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Be Present: Best Practices for Authentic Teaching Online

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Being present is one of the most important elements driving success in the online classroom. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares two practices that help online educators establish trust and set the tone for faculty and student success. Learn how instructors can establish their presence, share their personality and expertise with students, and build relationships with students so that everyone has a great experience in the class.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. We’re going to talk today about being authentic. We talk a lot in higher education about faculty success and student success. These two best practices I’m going to share with you today are part of both of those endeavors.

Being authentic in your online teaching is absolutely critical to your success. And the challenges of bringing your authentic self into your online teaching are great.

We’ll start with talking about those challenges, what comes up when we teach online that may not be obvious in the live classroom, and then I’ll give you the first best practice on helping students get to know you and the second about you communicating with them. Let’s dive in.

Best Practice #1: Be Present in the Online Classroom

The first best practice that I emphasize in my own teaching, as well as with all of the faculty who I work with, this best practice is to be present. Well, what does it mean to be present?

Being present means that you literally are logging into the course regularly. It could be every day during the week. It could be every day during the week plus a weekend day. It could be seven days a week. It could be every other day; maybe you go in there four days a week. Whatever you do, you literally are present in that online space regularly and you are there often.

When we talk about being present, there’s a lot more to presence than then just showing up. One of those things is that you help students get to know you early in the class so they can feel like they know who you are. They trust you and they can go to you with problems when you have questions. One of the things that comes up in my job, I’m a faculty director at American Public University, I often have fantastic faculty. Occasionally, I’ll get a compliment about a faculty member. Many times, they share that comment with the faculty member who then passes it on to me.

Just today, I got an email where classroom support sent me a compliment about a faculty member that a student sent them. That was really a joy to get. Unfortunately, we usually hear about the complaint faster than we ever hear about a compliment, and probably for every one person that complains there are 20 very happy customers and you don’t hear from a lot of those.

But the one thing that prompts the complaint is that there is a low instructor presence or that the faculty member is there, but the student doesn’t have a sense of who they are, they don’t really know them.

There are some beautiful things you can do to establish your presence, your unique personality, your expertise and your position as the instructor.

The first thing I would recommend is to put a picture of yourself in the course. Make it a professional one. Help them understand who you are, what you look like. You don’t have to love the picture, just pick a good one. And as they see you, they’ll start to get a sense of you. Who are you?

And then put some kind of introductory thing, whether it’s on the homepage, a brief summary of your academic background and one or two personable things about you. You could put this in the forum discussion area if there’s a place where people are introducing themselves.

You can make a video. I’ve seen several faculty do this, where they’ll put themselves in the video they’ll talk, they’ll introduce themselves, they’ll greet the students. Very personable. Really nice.

And, of course, you’re going to write announcements, especially that first week. I want to put a word of caution in here. When you’re creating this beautiful instructor presence so critical to your online teaching, be careful not to stack the deck against your students that first week.

So those first announcements you put in your course should be friendly, encouraging, and welcoming. Give them step-by-step, some guidelines about how to begin participating and engaging in the course. Avoid giving lots of warnings or criticism early on during the first week about how to use citations, how to format their papers. You can give all that information along the way, but the very first day of class is probably not the best time. It’s off-putting and it can create sort of a confrontational feeling between your students and you.

As part of your presence, another thing is showing your personality, your passion for teaching and your expertise in your subject matter. If your online teaching is relatively new to you, if you haven’t done a lot of this, might feel kind of weird to tell your students anything personal about yourself.

We like to encourage safe sharing, so something that you would tell just anyone on the street. Not of something especially private. For example, I like to tell my students, because I teach music appreciation online, I like to tell them that I went to Brazil once, and I bought a pandeiro there. I might be saying that wrong but it’s basically a Brazilian tambourine. And I’ll put a little link to the video, maybe an image of me playing it in that first week’s announcement.

Because I teach a lot of military students, I’ll occasionally run across someone who has been there and has seen one. And they love connecting to that. I also presented at a conference in Scotland and saw some guys on the street playing bagpipes. So, I took a small video of that, one guy even had bagpipe with an attachment on the end of the pipes where flames were coming out. It was pretty neat. I like to tell them about that, show pictures, and again if I have any students who have served in the military in that part of the world or have lived over there or have ever visited, they like to connect to that as well.

That’s one way I share my personality online. You can also share your expertise. For example, I’ve seen occasionally we’ve had another music faculty member who is a classical performing musician, and they’ll put a short video clip of themself playing.

I knew one here locally at the community college who is a concert pianist. She would invite her students to attend her live piano recitals, the ones who were in her online class, so they would get to come and see her and meet her, meet each other. It was quite a wonderful experience because the school was local and many of the students were too, even though they were taking it online.

So, in your instructor presence, you want to establish this early. Help them get to know you. Post regular course announcements every week of class. You might even consider a second announcement midweek with some reminders, some last-minute advice. Any announcements you want to share. And then of course, participate in the discussions.

Discussions are a really great way to have your students practice their learning and talk to each other; but you should be there. Not to give them the right answers, but to engage. To talk. To discuss the subject. To ask them questions that are thought-provoking; and really to just help that discussion unfold. That is the first best practice that if you had nothing else going for you in online teaching, that instructor presence could really carry you well.

Best Practice #2: Communicate Early and Often

The second one, I chose this as number two out of two for this podcast because it is so critical and it will solve a lot of problems too, so that second best practice is to communicate regularly and effectively. And some of the things I suggest you communicate are norms and expectations.

Norms are standards of behavior. So a norm would be something like, “When you’re posting in a discussion forum, I want you to sign your name at the bottom; if you’re replying to somebody else, please put their name in the post,” etc.

And when you suggest that students do these things, don’t dock their grade for little errors that have to do with netiquette or norms. Grades should be based on the content itself, not habits or behaviors or little nitpicky thinks like that. But these are definite protocols we should teacher online students.

We want to communicate norms for how to reach out if they need help, how to contact you if they have an emergency, what they should do if they have to submit a late assignment, how to ask questions, a lot of different things have norms and you want to communicate all of these to your students.

And then you also should communicate due dates, assignment expectations and learning goals very clearly upfront. If you’re new to teaching online, it’s possible this first go round that you might have to adjust the assignments a little as you go, once you realize how the students are responding. So, you could have a more general syllabus the first time you teach the course and then a more clear, well set-up program the next time. Either way, definitely communicate the expectations to your students clearly and effectively, and with kindness.

A detailed syllabus is the best way to go. Include due dates and the schedule and assignment directions, and also how to find things. If you want to make it clear like a video a screen cast to clarify where things are in the classroom, how to find your grading comments you are going to give them, where they can find all of the assignments and learning materials, definitely point them around.

Prioritize the Two Best Practices

So, you don’t have to be perfect especially if you’re brand-new to teaching online and if it’s short-term for you and your just trying to get by till you can get back to the live class. Whatever you do, be present and communicate often and professionally as much as possible with your students.

Once you establish that you are responsive, trustworthy and present, your students are going to come to you with their questions. They’re going to have a relationship with you. It’s a good thing, and you’ll be able to follow up if there’s a change. If you need to change or adjust something.

That communication channel you have established early on is going to really help everyone get through this experience and have a really good experience with you. Online teaching does not need to be overwhelming or super difficult. If you focus on being present and communicating often, you’re going have a good experience.

As we close out today’s episode, I’d like to thank you for being with us for the Online Teaching Lounge. We’ve had this podcast going for the past year and a half, and it’s been a pleasure to be with you sharing teaching excellence tips, strategies, some ideas for balancing your work and your life while you’re teaching online, and also ways to connect with your students for their success. As well as best practices.

Take a look at our past episodes and you’ll learn a lot of things about forum discussions, professional development and other areas. We also have an episode that highlights courses and degree programs in the teaching area in the School of Arts, Education and Humanities at American Public University. If you’d like to get some professional development or take certificate program, or even an entire master’s degree, come check it out. It’s worth your time, and it will help you get even more skills and confidence under your belt while you’re teaching online. Again, thanks for being here for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. Best wishes in your online teaching this week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is the Department Chair of Religion & Philosophy, Art, and Music an ICF Professional Certified Coach (PCC) for the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is a Professor, coach, and teaching excellence strategist with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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