Teaching a successful online U.S. history course requires a commitment to visibility and accessibility. To a great degree, these characteristics are vital in Face-to-Face (F2F) courses. Yet, while it is imperative that all instructors not only offer office hours, but also keep and steadily advertise them to students, online instructors aiming for success especially recognize how critical it is: 1) to maintain multiple open lines of communication and 2) to achieve a high level of visibility. Establishing and maintaining presence is directly tied to student retention, learning, and satisfaction.
In fact, in nearly every end-of-the-term evaluation completed by online students, comments in the qualitative component remark on instructor engagement (or passion) whether good or bad (but honestly, rarely indifferent). I have found that most of this feedback compares my presence and my teaching in the online classroom to not only that of other online teachers, but also to teachers in the traditional brick-and-mortar setting. Of course, the latter comparison likely seems and perhaps is the most unfair one since it is nearly impossible to engage students to the same degree and as often as F2F teachers.
Nevertheless, by shifting the ways that I communicate with my online students, I believe that I have begun to successfully shake the “invisible teacher/person behind the curtain” image often assigned to instructors in the virtual environment. From day one, I aim to be ever present in my courses’ online platform and in communication with my students by providing both text and media uploads. This latter component especially illustrates a recent shift in my communication style, which at the beginning of my online teaching occurred only in text. Now, while I still reply to individual students through text-based communication concerning grades, discussion participation, and content instruction, I also aim to create and to sustain community by addressing the class as a whole through video.
Through this audiovisual component students are able to see me, which means that they can read my enthusiasm, my concern, and my interest in the learner and the material. During a typical week, I usually offer a week’s welcome on day one. In a 20 to 25-minute video, I provide a wrap-up of our discussion and themes from the previous week, introduce terms and concepts in that week’s content, and make the necessary connections between units. I contend (and I think most of my students would agree) that this is one of the most important avenues of instruction in our online engagement with one another.
On Wednesdays or Thursdays, I try to deliver what I call the “mid-week” review. Here, I provide feedback about students’ posted discussion responses to-date and progress on quizzes. Through this medium (again about 20-25 minutes), I am also able to combat frequent misunderstandings or misinterpretations occurring in students’ writing. Perhaps even more than the weekly introduction, these videos are highly valued (which shows in terms of higher viewings).
I believe that there are number of reasons for the popularity of audiovisual in my courses. For instance, one of the main reasons that I think students appreciate this form of communication is because I ensure that it is full of encouragement. I find that addressing what students are doing right is especially important in the online environment since it is all too easy for students (especially those who have earned lower marks) to become discouraged and to check-out and to simply give up. A second reason that these videos are appreciated is because they allow students to see that during the week I am working just like they are working. Although I explain at the beginning of any given course that I am frequently interacting with a number of their peers through email/phone/ Skype throughout the semester, these videos do a lot to provide visibility and accessibility to learners who are not engaging with me directly at any given point.
A third reason that students appear to value these videos is because I use them in a way that promotes transparency in the online course. By tuning in, students can learn about the class average on a particular assignment as well as become educated about commonly missed themes. In all of these ways, it becomes clear to students that I am monitoring the course that I am present within and concerned about student learning, and that I am accessible.
In weighing all of these positives, I would highly recommend both text and video-based communication as a means of maintaining multiple open lines of communication and achieving a high level of visibility in any online U.S. history course. Nevertheless, I willingly admit that the process of planning, recording, and then editing of videos is just as cumbersome as it is to produce text. Thus, during this semester, I am doing a lot of reflecting and reading on how to make this latter form of teaching and communication less of an instructional burden. In particular, one aspect I am considering is how to provide video content that squarely falls within a 10-12-minute range. This means less recording time for me, but I am think that it may also increase marketability and thus viewership by appealing to students “on the go.”
I am also contemplating the feasibility of and the advantages and disadvantages to developing a section of the course where students can upload a video (30-seconds to one minute?) in which they can ask a question or make a comment and to which I (and perhaps even other students?) can directly reply. I am interested in what any of my fellow TUSH bloggers and our readers think about this sort of forum. I also invite conversation on how to reduce video time without adversely altering usefulness and value, and I am interested in learning how others have effectively utilized audiovisuals when engaging students.