Thursday, 9 June 2016

Teaching Online: Clarity and Presence

The final week of semester is already here and we are encouraging students to reflect upon their learning, and upon our teaching. This is not to suggest such reflection takes place only at the end of semester, but rather that this is the final chance to prompt evaluative thinking and to obtain student suggestions before class ends.

In a previous post, I wrote about ways to elicit student feedback and a little about how my colleagues and I respond to the suggestions that students make. In today's post, I want to sum up some of the ideas shared with us by our current cohort of first year students in the Bachelor of Teaching degree, studying online. This summary is for my own analytical purposes - to synthesise student input and consider how to action it; and also for students - to show we are listening and taking suggestions seriously, ready to act upon these. It may also be of interest to colleagues who have a  stake in what students completing their first semester of online study have to say. As always, there is much to be learned from listening to student feedback.

Earlier in the semester, the coordinator of our programme travelled to the regions to visit students in their base schools and returned with some informal feedback for us. In a nutshell, she reported that students were happy with our work in the online class because everything is nice and clear and my teaching partner and I are on hand for students when needed. That is, the students immediately highlighted Clarity and Presence as two key elements in their satisfaction.

I've kept my ear to the ground to find out more about these two factors and have swiftly concluded that they are of tremendous importance to first-time online learners, and are reasonably straight-forward to achieve. They also represent, in my view, two of the biggest pitfalls for lecturers who teach online. Taking a closer look at each factor in turn,

Clarity - is about having a clear and simple layout in the LMS (in our case, Moodle), so it is easy for students to navigate and to find materials and interactive spaces for various purposes. I think of the Moodle site as a classroom first and foremost, and a tidy classroom can be read as caring for one's environment, and being organised. Of course there are other interpretations of tidiness, but when it comes to online classes, students seem to appreciate uncluttered simplicity.
Beyond spatial design, clarity is also about communicating expectations. We post a weekly reminder for students, warning them what is coming up, deadlines ahead, and how they might prioritise their time in the week ahead. Each year, we refine our assignment instructions and criteria, working to clarify these as best we can.

Presence - is about being there when students need us. Of course we can't predict when students will need us, so being present means 'standing by' regularly. This is a familiar message to me, as my doctoral work some years ago yielded the very same finding - that is, students studying online prefer lecturers to visit the Moodle space daily to answer questions, and to appear in online discussions 2-3 times a week in order to signal presence and reciprocate the degree of involvement expected of the students. Online, students perceive lecturers who are not actively present as being absent from class. Even if the lecturer is 'standing back' to enable students the freedom to express their ideas or to develop scholarly independence, students cannot know that this is the case unless they are explicitly informed. Which brings us back to clarity of communication.

There is a subtle distinction between standing back and standing by. The latter involves monitoring, signalling presence in unobtrusive ways, and being ready to intervene before problems escalate.

Alongside our responsiveness to student queries and our regular input into online discussions, students have expressed their appreciation of our panopto recordings. Initially, we intended to produce a videocast weekly (as we do in our shorter 3rd year class), however we found this repetitive so instead recorded 9 videocasts between February and June. In each, we spoke to the camera, news-reporter style, and talked the students through the week that was and the week ahead, expressing our interest in their discussions, explaining key ideas, and reminding them of upcoming deadlines and expectations. You could say Panopto videocasts are where clarity meets presence.

The students said:
"Your Panoptos are fantastic as it makes the subject and your expectations clear and easy to follow! (which is very important when you are stressed at 2am, on your own and hundreds of miles from uni, eating cake!!)"
"The panoptos have been great and it adds a personal touch to the paper."
"it was like I was in a class environment and you were speaking directly to me.  By doing this, it really personalised this paper for me."
"I really enjoyed the panoptos, as it gave me the direction I needed at certain times."
"Just to know that you are around made it so much easier"

Perhaps all of this sounds pretty standard. It isn't hard to do, after all. So, doesn't everyone teach this way?

Well, apparently not. There are still instances where lecturers struggle with clarity and presence. Perhaps they inherited an online paper, and had to hastily cobble together something based on past years' classes, resulting in a cluttered, confusing mess of a Moodle site. If lecturers are unfamiliar with a paper and unsure of expectations, this lack of clarity is conveyed to students. A staff member who has never used an eportfolio may find it challenging to teach students how to do so. As for being present, it seems some lecturers are overwhelmed by the volume of online traffic, or are intentionally standing back for legitimate reasons. Unless the learning intentions are shared, or better still negotiated with students, however, the students will remain in the dark.

If we want students to lead online discussion, we need to model this first and provide guidance and scaffolding to support their leadership.

If we teach online, it is not sufficient to drop into class once a week. Even lengthy posts at such intervals will be a case of 'too little, too late'. Teaching time in an online context is more effectively apportioned as 'little and often'. This is how we keep on top of the volume of messages and how we demonstrate we are there, working alongside students.

I am grateful to the students who have conveyed this feedback as they have taught me something very valuable about my teaching, helping me to prioritise and act.

Because this sounds self-congratulatory and even a bit smug, I will finish by saying: We haven't got it all right, we are not perfectionists. Thanks again to student feedback, we are re-examining one of our assignments for next year with a view to altering the summative weighting; we plan to provide more explicit demonstrations of how to contribute to online discussion; and we are modifying our word limits in the forum. As further student feedback comes to light, it will alert us to any further concerns and hopefully point us in new and productive directions.

How does student feedback inform your teaching?

How important are clarity and presence as factors in effective teaching?


  1. Hattie found teacher clarity was the second most powerful intervention the teacher bought to the classroom (just ahead of teacher-student relationships). Matt Johnson put together a wonderful Prezi summarizing Hattie and Fendick's original meta-study. (I converted the Teacher Clarity Self-Assessment Form, based on Fendick's four dimensions, into a Google Form. It might be interesting to have your students fill it in.)

  2. Hello Dianna,
    At first I was a bit weary of being on a paper that consisted of being half online and half in person. This was due to only ever having done face to face papers in the past. However, I can see the positives and advantages to working in a 'Blended learning' situation, as it allows students an opportunity to really dig deeper with their thinking as it gives them more time.
    I think that it is important to have clarity and presence for effective teaching as it gives students a sense of comfortableness (as they are given reminders) and have a feeling that the teacher is present. Would you say it is key to use both 'standing by' and 'standing back' in a blended learning situation?

  3. Thanks for your comment Charlotte :) Completely natural to be a bit uncertain at first as that is what new learning does to us, isn't it? Glad you can see the benefits of working online as well as f2f. Yes, it really should enable us to sustain and extend our thinking over time. As long as we spend the time online that we need to. I know I am looking forward to our online discussions, and have enjoyed the initial introductions and sharing of the orientation task. As you say, I think it is important to stand aside to enable students to think and develop independence, but if we are monitoring the situation and in touch with the class then this is really about standing by.

  4. Hi Dianne,

    Last semester I took a blended paper and I did not enjoy it at all. There was always a lack of clarity and the layout of Moodle and the paper was frustrating and incredibly time consuming. The time you put into having discussions with the students to enhance their learning is brilliant. Using the blended classroom on Moodle for our paper this semester is already proving to me blended classrooms can work. It is easy to navigate and understand! I'm so glad I didn't give up on blended learning after last semester!
    Kenna :)

    1. I'm glad too Kenna! I appreciate your feedback and you make an excellent point about the need for teachers to be responsive to students in discussion. That is our job, after all!

  5. Hi Dianne,

    I have had previous online experiences but this was a complete online paper, it will be interesting to see how this paper is taught in a blended environment as discussed above. I often find it harder posting on online discussions rather than sharing in class, I think this is because people can keep referring to and going back to your answers and this can sometimes be a daunting thing! This paper will give me an opportunity to expand on my ability to post confidently online.

  6. Hi Briar, yes, I understand how that persistent text can be daunting. Still, everyone is in the same boat :) I like that I can dip into and out of online discussion over time, and can respond differently as my thinking changes. I also like that I can enjoy all the discussions in the online space, whereas I can only catch up with a handful of students in each class session and I notice not everyone joins in.

  7. Hi Dianne,
    Throughout my last two and a half years of studying at the university this has been the only paper I have had that uses the blended approach. This meant that I was a little bit nervous to take this paper. I was worried that I would not have the motivation to go online when I needed to etc.

    However, I believe that the point of presence you have mentioned above is really important. Because I know you read our comments and respond to most of them it encourages me to go online and complete the tasks, and I feel like they have a purpose.

    1. Yes, good point about the motivation to go online, and this is really about self management and forming habits too :) I'm glad my presence adds some purpose, but also encourage you to think about the wider audience. Your peers/classmates want your input within the learning community. And when you post on a public blog like this, anyone and everyone can be your audience. Fundamentally, your learning should be the purpose.