Presence as an online teacher is very important. I have worked 3 years now at this online academy, and we have grown a lot over those years in terms of how, when, and how often we contact our students. When I first began at online, we had a vast number of students as a teacher and usually knew almost nothing about them. I couldn’t even have told you whose paper I was grading at any point in time. As advisors we knew our kids somewhat better, but we knew the ones who came in much more so than the ones doing their work out in the “cloud.” This led to a very low success rate of our students.
Seeing this, I created several plans to increase my student connection and our interaction. I created weekly progress reports (that ended up being more like bi-weekly reports), I promoted setting up student-parent-teacher conferences prior to the semester end to check in and talk about the next step. I created weekly newsletters, first as an academy, then as a teacher to his students. And I increased my sources of contact, creating a Google Voice number dedicated to allowing students to use SMS messaging to touch base with me, creating IM screen-names specifically for students, and making sure that I responded to emails and assignments within 24 hours. All of this helped increase student awareness a little, and increased my student’s success rate, but there was something still missing: presence.
When our district purchased Elluminate, we had a real opportunity to change that. For those of you who are not familiar with Elluminate, it is web conferencing software focused on creating a live web classroom with the ability to set up a whiteboard, display PowerPoint slideshows, share desktop screens, and chat via text and audio. Elluminate sessions have a level of interactivity that allow for real personalities to surface. Now, I’ve participated in and led web conferences before, but Elluminate has a different feel than your average web conferencing software. With tools that allow a teacher to get the same kind of (if not better) feedback from his or her audience as in a classroom, Elluminate allows for learning to take a step in a whole new direction. Let me tell you a little about my experiences.
For our first attempt at a web classroom we had a school wide advisory class. We had one fearless leader who guided the conversation and introduced the teachers in our school, some of whom spoke and others who just observed. This created for a bit of a chaotic first session, given that no planning went into it. It was good to have a fearless leader, but had we prepared in advanced, all the advisors could have piped in when their own slides were shows. This can be a very easy, very powerful way to introduce an online staff and create an immediate online presence of every teacher right from the get go. And, with the right kind of planning, a school wide session could then break out into smaller groups (a feature of web conferencing software like Elluminate) to get to know your own advisor. The possibilities for this definitely deserve a little more exploration.
The second web classroom I led was on my own. It was with some of my own advisees and it had a very different feel to it. Being on my own, it was my responsibility to lead, but also to pay attention to my students. With multiple interfaces, leading a solo Elluminate session can actually be quite a bit more challenging than you’d expect. Yet, there are advantages too. You are working with your kids and you don’t have to coordinate with anyone else to get out the instruction. One might draw the connection to the more traditional classroom atmosphere, but the atmosphere of a single teacher Elluminate session is far different from that of a traditional classroom. With the chat feature, students are able to interact on a level that in a classroom would cause disruption. While you can turn off the chat to gather your student’s attention, the chat can be a good way to see the direction and thoughts of your students as you are giving instruction. I often struggle with getting real feedback on whether students are understanding me or not when giving direct instruction in the classroom, and with tools like polling (where you can get instant feedback from your entire class) and chat (where students can ask questions and even answer each others questions all without disrupting the teacher), what was a blunt force tool – lecturing – has now become a surgeon’s knife, able to accommodate all learners while still getting out information in an efficient manner. And imagine making use of TA’s or particularly advanced students by allowing them to respond to questions in chat, allowing those that are not understanding to get help in the moment as the information is delivered.
In the third attempt, one other teacher and myself decided to lead the instruction, with a third teacher being a “silent” observer (and by silent I mean typing along with the conversation). Instead of having us both have headsets on our own computers in different rooms/cubicles, we both sat in front of one computer and led the web classroom together. It was an interesting change to my normal routine. By having two teachers in an Elluminate classroom, you can split your attention. At first, I found myself pausing to read student questions (as I did when I was on my own), but now I found that while one of us was talking, the other could be reading questions and preparing a response either orally or by typing the response right into chat. With two teachers in one session, sitting right next to each other, we were able to make seamless transitions without any practice or prep, without our students even knowing it. But even more than that, by having two teachers, we created a unique presence that students don’t often see. As my colleague and I explained the material together, laughed together, and responded to each other, we created a presence more akin to that of a funny talk show. Not only did our students leave with a better understanding of the material, but they left laughing themselves and finding the session worth their time. How often do students leave your class feeling it was time well spent?
Clearly, there is still a lot to learn and a lot of ways that our school’s presence can grow through web classrooms like Elluminate, but it is immediately obvious that Elluminate has broken through a barrier that we have previous been unable to breach. I saw personality come out from kids that I have not seen in emails, in grading correspondence, or honestly, even in students who come in to the classroom. In some ways, the veil of the internet allows students to express themselves in ways they don’t feel comfortable doing in public: opening up a new level of interaction between students and teachers. So, I guess the question is, what virtual presence do you want to have? I highly recommend web conferencing software being a part of your school’s online learning solution.