How to Keep a Human Presence in a Virtual World

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By Joan Harden
Librarian
Delaware Technical Community College
George Campus

US News reports that in the past year, nationwide enrollment at two-year colleges has dropped 6 percent citing that the biggest drop is among the nontraditional students (Sheehy, 2015); and the US Census also reports that “a large part of the decline took place in two-year colleges (known often as community or junior colleges). Such schools experienced a 10 percent decline in enrollment from 2012 to 2013” (United States Census Bureau, 2014, para. 5).

However, one area that has increased enrollment is online education. One school in Florida’s online course enrollment increased 15.5 percent during 2013-2014; while another school in Texas reported an 18 percent increase in 2014 (Sheehy, 2015).

With advancements in technology, online learning has grown from a “correspondence course” delivered via the U.S. postal service (mid-nineteenth century) to the present online virtual education platform that is available almost anywhere at any time. Teaching an online course has become the norm today, but is very different from teaching a class in a traditional classroom; the most obvious difference being the lack of a physical presence. Research has indicated that an online presence is essential for a successful virtual class. Students have stated that the best online faculty are the ones who are present “multiple times a week, and at best, daily” (Boettcher, 2013, para. 5).

Some suggestions to present a stronger “appearance” in online classes include face-to-face Skyping for virtual office hours; “a short YouTube video to welcome students to the course or to go over the syllabus” and emails with YouTube links to short (30 seconds) videos reminding students of upcoming due dates (Tichavsky, Hunt, Driscoll, & Jicha, 2015, p. 7). For classes using Twitter, a quick Tweet could also be sent to the class for reminders.

Interaction on the discussion board was also a frequent comment by students who stated that they liked “when the teacher provokes a thought or question which can lead the class into discussion … [because this is sometimes missing from online classes they] feel very detached when taking an online class.” (Tichavsky, et al., 2015, p. 3).

Some final thoughts are that while I have not had the experience of teaching an online class; although I would like to one day, I do have several years’ experience as a student taking online courses. Much of the research that led to this post can be substantiated by myself and my fellow students.

Although it has been a few years since taking those courses, it seems that despite the new technology, students still need to feel that there is “somebody out there” to reassure them that they are on the right track, to answer questions, and to facilitate interactive dialogue. Sometimes just an open-ended question posted occasionally can spark a debate.

Despite some remaining incorrect stereotyping of online courses (e.g., they are not as good as traditional classes, or they are easier to teach than traditional classes), it is obvious that these distance learning courses are here to stay and that the teacher is still one of the most valuable assets to any type of course—online or traditional.

References

Boettcher, J.V. (2013). Ten best practices for teaching online: Quick guide for new online faculty. Designing for Learning. Retrieved from http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tenbest.html

Sheehy, K. (2015, January 9). Community colleges expand online as overall enrollment declines. U. S. News & World Report. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/education/community-colleges/articles/2015/01/09/community-colleges-expand-online-as-overall-enrollment-declines

Tichavsky, L.P., Hunt, A.N., Driscoll, A., & Jicha, K. (July, 2015). “It’s just nice having a real teacher:” Student perceptions of online versus face-to-face instruction. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(2), 1-8. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/ij-sotl/vol9/iss2/2/

United States Census Bureau. (2014, September 24). College enrollment declines for second year in a row. (Release Number: CB14-177). Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2014/cb14-177.html

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