Creating a Virtual Presence For Your Students

At some point, I do plan on getting to blogging about the future of education and the new vision that is emerging in the Ed Tech filed for changes to the Learning Management System. But for now I am going to continue on with the practical ideas – things that current online instructors can use to add new life to existing classes, or things that new instructors can use to make their classes stand out from the pack. Most of the ideas I have shared so far are things that have been used in classes successfully at some point (even the EFGs are currently being used in one school). These ideas may not be for everyone, but they are some interesting ideas to dig in to. After I get all of these practical ideas out, then I will probably move on to the three C’s of social media usage in online learning (also known as “how you are using Web2.0 wrong and may not know it”) as well as hitting on some crazy ideas for the future.

For this post I want to get to something that I have used myself and that I know other bloggers here have used: creating a virtual office or classroom for your class.

If you back up several decades, before the dawn of the Internet, several researchers were investigating why some teachers were perceived by students as having better teaching styles than others. They found that there were at least two concepts that made the difference: immediacy and social presence.  (there are other words that get used somewhat interchangeably for these two, but I will stick with these because… well… I guess just because I like them the best).

Yes, I know that these are ancient terms by now. Immediacy and social presence are not as slick and cool to blog about today as they were a few years ago.  Maybe if I called it “Social Presence 2.0” it might sound cooler. But a good idea never gets old, so I still find these concepts are crucial to online success.

The surprising thing a few decades ago was that these things didn’t happen naturally in a face-to-face class. Just because instructors were in the room, that didn’t mean that a student felt they were accessible or approachable.  Instructors in face-to-face courses had to work to achieve these concepts, because it  was found that students preformed better when they felt a greater sense of immediacy and social presence.

Obviously, it was also found that this is true for online learning as well. But achieving these concepts in a disconnected asynchronous online course might prove more challenging. Thankfully, many people have stepped up through the years to prove that it is possible.

So how do you give students a sense that you are there and that you are aware that they are there also? Here are a few ideas:

  • One often overlooked way is by participating in class discussions yourself. Don’t just throw a question out there and let students hash it out. That seems basic, but so many professors miss that while just count responses for a participation score. Ask your students to expand on stuff they posted, or let them know that they never even really answered the question. But get in there and let them see your name every week.
  • If possible, turn on avatars. No, not the tall blue people with funky USB-ports for hair… I mean those small pictures that you can put next to forum and blog posts. Those don’t exist everywhere, but I encourage you to enable them wherever they do exist (and then ask students repeatedly to use them). Avatars help students inject their personality in to their work and the class as a whole. I also suggest that you encourage students to use an avatar that is actually a picture of themselves rather than a cute dog or their favorite movie star. That just makes it a bit more more realistic.
  • Create a virtual office online and use an embeddable chat tool for office hours. I know that many LMS programs have a chat tool now, but many of those are open rooms for anyone to come in. Not good for one-on-one conversation. Tools like Meebo can help you have a chat without giving away your AIM ID to students (or making you create a new one to maintain separation of personal and professional lives).  Meebo is basically an Instant Message chat tool. It gives you a web-based widget that lets you chat without installing a chat program. Chats happen through a web browser.  You can place the widget in an online “virtual office” and students can see when you are available for a chat session. (see my virtual office with Meebo here) You sign in on your end and keep that tab open on your browser when you are available.  Google Talk also has a similar widget if you prefer their service.
  • Speaking of Google, I am sure there are many ways to use Google Wave to connect with your students. Assuming, of course, they can all get invites.
  • One of the more radical ideas out there is to use a virtual world like Second Life to create a virtual office or classroom.  While many professors are doing just that, most of us don’t want to shell out money for a small space of virtual land in Second Life to set up virtual lounge chairs. The good news is that Second Life is not the only option – there are free, browser-based virtual worlds out there. One such option is Vivaty. Vivaty is a bit on the “dude, let’s party” side of the web, so take that in to consideration before jumping in feet first. While you get the benefits of a rich, free interactive environment online, the trade-off is that the FAQs tell you how Vivaty makes you look more cool (dude). That may not be a big deal to some, but I thought it needed to be pointed out. Nothing looks worse to students that a professor trying to look hip and cool. But if you avoid those trappings, it might be an interesting site to try out. Vivaty also lets you embed videos and picture slide shows in your room that you create, and that room can them be embedded in a web page.

I am sure there are many other ideas out there. What do other people use to create greater interaction and immediacy, especially in asynchronous formats?

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About Matt Crosslin

I have been involved in education since 1994. I created my first web page in 2000 - which I used to deliver supplemental materials to an 8th grade Science class I was teaching at that time. I have been involved in distance education in some way ever since then. In March 2007 I started, an online community promoting educational technology. Currently, I work as an Instructional Designer for the UTA Center for Distance Education. I also adjunct a few online instructional design classes for UT Brownsville. I even earned my Master's degree online - so I have looked at Online Learning from all perspectives (student, instructor, designer, admin).

4 thoughts on “Creating a Virtual Presence For Your Students

  1. Chris

    The problem of presence is compounded by the fact that some edtech users rely too much on preprogrammed multiple choice quizzes and such, limiting opportunities to interact through comments on student work. It’s an obvious thing but it makes a difference.

  2. Matt Crosslin Post author

    Excellent point Chris. There is an interesting development happening with Moodle – apparently, they are moving forward with their plan to allow users to comment on everything. Comment on quizzes, pages of content, assignment uploads, you name it. Not sure exactly how that will work out, but once I understand it more I will probably blog about it.

    Also, a newer development I noticed on Meebo – they have created an iPhone app:

    This caught my eye: “Receive push notifications when you get a new IM, even when the app is closed.” That could really expand teaching in to “any time, any where teaching.” But, the flipside to that is that you would need to set-up some boundaries for sanity sake.

  3. Lana

    Wow. If Moodle can do that, then that really connects to what Gardner Campbell was saying in his podcast. I remember years ago when my California friend Peter Bach, who already had a doctorate in Ed, and was getting a second one in German, was talking about having students involved in their own grading… But back to this idea — I think that Matt and Gardner are sending out similar ideas….

    Here’s what I wrote to the Modern Languages and the Active Learning Committee listservs:

    W. Gardner Campbell from Baylor (Gardner’s research interests: English Literature, Science Fiction, Technology, Literature and Music, Renaissance Literature, Technology, Critical Theory, …) He is Director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning at Baylor University, where he also serves as Assoc. Prof. of Literature, Media, and Learning in the Honors College. His ideas are highly thought-provoking. I’m quoting here from his podcast. (He was at one point at Mary Washington, where Jim Groom, who visited UTA recently, is Technology Specialist.)

    A one-kind fits-all curriculum is likely to take children away from the objects that compel them. A one-kind fits all mode of assessment is going to ensure that we miss the richest opportunities for bonding for the deepest kind of learning.

    Web 2.0, learning, and assessment: thoughts by Gardner. If any of this intrigues you, here is the audio:
    and here is the blog post:

    1. User-generated content makes web richly interactive and helps us co-create the web. … Interesting comment: Wikipedia, a “thing that will never work in theory; it will only work in practice.” Look at it carefully. Look at the way the community presents itself. Look at the discussion page. Look at the user page where the people who have contributed to the discussion have accumulated a lot of interaction on their own. … Think what that would be like if we had pages for our best teachers, … testimonials. Appreciative inquiry in a collection of rich layered narratives of outstanding teaching? … How inspiring would it be to read that stuff, to find out over many decades how these teachers have made a difference in students’ lives. … A startling demonstration to the world of the magic that happens.
    2. Idea of network effects: can scale at the point of the reader, at the point of the student. The more you have in the mix, the richer the experiences. … Lifelong learning online environment.
    3. The idea of the long tale. Much value emerges slowly over time.
    4. Perpetual beta, … meaning subject to improvement at any time. Not a contract, but a starting place. Idea of syllabus as contract anathema to the idea of a learning experience. … Students come up with their own learning objectives; that’s their assignment at the beginning of the semester. (a la Barbara Sawhill!) Frightening, because it means that “all the targets are moving. Of course they are. Anybody ever been in a relationship before? The relationship changes the people in the relationship. Oh, dear. What if you adjust to your spouse, and your spouse adjusts to you, and now you have to adjust to the adjustment? You work at it.

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