This content first appeared at APUEdge.com.
Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Associate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education
Building your presence and persona as an instructor is incredibly important in an online classroom. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about several ways to build your instructor presence. Learn about getting feedback to understand the perception of your personality, actively sharing elements of your personality with students, and making sure you are consistent with your established persona to make students feel comfortable with you.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to this week’s episode of the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m going to share with you three reasons we should care about our instructor presence in the online classroom, and also give you some tips on how to do it.
What is Instructor Presence?
The first idea is just to give you some sense of what instructor presence is. This is basically how you present yourself to your students when you’re in the online classroom. It’s a lot like getting into the live classroom. If you think about your presence as a person in the life classroom, you can consider things like how loudly do you speak? Do you come in, start class a certain way? Do you speak a certain way? Do you connect with students, use their names or address the whole group? Do you talk slow, fast, loud, soft, all those things?
When you’re doing this online, we don’t have what some might call that performative aspect of teaching. So instructor presence is the way you present yourself to your online students in the online classroom. We need to go through the steps of what that is just to make sure we know what the target is and how we can build it.
Now you should care about this for three important reasons. One of those is a category of things that everyone in online education cares about, from the faculty to the administrators, to the enrollment department and everyone across the university, and that is student retention.
Building Presence Helps with Student Retention
So, the first reason to care about your instructor presence is that when you have a clear and approachable instructor presence and one that students can connect with, you are more likely to help your students stay in class, keep coming back to the class, and persevere throughout the course. After all, we want our students to succeed and complete the class and keep going on to complete their college degree. If they feel like you care about them, and they get a sense that you’re approachable and able to work with them, they care to stay in the class. This can push them through tough times.
As an online faculty member myself, I’ve had that experience where a student disappeared in the middle of a class, and I sent a message to them to invite them back in, ask them if they were struggling, check in with them, and they came back. So, I know this can happen for you, it doesn’t always 100% happen, but when we have a presence that is intentional and inviting, we can help those students get back into the classroom, should they be struggling.
Enhance Community and Collaboration
The second reason we should care about this is really the sense of why we teach, and that is when you have a clear presence and you are present, you can pull your students together. You can encourage this collaboration, this cooperation, and this academic community that builds cognitive presence in your online classroom. And by cognitive presence, I mean, the work everyone is focused on in that online classroom really is aimed at the subject matter, the experience, the learning, and it’s not just a boredom experience for students jumping through hoops. There’s a real sense of focus and purpose in your online class. So, that academic community is the second reason we should care about instructor presence.
Build Trust with Students
Third, we want to build trust, and that is really a preventative situation. When you’re building trust with your students by having a clear presence, if something should go awry, if something should become unbearable for your student and they start to have problems when you’re present regularly and have a good, clear presence they can approach, they will reach out to you, and you can address problems immediately, quickly and successfully.
I have been a faculty supervisor for many years, and I could attest to the fact that when students knew their faculty members, they seemed much more likely to contact them when they had a misunderstanding about an assignment or about grading or things like that. And where there was less clear faculty presence, those comments instead often came to the complaints department or the appeals department, or somehow escalated to my desk. So, we can prevent that and help build trust, when we have a clear instructor presence. It’s a really good goal to be aiming for, for retention, academic community, and building trust.
How to Build Instructor Presence
Now, let’s talk about how to build an instructor presence. First, you want to figure out who you are as an instructor, as an educator, and then you need to decide what do you want to share with your students to connect with them, and how do you want to do that sharing? Last, find a way to make it part of your regular teaching routine.
There are some people who do this through videos and photos; some do it through sharing their personal and professional expertise; maybe they do video feedback, audio feedback, different approaches.
I know some faculty members who use other apps outside the learning management system like Smore, whatever it is that you want to do, you want to have a routine for that, and it will help you to build it into part of your day, and it won’t be so challenging to build that presence that is so critical to helping build relationships and developing success with students.
Let’s talk about the first one, and that is what your teaching persona really is. So you may not know who you are as an instructor. You know who you mean to be and who you are as a person, likely, but what do students actually experience when they’re in the class with you?
Get Feedback from Students
To know this, we need feedback from a variety of sources. When you’re teaching a live class, you can actually ask your students many times throughout the session or the semester, what their experience is. You can ask them what you should start doing, stop doing, or continue doing, what they like about your class, what they dislike about your class, what’s useful to them, helpful to them, or unhelpful.
There are a lot of ways to get that feedback. When you’re online, you can also use informal surveys during the class several times to get the same feedback. You could do this in the discussion area, if you’re comfortable with it. Say in week one or two, you could ask students to include, with whatever their topic is, some idea of how the course is going for them, how they feel they’re doing learning this subject matter, and what you could do as an instructor to help them all the more.
So, a lot of feedback will help you to determine what your teaching persona will be or what it already is. You can ask yourself, “How do my students describe my teaching? How do they describe their experience with me?” Talk to your students. Find out what they think about your teaching and the feedback you give, read your evaluations at the end of the course, those formal evaluations, encourage students to complete those.
There are so many ways to get feedback. You could also ask peers, supervisors, other people who are informed about online teaching to take a look around your classroom and give you some feedback and help you to focus on identifying what people experience with you.
Of course, peers and instructors that might observe you might do things differently than you will, and that’s okay. But the feedback really should be aimed at identifying your style, your persona, and helping you to know what that is, and then start doing it more intentionally.
A lot of online instructors that I know personally would like to describe their own approach as warm, welcoming, supportive, inviting, inclusive, approachable, fair, and clear. I’ve heard those terms a lot, and if that’s what you’re aiming for, getting this kind of feedback will help you to know if you’re on the right track.
When students give you informal feedback in a message or an email, that’s also really helpful in determining this. So, take a look at all this feedback, collect it over time, and keep looking at it to make sure you’re on the track that you personally want to be. There’s no right answer to this. There are also faculty who want to be very concise, direct, businesslike, and, in doing so, clear with everyone and equitable to everyone. So, there’s no perfect way to be a persona online. You just need to know what it is and think about that. Then you’re going to intentionally share this a little bit more.
Share Your Persona with Students
Once you have the clarity around how you appear in your online classroom and what your persona really is, you can state it upfront in week one. In doing that, you’ll be able to rely on the fact that it’s true. If your students tell you’re very accommodating, you’re very patient, and they love working with you. You can say that in your week one message, the next time you’re teaching online.
You can also continually reinforce it on purpose because you know, it’s part of who you are and who you show up as in the online classroom. You can add to this with videos where you’re talking about things in this way, photographs of whatever you’re doing, teaching or in your profession, maybe those things that you’ve shared that helps students get to know you. Like, if you love fly fishing, and you’ve mentioned it in week one, you could always put a picture of that in there. That helps you to appear like a real person, like the real person you are, and also to be vivid for your students so they get a sense of a human being behind the name.
Audio and video work really well, and of course, whatever tone that you like to use in your speaking, carefully convey that through the words that you use as well. Not everything comes through as well when you’re typing it online, of course. But if you can do those things that help your personality to come through students will get to know you through your words and through the media that you include. I love the approach of using a welcome video on day one or week one. Many people do that now, it’s becoming a pretty standard practice across the board.
When you share a video and introduce your students to you as the faculty member and then walk up around that classroom a little bit, it can really take the edge off for students. It builds trust right away because you’re giving them an introduction to you and the classroom, and it also helps students know how to get started from that very first day.
If you do this, I also suggest telling them where to begin in the classroom with their week one materials and also a general overview of what they’re going to learn in the class. What the main goals are of that class? If it’s a gen-ed class, general education, you might even consider discussing the category of general education that it fills and how it fills that category.
Anything you can do to tie what they’re learning to the big picture at the university, and the degree program and other places, you will be able to help your students to do that for themselves as they move through the course.
We occasionally hear complaints from students that they don’t understand why a particular assignment or approach is used in your online class. You can set that up in the beginning by giving those overviews of the subject matter in the classroom, and then reinforcing it throughout in your own way, with your own persona.
Consider the Font You Use
Another part of the way you show up is the font that you use when you’re typing. Now, this is an interesting thing. Handwriting when people are writing by hand, whether you print or use cursive, tells something about a person. There are handwriting analysts who look at your handwriting and can say things about your personality just by seeing it on paper.
For example, they say, when you’re writing in cursive, if the letters lean to the right, you’re a future-thinking, positive-optimistic person, thinking about possibilities. If they’re straight up in the middle, you’re a deliberate, thoughtful person that likes to consider things deeply, and if they lean a little bit to the left, the handwriting experts out there say that you might be looking towards the past a lot more. That might make sense for certain subject matters like maybe history. Maybe we’re reviewing the past a lot and that’s part of who we are.
Your handwriting says a lot about you, and so does the font that you use when you’re typing. If you change fonts often, it can be difficult to read, and you’ll want to test this out to see if the font that you choose comes up in every situation or if they have to be on a certain browser or something for that font to really come out. And also, how readable is that font? How large is it? How close together are the letters and the lines? Taking a look at that can help you to convey your personality in a specific way by using the kind of fonts that speak to you as well.
Create a Strategy for Conveying Your Personality
Lastly, I want to suggest that you consider a strategy for how you will convey your persona throughout your course. It’s kind of strategic planning in a business setting, thinking through however many weeks your class is, what things will you do in week one? What things will you do every week? What approaches will you take in discussions and grading that will convey your personality?
As you consider these things, write them down, make a plan, and then you don’t have to suffer from repeatedly making decisions about your personality or what you’re going to include. It will also help you to be more consistent because when you consult your plan, it will remind you of the approaches you want to take to convey that consistency to your students.
Wrapping it all up for you, caring about your online persona in your online classroom is very important to conveying to your students who you really are, who you want them to see, that warm, approachable, or direct, no-nonsense person. Whatever your approach, when you bring it intentionally to your online teaching, it can be a lot clearer and it can support all those goals that we care about. The retention, we want to see our students complete the course, their ability to connect with us when they are concerned, and we need trust, a foundation of trust, and also that sense of academic community that can really thrive when we have a clear teaching and social presence.
I have another episode that touches on this topic lightly. It’s episode number 108 on authenticity. I invite you to check it out when you have a minute, and thank you for being here and all that you do for your online students. I wish you all the best in thinking about your online persona, this coming week.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.