determining lecture effectiveness, are the responses to the following open-ended question which followed the above question. Record any comments about the video lectures below (Optional).

  • I liked that there were notes and power points that could be used to follow along with the lectures.” [Students seem to appreciate either an accompanying note packet or copy of presentation slides]
  • “I found the lectures to be very relevant and interesting! They addressed important issues and made me think!” [Mission accomplished!]
  • “No matter how good my internet connection was, it paused a lot or sometimes just started back at the beginning randomly…this caused frustration!” [This comment illustrates how technical difficulties have the potential to negatively impact student learning. Having a technical support system in place when offering media rich courses is essential. We also began offering lectures for download which partially solves this problem, though we are still working on other alternatives]
  • It would be nice to have higher quality video to download. The new iPads have very high-resolution and iPhones and iPads can be plugged into HDTV’s. Watching low res on any device is not as nice as watching good quality.[Another example of the technology ‘demands’ of students. Institutions need to be responsive to new technological devices and student consumption capabilities. On the other hand, higher quality videos are large in size, posing a problem for students with low-bandwidth. No easy solution]

Other Content Delivery Options
There are other options for delivering the ‘content’ or the ‘meat’ of the course, in addition to prerecorded lecture videos. The online courses I completed as a student at GWU used primarily text-based materials, though often these were supplemented by other methods, which included:

  • Prerecorded audio lectures streamed, or available for download
  • Recorded interviews
  • Live lectures using Elluminate Live. An interactive platform with professor lecturing in real-time, or prerecorded. Presentation slides are used. Students could ask questions in the live lectures. Lectures were two-hours in length, and recorded for later reference, or for students not able to participate.

Other online programs use media in innovative ways to enhance the program and engage students. One such program, developed by Douglas Hersh at Santa Barbara City College, called the Human Presence Learning Environment is quite interesting.  I’ve included the link below of the article describing the program with further details.

Video lectures are one tool of many for delivering course content, as mentioned in this post. It is during the process of creating a comprehensive instructional strategy in the course design phase, where the instructor will select the best content delivery method. However, not to be ignored is the value the video has when the course instructor is featured and ‘speaks’ to the student. It is a visual image which makes the instructor a real person – a person that the student is able to make a connection with. Research does support the effectiveness of the video in creating a sense of presence, which further supports social and cognitive presence which are critical components to a successful learning experience.

Resources:

Critical thinking in the Online Classroom

This is part 3 in a 3 part series discussing the concept of ‘presence’ in online learning communities.

I’ve been writing about online presence in this series and though complex, it is best understood by the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model, a framework of three dimensions that work together to create what I call a complete learning experience (though the  creators of the model call it an ‘educational experience’ where all three coincide (Garrison et al., 2000). In part one, I reviewed instructor presence  and part two, social presence. Though this third dimension is officially labeled ‘cognitive presence‘ I have made reference to critical thinking, as this is what should be happening in the cognitive presence domain, which I’ll elaborate on further in the post. I’ll also provide several examples of what cognitive presence looks like (or sounds like as I’ll be using actual student feedback to illustrate), and for those interested, practical strategies to build and support cognitive presence (critical thinking) in an online learning community.

What is Cognitive Presence?
I thought social presence was the most abstract and elusive, but I was wrong, it’s this dimension, Cognitive Presence that is the hardest to get my head around and put on paper. It’s in this dimension where all the action is – where the student learns thinks critically – he or she goes through the process of constructing knowledge, inquiring, exploring, and thinking. This model is interesting, as it illustrates how other aspects of presence, social and teaching presence need to exist before critical thinking skills are engaged and deep learning can happen. Though CoI is a model (or theory), I do see how it works in real life learning communities, based upon my analysis of student feedback, engagement levels (measured by LMS activity) and retention numbers of our online student body at my workplace. Granted, some level of learning can happen without either social or teacher presence, yet to create the very best environment for learning online all three dimensions are necessary.

cognitive presence: is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

How does cognitive presence lead to critical thinking?
There are four categories of events within the cognitive dimension that need to happen to stimulate the cognitive processes and critical thinking, 1) triggering event, 2) exploration, 3) integration and 4) resolution. These are nothing new from the educators perspective –  we want the student to become interested, in the topic (trigger), and be motivated to explore, ask questions, discuss (exploration),  leading students to construct knowledge, learn and think by means of discourse and discussion (integration) and finally to think critically, apply the knowledge to other areas, draw conclusions and demonstrate knowledge (resolution).

These events do not need to happen sequentially, they may overlap and run into one another – it might get messy, but all this to illustrate the need for meaningful interaction and discourse that supports the student’s development of higher order thinking skills.

Strategies for developing Critical Thinking
Creating opportunities within the course for these above mentioned events to happen takes planning, it is part of the instructional strategy, the course design. However, It does not have to be complicated, or time-consuming to develop – but intentional and purposeful. Here are some examples of types of activities that support cognitive presence.

  • Discussion forums that include meaningful and thought-provoking questions that get students to think and apply the course content. Clear participation guidelines and expectations for students are an important part of the activity. Instructor involvement will be needed to monitor and guide the discussion.
  • Small group activities where students discuss a topic, even a complex one – with the goal of creating something together – for example, a [unified] position statement on a controversial  topic OR an analysis of a problem [in the form of a presentation] that involves applying the course content and drawing upon other resources.
  • Forum structured for a debate – this takes some upfront work – but is worthwhile. For example, the instructor assigns each student one of three points of view on a given [controversial] topic, prompting students to engage in discussion/discourse through an asynchronous discussion forum [or live chat] defending their assigned point of view, even if they do not personally support that point of view. This can be effective, as it encourages students to appreciate diversity, acknowledge others’ perspectives and points of view different from their own.
  • Reflection Activities – having students create a blog for to work on throughout the course is one example, where students discuss and write about what they’ve learned in class. This is effective in promoting thinking, and getting students to internalize content. Other reflection activities could be as simple as students creating a Slideshare presentation, blog post, or forum posting at the end of the course describing the critical things they learned from the class, how the class might have changed his or her thinking and/or how they will apply the new knowledge beyond the class.

A study reported in the British Journal of Educational Technology in 2007 on cognitive building activities similar to those mentioned above, determined factors contributing to the activities success:

  1. They were well structured.
  2. They provided clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the students.
  3. They provoked the students to explicitly confront others’ opinions. (Kanuka et al., 2007).

What the students say…
You may be thinking, OK sounds good in theory but does this really work with students? Yes I believe it does – after reading through student responses from our last session in our online program at my workplace I was convinced more than ever, not only of the value of the instructor and his or her presence, but that discussion forums and group activities do develop critical thinking, promote deep thinking and engage students’ higher order thinking skills.  Below I’ve shared feedback from students, which are responses to the question “What did you like best about the course?

I liked how certain questions were asked and then I was allowed to think about them. Then when I came to the conclusion that I was not sure, Dr. ____ then took us to the [course materials] to draw our conclusions…”  [Discussion forums encouraged critical discourse].

“I loved the challenge of this course to compare philosophy [from different viewpoints]…. The choice project was awesome being able to watch films and converse about their philosophical meaning was very fun.”  [Comparing activity forced use of critical thinking]

“Probably the responses required by students after the reading assignments … it made me think deeply and apply my answer not only to the material, but to other [areas] as well.”  [This reflection activity supports analysis and deep thinking].

These are real student comments, though I’ve removed professor names, and references to specific course materials to protect privacy of students.

In this post, I’ve just scratched the surface of what can be done in this presence domain, as there are factors to consider that I’ve not been able to address, for example course topic, delivery platform, course duration, number of students etc. But hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for supporting and promoting critical thinking within your own online courses.

Resources:
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-10

Kanuka, H., Liam, R. & Laflamme, E. (2007). The influence of instructional methods on the quality of online discussion. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(2), 260 – 271.

Do we need ‘social butterflies’ in Online Learning Communities?

 Part 2 in a 3 part series on Presence in online learning communities.

Does it matter if students are social in an online learning community? Should we be concerned if students lurk in the background, not participate, be a [virtual] wall flower? At first blush you might think so. Isn’t this a benefit of online, letting learners choose their level of participation? I’ll take a stand on this – not OK. It’s not beneficial to learn in a vacuum, though in the ‘virtual’ world this is exactly what can [and does] happen. In one of the MOOC‘s I participated in (for a short stint that is), I remember reading a post of one of the participants who said she much preferred learning online because she could fade into the background, and participate minimally or not at all, and not be called out.

This may be preferred by some, yet much research contradicts – it appears that students want social connection – in fact one study  by Swan and Shih discovered that learners who perceived a strong social presence recorded higher scores of perceived learning, and cited learning from their peers as a benefit (2005). Another study, conducted in an online community [albeit within a social gaming platform as opposed to a learning community], examined the effectiveness of member’s engagement and repeat visits in a group gaming environment. Results revealed that when there was visual representation of group member, in other words a profile picture, the study participants exhibited higher levels of engagement [return visits to the site] and longer participation times. (Gaytan & McEwen,2007). The implications for learning environments are profound, by one [seemingly] simple action, a learner uploading an image of him or her self in the learning platform, a sense of social presence is supported.

What does social Presence look like?
Social presence in the online community is more abstract, intangible than instructor presence [as discussed in my last post], yet social presence, one of the three dimensions of presence required for complete learning is the most difficult to describe and create, and is further complicated because it is out of the instructors control. Social presence is felt by learners, yet is created by the course design and participation of other learners, in contrast to instructor presence which is mainly driven by instructor behaviours and participation. Hence the challenge.

And though social presence is a much discussed topic in literature about online learning, there are numerous [sometimes vague] definitions – the one I believe to be most fitting is:

“the sense where the learner feels part of the community, by demonstrating willingness to engage in communication exchanges,  perceives learners and instructor to be real people, and is able to project him or herself  in the online environment confidently.”

students sitting in health classIn face-to-face environments, there is a stark contrast as to how to gauge, visualize and describe social presence. In the nearby illustration, we see that the learner is present and the instructor can read the body language, make eye contact (or lack there of), identify facial expressions of learners – read the visual cues.

Why is building social presence necessary?
Social presence allows the learner to feel ‘connected’ with an emotional and personal connection to the group in order that they can express themselves socially, and eventually cognitively which ultimately leads to engagement with content and concepts. This is described in Garrison’s Community of Inquiry model, where the 3 presence dimensions are required for meaningful and effective learning to take place.  It is not only this model which emphasizes the social component, Kellar’s ARCS model of motivation design for learning builds on similar principles in the Attention dimension [the ‘A’ in ARCS].

In years past, when I was in training and development and conducted day long [f2f] seminars, I thought that ‘social presence’ was an extra, the nice-to-have, not the need- to-have.  In this context social presence, was created by the ‘rapport’ building exercises, also known as ice-breaker activities. These activities, in a sense did build social presence, and did help facilitate learning. Also I had the 3-dimensional advantage, where I could recognize when learners were bored [this happened more often than I’d like to admit], lost focus or would need to be drawn out. This is not so easy to do online. In fact, what is most interesting about creating social presence in online learning, is that activities and actions must be considered and planned for within the course design – built into the fabric of the course, and throughout the course. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

How to Create Social Presence Online Community?
There are a few things we have done at my workplace with our online courses to support building social presence

  1. Encourage learners to upload a picture or avatar to his or her profile (we use Moodle). Though we make this voluntary, about 75% of students do so.
  2. Create Orientation Activities just prior to classes starting. In our online program, we give students access to their course home page(s), 4 or 5 days prior to official start date of class, and among other activities we have students participate in introduction forum where they post a bio and introduce themselves and share their interests etc.
  3. Design learning activities which encourage group interaction (ideally small group activities). This will vary from course to course depending upon learning content and objectives, but each course has unique small group activities where groups work on a project together, conduct peer reviews and share work samples, or engage in small group discussion.
  4. Encourage students to join [program/school] Facebook Page, if you don’t have one, create one.
  5. Suggest students use social tools for collaborating. Example Skype, Google Docs, Facebook or Google +Hangouts.
  6. Use discussion forums  with well crafted questions that will promote meaningful dialogue.
  7. Post discussion forum etiquette. Create and post guidelines for posting to discussion forums.

Above are only a few suggestions. There are many great resources available on the Web. I’ve included a slide share below which includes some helpful tips, and also refers to the Community of Inquiry model.  Further resources listed below.

Related Posts:
Part I: Instructor Presence in the Online Class: Key to Learner Success, Click here

References:
Gaytan, J., & McEwen, B. C. (2007). Effective online instructional and assessment strategies. American Journal Of Distance Education, 21(3), 117-132.

Swan, K. & Shih, L.F. (2005, October). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9 (3), 115-136.