September 2020
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CREATING AN EFFECTIVE ONLINE TEACHING PRESENCE

Valerie Sartor, DLIELC Lackland Air Force Base

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered every aspect of human life around the globe, including education. Universities, colleges, language schools, and other educational institutes are currently transitioning from a majority f2f modality toward teaching to a 100% online format. Administrators and IT support staff are scrambling to offer their faculty workshops and seminars to support their transition to remote instruction. This article offers a positive outlook for online teaching via a panorama of best practices for creating an effective online teaching presence.

Online Teaching Requires Teacher Presence

A significant issue educators will encounter when teaching online is the difficulty of creating online presence (Stone & Springer, 2019). In the Teaching English Online course offered by Cambridge Assessment English, instructors define online presence as humanizing themselves and helping students to do the same with their teachers and their peers is a huge challenge when interacting online. This is especially hard to do if you have never met your students f2f in a physical classroom.

Various ways exist to create a positive teacher presence. Using videos helps students to visualize the instructor as a real person, and personalizing virtual background, as well as offering a personal introduction is key to building rapport (Bialowas & Steimel, 2019). One colleague stated: “I start every course by requiring a video introduction, and I model this intro by posting one about myself. I also give clear directions.” He also posts video tutorials, and uses Flipgrid as his video platform for introductions and other activities as well.

Additionally, we can effective online teaching presence by projecting empathy while helping our students to understand our teaching style and expectations. Teachers are all unique and have different teaching styles. Some instructors like to personalize their group emails. Other instructors emailed their students frequently, and some used the smartphone app, Remind. One TESOL writing professor uses an animation program Powtoon and makes GIFs because these types of messages are attractive, as they move and wave, making them more likely to catch her students’ attention.

It is possible to be friendly online without losing your professional demeanor. A language teacher said she would embed a few tidbits of innocuous personal information in the content and offer students bonus points if they noticed and responded; “Wish me a happy birthday by March 1st and receive two bonus points.” Her students loved seeing her as human. Moreover, they always appreciated a few extra bonus points.

Remember to pay attention to the students. They need to be encouraged and monitored online, just as they need support in f2f classes. Students want to know their teacher is reading and assessing their work; they want the teacher to interact in discussion threads and comment (Nami, Marandi, & Sotoudehnama, 2018).

Teacher participation also helps with tracking students’ login history so the teacher can understand both their efforts and something about their lives. If a student does not log in regularly, find out why. Balanced content in terms of timing and amount motivates students to pay attention. If many students cannot keep up and stay on task, revise accordingly.

To further establish teacher presence, let students see you - albeit virtually, via your talking head on a video or via a live lesson. When using a synchronous format, open your WebEx/Zoom/Team/Meet meetings a few minutes before the class begins. Just as you may come early to a classroom you can open your virtual classroom and allow students chances to chat with you or each other before class. Most platforms have private chat rooms and chat functions that allow you to communicate one-on-one in confidence with a student.

About Course Design

Remember: no matter how organized and careful you are, students are going to ask you questions. This is not a reflection on your organizational skills, or upon your attention to detail. But it is true that any well-planned course, taught f2f, hybrid, or 100% online, takes careful planning. We constantly revise, tweak and sometimes conduct major overhauls on our courses, as new information, ideas and concepts are brought into the field. Students, too, impact the way we teach.

Online courses, in order to attract and appeal, must present content in a variety of formats. Unsurprisingly, contemporary students are visually oriented. Many watch more video than read text (Twenge, 2017 Consequently, placing a focus on the visual could be beneficial. Oakley (2016) advocates chunking information, linked with step-by-step directions. Instructional designers also propose having information, especially instructions, in more than one place in a course module such as the weekly html page, and in a specific area, e.g., a discussion thread box. Make sure your module design is consistent and that your instructions are explicit.

But don’t forget to mix it up: There are excellent digital tools for visuals other than YouTube videos, and many have basic versions that are free. For example, Adobe Spark is a simple and elegant pre-set storyboard. VoiceThread is an interactive visual - video or image - that students can write upon via podcast, text or video. My personal favorites are Flipgrid, an accessible video grid, and H5P , a free platform that allows you to add popups, hyperlinks, and text to videos and images. H5P also allows instructors to create all kinds of assessments. There are also dozens of software programs, such as Classtime and Formative, or Kahoot, Quizlet, and Peardeck, which essentially serve as online quiz banks. They offer diverse subject content in lively formats. Many are available in multiple languages.

Online Potential

Many TESOL instructors who have been teaching for decades, such as myself, are excited about the potential that online teaching offers. It is possible for you to transition from skeptic to adventurer. “I saw students who never said a word in a f2f class suddenly explode with ideas on my discussion threads,” reported one ESL tutor, adding, “It took me a long time to create a satisfactory online course, but once I did, my own learning curve went down, and now I simply tweak the course every semester.”

“The challenges are different when you teach online,” said a professor. “At first I hated it and thought it was an intellectual desert – but then I saw that some of my students loved it. When I learned to use the interactive whiteboard Explain Everything to present information and uploaded these mini lectures, I suddenly saw a new beauty in teaching.” With Explain Everything she felt more creative when organizing and delivering linguistic information. A writing teacher commented:

At first, students’ responses to assignments seemed anonymous and not connected to a body of work. But then I started asking for papers in the form of blog entries. Students designed and submitted their own free websites in Wix. I could scroll through their blogs and see progress; even better, I could recognize the way each student’s mind was processing a concept. Blogs and websites are part of our professional and scholarly lives; they’re relevant. And they allow students to insert different types of media as well, videos, podcasts, images, hyperlinks, etc.

I’m not asserting that it is easy to teach English online. The challenges and the tools are different. Yet, the premise remains the same: If you strive for excellence in teaching, you must adapt to the reality we are in today, and you must accommodate the learning styles of this generation. Moreover, online courses reach more people, especially those students who cannot afford the time to sit in a f2f course scheduled at a certain time. This cyber-environment also appeals to many of today’s students, who may be more literate in these digital tools than their professors.

One caveat: Some students are not literate using online platforms. Most universities have training programs - intro to online learning workshop - for new students. You might require that your students pass this course before they can enter your first week of class. You may also have to consult with an instructional designer yourself and rethink your subject - break it into chunks, in effect, distribute the content from a broader perspective. Make key concepts and ideas concrete and noticeable, perhaps by font color, or pop-ups, or repetition in different media formats.

Another idea is to consider generating a detailed outline of what you want to teach before the semester begins. Explore universal (backward) design techniques. And don’t forget about dogfooding – the idea of doing your own assignments. This is useful not only for language teachers such as myself, but also other fields as well because it will help you judge the amount of expected time and required cognitive effort. It will also give you new ideas about trying different ways to present content effectively.

Conclusion

Online teaching and learning has become the new norm. Finding ways to adapt to this reality is imperative. However, as Naomi Kline (2020) warns, technology is a powerful tool, but it does not solve all our problems. We must also participate in deciding how language education is evolving.

References

Bialowas, A., & Steimel, S. (2019). Less is more: Use of video to address the problem of teacher immediacy and presence in online courses. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 31(2), 354–364

Kline, N. (2020). How big tech plans to profit from Coronavirus pandemic. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/may/13/naomi-klein-how-big-tech-plans-to-profit-from-coronavirus-pandemic

Nami, F., Marandi, S., & Sotoudehnama, E. (2018). Interaction in a discussion list: An exploration of cognitive, social, and teaching presence in teachers’ online collaborations. ReCALL, 30(3), 375-398. doi:10.1017/S0958344017000349

Oakley, B. (2016, March). Keynote speaker: Learning how to learn. In 2016 IEEE Integrated STEM Education Conference (ISEC) (pp. 1-5). IEEE.Stone,

C., & Springer, M. (2019). Interactivity, connectedness and “Teacher-Presence”: Engaging and retaining students online. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 59(2), 146–169.

Twenge, J. M. (2017). IGen: Why today's super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy--and completely unprepared for adulthood--and what that means for the rest of us. Simon and Schuster.


Valerie Sartor has been a TESOL educator for decades. She served as a Fulbright Scholar to Kazakhstan (2019-2020) where she taught English and presented TESOL teacher training workshops.
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Which of the following has been the biggest challenge with transitioning to virtual English language instruction in recent months?
Converting course materials to a digitally friendly format
Student access to hardware and reliable internet connections
Student engagement and participation
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