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#111: Building Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Online Classroom

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com. 

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Online classrooms offer little information about a person’s background and it can be hard to get to know students. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about ways to naturally build diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, into the classroom structure. Learn about the importance of psychological safety, the concept of unconditional positive regard, and being aware of “ingroups” and “outgroups” and more.

Listen to the Episode:

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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 the podcast today. We’ll be talking about D.E.I. in online higher education classrooms. D.E.I. means diversity, equity and inclusion. And at different educational institutions, it may be phrased differently. For example, one that I’m most familiar with calls it E.D.I., which is equity, diversity and inclusion and it’s really the same idea, that all people are important. Everyone matters. They need to be able to have psychological safety in the climate, and be themselves, and understand that they will be accepted and valued and included fully just as everyone in the group.

Why is DEI So Important in Higher Education?

So D.E.I. is an important topic in pretty much any industry that you’re in. But especially in higher education, where we are educating others interacting, and we need to be open, able to relate to the material, feel safe to explore, take risks, and experiment, and find relevance in what we’re learning.

In higher education, this is especially important, we cannot overstate this. So many of our students come from varied backgrounds, with which we ourselves may not be familiar. And online, this is not readily apparent. We don’t see people online and immediately know their whole background. We don’t know all about their cultural makeup or their orientation, or where they’ve come from, or who they are. And so, getting to know them, and also designing learning experiences for them that they will benefit from, those are both very important things.

Today, we’re going to talk about creating some psychological safety for diversity, equity and inclusion in your online classroom. We will also talk about what this requires from us, and how we can be kind and compassionate to ourselves along the way. After all, if we’re going to create an environment where students can take risks, and learn and be themselves, we also need to give ourselves a little compassion when we’re not perfect at this. But we need to keep trying and keep learning about what’s going to be helpful to others. And what will help them to value what they’re getting out of their education, and to have those things included that would be most beneficial to the learners. So, to start with, I will talk about psychological safety, and what that is, and why it’s part of thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion.

Why is Psychological Safety Needed in the Online Classroom?

Psychological safety is the basic sense that you belong, that you are okay, that you can learn and you can take risks in the process. When you have a climate of psychological safety, everyone in the group feels that they can contribute. You understand that the examples and stories you might share with the group will be heard and not severely judged. No one’s going to stop participating with you because of what you have said or what your experiences are.

As an online educator, creating a climate of psychological safety involves a lot of different aspects that we can think about and we can discuss. One of those things is proactive, positive and helpful communication. Whenever an online educator gives the communication upfront that a student can benefit from, guiding them into how to engage in a discussion, for example, this invites the student into the discussion.

If there are some standards for the way you’d like your students to engage and you tell them this ahead of time before they start participating in that discussion, they’re much more likely to feel safe when they see those guidelines, and they follow them. And if they don’t follow them, you can use those guidelines as a reinforcement for your feedback, and you can help redirect your students. There’s a lot of comfort in having clear expectations that were communicated to you as a student. And again, that creates a sense of psychological safety.

Unconditional Positive Regard

Something else I really think contributes to psychological safety, especially in the online classroom is this thing called unconditional positive regard. This is a phrase that comes from the 1950s from a man named Carl Rogers. It’s known in the therapy world, and it’s basically this concept that we’re going to accept another person, even if they have attitudes, beliefs, or experiences and feelings that we might not normally like. We accept their experiences as all valid, we don’t need to judge that or criticize that or correct that. We’re just taking in the person and giving them our positive acceptance.

Unconditional positive regard can be cultivated. And that’s something we can do for our students to learn more and more about our students, without blocking ourselves to the people we’re with by judging it. It doesn’t mean that everyone gets an “A” all the time just by showing up, you still have your standards for what you’re doing in that classroom. But you also can accommodate the backgrounds and experiences of your students. And when you have a lot of adult learners in your classroom online, they really want to be seen for who they are, what they have experienced, and what they know. So, the more you can give them that unconditional positive regard and accept them and validate their experiences, the more they can apply the learning to their life, and it becomes real and alive and vibrant for them.

Consistency is Key

Psychological safety has to do with the way we communicate, and this unconditional positive regard. And it also has to do with the consistency that we demonstrate as human beings. That means that the way we communicate with our students, the timing, the speed, the attitude that we convey in all of our communications, and who we are as a person, those are all congruent. We aren’t super nice all the time and suddenly negative and angry and blowing up at a student that misunderstands. That consistency in our interactions with students across the online environment, gives them additional sense of safety. And they can trust us because they get to know us, and they get to know who we are. And then we get to know who they are as well, as they feel more and more comfortable participating.

Psychological safety is probably the most core thing to our diversity, equity and inclusion approach. Because we cannot really know our students well, or get to know our students well, if they don’t feel safe. That’s a bunch of negative terms there, right? So, students who feel safe, are more likely to allow us to get to know them. And the more we get to know our students, the more we can meet their needs. Now, I want you to think about a time where you felt as if you did not belong. I mean, a really confusing experience you had where you were what we would call in the out group.

Experiencing Being in the “Out Group”

I had one of those experiences. Just to tell you a little bit about my background. I grew up in California, I was born in San Jose, California. And this was a long time ago before the Silicon Valley was a real hopping place. It became more and more developed as I was growing up.

But, when I first was growing up in this area, there were fields everywhere, there was a lot of space. It wasn’t the crowded, citified place it became over time. And in this location, there were people of a lot of different cultures, national origins, backgrounds. And much later I found myself in another country with my husband. It was a professional conference and we were in Brazil. And again, I want you to go back to that time where you might have felt that you were in the out group. What was that? Like? What was your experience? How did you feel when that happened? What did you do in the moment that you felt that? And how does that inform your online teaching?

This moment I’d like to share with you comes from my trip to Brazil to present at an International Music Educators Conference. So, my husband and I were in Brazil, and he spoke Brazilian Portuguese. My husband went to Brazil when he was really young, 20, I think, on a church mission. And then after that trip, he took the time to continue learning the language even better. And 20 years later, he was very good at speaking Brazilian Portuguese. He practiced it regularly and even spoke to people in Brazil and kept up that study. When we went to this conference, I felt very confident I was in good hands. My husband spoke the language, he knew the culture. And I was not going to have any trouble navigating this country that I was not very familiar with at all.

And we rode the city buses all over town confidently, he was comfortable paying, getting on the bus, doing all of that stuff and I just stayed with him everywhere we went. And as I mentioned, he spoke the language fluently, and could solve the problems that we might face being in a country where English was not a common language at all.

We had this experience where we were riding the bus, and we got on the bus. And I’m taking for granted that my husband is managing the money and the admission to the bus, the bus fare. And you get on a bus in Brazil and you it starts going and as the bus starts going down the road, people are still going through the turnstile to put their money in and go to the back of the bus for their seat.

And there’s this little section at the front of the bus for pregnant women, obese people, senior citizens and handicapped people. And there’s a sticker on the window that illustrates these four conditions. I saw this sticker on one occasion and thought, “Oh my goodness, I am one of those people.” I was a large, obese woman with a very large body weight. And I saw myself in the picture and thought, “I hope I can still sit with my husband.” And everywhere we went on the bus, I was fine. I just kept going with him and wasn’t worried about it.

One particular occasion, we got on the bus and we’re walking through, and he put in the bus fare for both of us and walked through the turnstile. And the driver locked the turnstile and would not let me pass through. And instead, he pointed to this section for the disabled senior citizens, pregnant women and obese people and indicated that I was to stay there. I was very worried because my husband had passed through and was in the far back of the bus. And everyone around me spoke Brazilian Portuguese.

And I did not. I didn’t even know the first thing about speaking Brazilian Portuguese. And so, I went ahead to the front of the bus and sat down. And I felt in that moment completely alone on the planet. I felt like I did not understand, I did not speak. And I did not have any hope of navigating this language or this culture. And I could not see my husband at the back of the bus because it was very, very crowded during rush hour. And I wouldn’t know if he got off the bus or not. I was actually quite terrified in this moment.

And I realized that I had very few experiences in my lifetime, where I really felt like I was in the out group or did not understand anything about the cultural group in which I was living at the time. And in this moment, I felt like I was getting that experience and wasn’t really sure how to navigate it.

Fortunately, a few stops later, we had talked ahead of time, and I was pretty sure I knew where we were going. And I went ahead and got off where I thought we were going and my husband also got off the bus and we were able to connect with each other again.

But, in that experience, I had the thought, “this is what some of my students have felt in the past.” I had taught some students in live classes back when I was a band director in central California. And I had some students that came from Mexico having not learned any English yet. And they joined my band, and I needed to learn to communicate with them. And I thought in the moment on that bus in Brazil that I could somewhat relate in that moment, that I wasn’t really sure where I was or what I would do either.

And I appreciate the positive efforts that all of my students have made in the past regardless of their background, their cultural group, their learning preferences or differences and many other things that we bring that make us all unique. I’m so pleased that students I have worked with have just kept trying to navigate challenging things and doing their best. And as I tell my story about having been in Brazil, and having that rough experience on the bus, I wonder what comes to your mind?

What kind of experiences have you had as an educator? Or even before you were an educator in your previous parts of your life? When did you ever feel like an outsider? And how can you grab those experiences, and bring them into your teaching to inform what you’d like to do to help your students?

I know, in my case, I like to define even basic terms that I might use, assuming students all know what they mean, I want to illustrate concepts, I want to give some visual, I want to give a video walkthrough. And I also want to ask students about themselves and really learn who’s in my online class, I’d like to welcome them, and reassure them, and encourage them, and give them plenty of opportunities to try things and fail, and still be able to continue learning and succeeding along their time in this class, whatever will help me reach my students better.

That’s going to open up the space for diversity, equity and inclusion, I also have to check myself and ask what biases I might be bringing into those experiences. That’s especially difficult because as educators, and as human beings, really, we all have biases, we just have them, they’re kind of assumptions we have in our minds. And we’re not always aware of what our biases might be, we might assume certain students can do things or should know things. And that might not be true.

We might also need to branch out to include content that still teaches the concepts we’re teaching, but includes a lot more diverse perspectives, and a lot more cultural backgrounds, whatever it will take to help our students have the experience they need to have in that class. If we include those things, it will invite their success and invite people to join in the discussion, participate more fully and belong. Pychological safety sets that up and then our own experiences of a moment or many times where we might have felt like an outsider, in a group, those things can inform us further.

Now, when we think about focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion in distance learning, or in online education, we don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be experts at this concept. We can keep growing, we can just start focusing on it and incorporate more and more approaches that welcome our students and shift the focus off the instructor-led teaching and toward the student-centered learning.

The more we focus on our students, reaching them and teaching them and inviting them in, the more we’re satisfying the goals of a D.E.I. approach. And pretty soon, it will be very natural, if it’s not yet already, and we’ll be able to really invite students of any background, of any preference and be able to meet their needs all the more.

Student-Centered Online Education

Now, one thing that I just mentioned that a D.E.I. approach or D.E.I. focus in our online education requires of us is that we do focus on students and not just our teaching. Shifting to student-centered online education means that everything about our approach in that online classroom is focused on the learner experience.

What kinds of things do they already bring to this experience that we can tap into? And what do they need to experience to learn what they need to learn in this subject matter or in the concept area? The more we do this, the more we will be asking questions. And we will be connecting with our students and continue learning and growing along the way.

Now, as we close our podcast today focused on D.E.I. in the higher education online classroom, I want to encourage you. As you keep developing these skills, as we all continue to focus in this area, we don’t have to be perfect, we’re going to make mistakes. And that psychological safety we’re building for students applies to us too.

So, give yourself a little bit of space to try. Risk a little bit, potentially fail and just keep trying. As you learn these ideas and strategies, they will be more and more comfortable. And you will feel that you are reaching your students as you hear from them as you connect with them, and as you focus on what they need most.

Thank you for being with me today to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion in the higher education online classroom. And I wish you all the best in your online teaching 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.

#110: How to Bring Creativity into Your Online Classroom

#110: How to Bring Creativity into Your Online Classroom

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Creativity fosters learning so it’s important for online teachers to find ways to encourage creativity among students. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares ways to integrate creative approaches in the online classroom. Learn about designing open-ended assignments, being creative with assessments and more.

Listen to the Episode:

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This is Episode Number 110: How to bring creativity into your online classroom. 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 the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and we’re going to talk about one of my favorite subjects today, creativity in your online classroom. I love creativity. In fact, one of my favorite things is coming up with new ideas and trying them out.

We have to be careful about creativity. As instructors, if we’re too creative, we create a classroom situation that is not coherent for our students. Limited creativity on our part, when we’re putting the course materials out there, can be helpful. Use some creativity all the time in your teaching. Just don’t overdo it. Help things to have a focus so your students know where they are and what they’re doing.

Emphasizing Creativity in Students

How can we bring creativity out in our students? Let’s think about that. The first thing is to look at your classroom as an area where students meet each other and get together. How could you use that online classroom in a way that really fosters collaboration and creativity? Is there easy access to all of the materials? Is there a great way to put that out there that students will naturally navigate? What could you do that is a little bit different to make this even clearer in the next class you teach?

There are a lot of creative ways to do this. Some people do it through a roadmap that students follow where you just click the next thing and the next thing, and it sort of navigates, maybe there’s even a hyperlink that goes directly into the discussion and a hyperlink that goes directly to the announcements, the assignments, and all those things. Think about, likewise, how you navigate that with your students whether it’s through videos, announcements, or little things along the way to help them move from one thing to the next.

What about those students who love to choose the order in which they learn things? Is there a way for that week’s content to be a buffet from which they can choose instead of a sequential order? Some lessons do make sense that way. In fact, some courses can even be taught that way.

When there are themes or topics that don’t necessarily have to be sequential and they don’t necessarily build on each other, they could be chosen in any order. Then an assignment could be based on some of the basic principles, not on the content itself but on the skills.

So, think about your classroom as this communal area where people can access all of the things, and what kind of creativity can make that utilized in a new way? You can also ask your students what they think about your organization. Perhaps they’ll give you some suggestions and ideas that will really be wonderful and you can try out in your next class or in the next week of class.

Building Community in the Classroom

There’s another approach to this community that you can just view in the online classroom. That is to find ways for students to really kick off the week together. There might be an opportunity for you to have everyone do an icebreaker activity on the subject matter or some kind of an asynchronous game.

There’s an online app called Kahoot! where everyone can click on their answers in real time. There are other apps out there that do the same thing asynchronously. Mentimeter does that through the slide presentation and so does Poll Everywhere. I encourage you to check out creative apps and solutions that might allow you to have more community and also more creativity in the classroom generally.

Design Open-Ended Assignments

Another suggestion for building creativity in your online classroom is to leave your assignments open-ended. Now, that sounds a little wild and crazy, doesn’t it? Now, if you actually have your assignments open-ended, this means that students can choose the mode of expression. They don’t have to necessarily write an essay. You could give them several suggestions or several links to ways they could present the assignment, and then students could choose the mode that speaks to them the most.

Some might use the essay. Some might make a video. Others might record their own podcast episode. Perhaps they’ll create a slideshow. Maybe they’ll create something else that we haven’t even thought of here yet. Whatever it is, if you leave the mode of expression open-ended, then you can have the requirements of the content being demonstrated through that assignment and also how much they need to include and whether they need to discuss their sources or give personal opinions or things like that.

I always like to give examples of various formats of assignments whenever it’s open-ended, but there’s this danger when you do that. Some students will just copycat what you put in there. I’ve heard some instructors actually don’t give examples. They just leave it open-ended and list a few suggestions without showing what that might look like. For the creative students in your group, that’s going to be a real invitation, and they’re going to love that.

Change How You Think About Creativity

Third, think about creativity itself in a new way. Some people think creativity means it’s unclear, it’s hard to define, and it’s really just ambiguous and people are invited to invent things. I don’t think that’s really true. In fact, there’s some research out there that describes characteristics of creativity. They are fluency, flexibility, elaboration, and originality. It could be helpful to teach your students when you’re using creative approaches what creativity means to you.

Fluency

Fluency itself is a person’s ability to generate a lot of ideas, solutions, or responses. So, you might have an assignment or a discussion where that is the goal, to come up with a lot of potential solutions and a lot of ideas about a particular topic that you’re studying. Inviting fluency of this nature can really help students get outside of the normal line of thinking, stretch the boundaries, and seek additional learning on the topic. That’s something we would all love our students to do.

An example is when I used to be a music teacher live, face-to-face, I played a lot of recordings of actual performing artists on various instruments. For the jazz kids, I would play actual jazz artists like Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis and different people. I would encourage my students to find good examples out there and bring them into the class.

Pretty soon, my students were listening to jazz at all hours of the day, skimming through examples, finding selections, and bringing in new and different artists that we hadn’t met before, virtually, or on their MP3 players. So, the more you can help students develop fluency on the topic, the more they’re really learning and inventing new areas that they’d like to learn about within that subject matter.

Flexibility

Another characteristic of creativity is flexibility. This is a person’s ability to look at a situation from a different point of view. This is a really helpful skill in life, in business, in professional endeavors, in relationships, and in studying your academic content. The more you can see things from different point of views, the more you can see things with greater insight and greater perspective.

Elaboration

A third aspect of creativity is elaboration. Elaboration is a person’s ability to modify or expand an existing idea. This is known in the Clifton Strengths as the maximizer trait. Basically, we have an idea that we’re learning about and we could stretch it in some way, make it better, expand on that idea. Maybe we can apply it to something new or improve the quality of it. Whatever we’re going to do with elaboration, we’re really helping students to stretch their thinking and become, of course, more creative in the process.

Originality

Lastly, originality. Originality is a trait of creativity. In fact, most people think that’s what creativity is. It’s the ability to come up with a unique idea or a unique solution. So, this framework is going to help us teach our students to be more creative.

Believe it or not, creativity can be taught. It’s a skill that can be learned. I know some people think they are naturally creative. They grew up creative. Maybe they are not creative, something like that. Everyone has a belief about their own level of creativity or their ability to be creative. When you start to add more options about creativity in your online classroom, you help your students to grow not only in the subject matter, but in the ways they think about everything and the ways they live. So, bringing creativity in has so many benefits, and it really speaks to the whole purpose of education.

Now, here’s an example from an article in a book called “Teaching Strategies for the Online Classroom” by Magna Publications. This example is a chemistry instructor who could have students explain an oxidation reaction from the point of view of an electron, for instance. A history instructor could choose to focus on the elaboration aspects of creativity and have students outline a debate that argues both sides of a controversial topic.

An animation application, like GoAnimate. You can go to goanimate.com to check it out. Students could demonstrate their understanding of the course concepts while showcasing their creative approach. So, there are a few of the examples there from the article I’m looking at, and I encourage you to check out more options for bringing creativity into your online classroom.

Be Creative with Assessments

One area that we haven’t talked about is in the assessment area. Assessments don’t always have to be tests, and they don’t always have to be essays. Assessments are the opportunities for your students to tell you what they’ve learned. They need to demonstrate they understand the subject and they can utilize it in some way. So, they’re going to synthesize it, or they’re going to get creative with it, or they’re going to apply it. Whatever that is, the assessment should show their true understanding.

When you’re teaching online, sometimes we focus on objective assessments that are simply easy to grade. Online quizzes are like that. They can be automatically graded if you use multiple choice options. So, it’s easy to design modes like this, and it’s easy to automatically give the feedback, it reduces the instructor grading time.

However, when we use those options, we really reduce student learning down to some very basic modalities. If we include instead creative options, like students creating a video, building a mock interview, having a multimedia presentation, animating it in some way, creating an emoticon that describes it with some prose, some words that talk about it, or some other artistic work, we can really bring out more creativity in our students, and they can have fun while they’re doing it.

Be Mindful of Creative Elements

In closing, while you’re thinking about bringing more creativity to your online classroom, I want to caution you to be careful about your own exploration and what you included in the class. As I started with at the beginning of this episode, it’s really easy to make your online class so creative that it becomes a little chaotic for your learners. So, as you’re including creative elements, review it for cohesiveness as well and the learner’s experience.

You might have someone walk through that course and give you some feedback. Does it look easy to follow? Are the instructions clear? Can students tell what they’re supposed to be doing? Can they follow step one to step two and so forth? Can they figure out what they’re supposed to be clicking on and learning about and watching and doing, whatever that is?

If it’s super clear to your students, then you’re all set for a good experience, and you can run it and have students complete the course and take a look at their feedback. Of course, I always recommend getting student feedback along the way, asking them what they like, what they suggest improving, and what their experience really is so you can adapt. But for many of us, that can be challenging if you have a course that is completely written before you launch it. It’s very difficult to change that along the way, but you can modify it, make small changes, give it increased guidance through videos and announcements, and communicate with your students regularly to help them have an even better experience.

If you think about creativity as simply a method to help your students become owners of their learning, this becomes a really fun tool to use in your teaching. I hope you’ll think about it and explore what it might do for you and what it might do for your students. I wish you all the best this coming week, thinking about creativity in your online teaching.

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.

#109: How to Develop Your Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom

#109: How to Develop Your Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom

This content first appeared at APUEdge.com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate 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.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
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Read the Transcript:

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.

#108: Bringing Authenticity to the Online Classroom

#108: Bringing Authenticity to the Online Classroom

This content originally appeared at APUEdge.com

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Teaching online can be inherently depersonalized, so it’s important for online teachers to share enough about themselves so students feel a connection. In this episode, learn about the value of authenticity, building teaching presence and social presence, and how to keep from oversharing with students.

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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 the Online Teaching Lounge. In online education, we all face the problem of being authentic. After all, getting to know anyone online passes through that filter of the online platform, which can become a barrier to letting your personality and your expertise shine through. Distance learning and online work are inherently depersonalized. This modality of education more than any other way, takes the “you” out of the situation the most. It makes it difficult for people to really get a sense of who you are.

In today’s episode, we’ll look at what authenticity is. We will also explore why it’s so important in our online teaching. We will take some guidance from Brené Brown’s book “Daring Greatly.” And, I’ll give you a few examples of online educators I’ve observed that bring wonderful authenticity into their work to help you think about where you’re bringing in authenticity to your online teaching effectively, and to give you ideas about areas in which you can take it further.

What is Authenticity?

Authenticity is that state of feeling safe, secure, and comfortable showing up as your whole self. To fully show up authentically, we all need a deep sense of belonging and psychological safety. And we help others be authentic when we create that sense of belonging and psychological safety with them.

As human beings, we all have fears, hopes, struggles and joy. And as online educators, we might have good examples from our own lives or our experiences that illustrate some course concept, some topic we’re talking about. If we share those little bits of ourselves with students in brief examples, and, more importantly, what we’ve learned, what we thought about it, and how it connects to our students in their learning, we build beautiful, authentic connections throughout the learning experience.

Another way of thinking about authenticity would be through the lens of social presence. There’s a framework often discussed in online education called the Community of Inquiry, or the COI, which includes teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. Teaching presence includes the aspect of guiding students through their learning experience. And those things might include the grading, the course announcements, and other guidance to successfully complete the course.

Why Is Authenticity Important in Online Teaching?

The social presence is where authenticity comes out. It is an indicator of who you are as the educator, and as a human being.  Where teaching presence tells them you’re there, social presence is this sense of who you are. It’s the “you-ness” in this experience. And your students really, really want that online more than in any other type of learning. They need to know who you are to gain psychological safety and try, and to engage in that classroom. And they need the positive emotions coming out of authenticity to build connections that help them learn.

Authenticity has a strong link to wellbeing. And being authentic brings positive emotions, greater life satisfaction, feelings of autonomy and control, a sense of purpose, and self-acceptance. Authenticity is important with all of our students, but even more with adult learners who need emotional connections to their learning experience.

If there is ever a doubt on your grading, or if there’s ever a misunderstanding in the classroom, students can be incredibly forgiving when they know who you are, or if they feel like they know who you are. Likewise, if they don’t have any sense of you, they are very quick to complain, reach out, drop the class, ask for a refund, and disengage. There are a lot of things that happen when students cannot latch on to your identity. Just a little bit goes a long, long ways.

The problem is, it’s nearly impossible to do that online and be comfortable. It’s really difficult to know what a good balance is, when you’re doing this virtually over the internet, maybe it’s asynchronous, you’re making your comments, and other people are seeing those comments later on. They’re not going to see your facial expression, they might not hear your tone of voice, especially if it’s text based, if it’s written, they’re going to take your comments, your presence, the thing you do to show up in that classroom online. And they’re going to interpret it however they like.

Because your communication is asynchronous, if you show up as the best you, the real you, the incredible educator that you are, this doesn’t always land as intended. At the same time, if you hold back and don’t let them really get a sense of who you are, your students will resist that much more. There will always be someone who responds poorly or disappears in your online classroom.

It can be so easy to take all of this personally. But if you wonder why put in the added effort it takes to bring in photos, instructor videos, and other parts of your teaching that help you be authentic in the online classroom, keep in mind that when you make the effort to let students know you, you will make genuine connections with many of them, and you will see benefits.

Guidance from Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly

Being authentic in online education is the critical step to success with your students, and it’s worth the time it might take. As the educator, you have so much to offer. You’re a unique human being. And you’ve got your own experience, your own educational background, your own beliefs about things. And your students benefit from your knowledge and experience, no matter what their age or their situation. If you hold back on those things, it will be very difficult for you to make the kind of impact you might like through the work you invest.

In her book, “Daring Greatly,” Brené Brown shares tips and strategies about how to be authentic. And she acknowledges that it can be very difficult. We want to show up with our whole selves, but we might not know how much to share. How much is too much?

Tip 1: Share Something About Yourself and Be Open

The first tip is to share something about yourself. Your fears, hopes, struggles, joy, in a helpful way that is connecting to other people.

Be willing to keep learning and to not have all the answers. This takes some degree of vulnerability. To let others see your humanness.

Tip 2: Don’t Overshare

And a second tip is not to overdo it. Brené Brown calls it “floodlighting” if you take advantage of the loyalty or tolerance in your situation to make yourself feel better by oversharing something too detailed and private about yourself.

It’s way too intense, and it can also be inappropriate. Floodlighting is intended to discharge your own discomfort, and in return, it makes people feel uncomfortable. It can make people recoil, shut down, and it compounds shame and disconnection. And it creates a lack of trust from your students. This kind of sharing will lead to students feeling confused, manipulated, depleted, and just generally uncomfortable.

Tip 3: Be Direct and Clear

A third idea is to avoid being indirect, zigzagging around a conversation without getting to the point. “Serpentining” is hugely energy draining. And it’s this way of maneuvering around, zigzagging through a situation and not going straight for what is needed.

This might be like making comments that are indirect, and suggesting, or in grading comments when you give feedback in your essays and forum discussions that only ask questions and use just a word or two with a question mark. I’ve even seen a few people write the word “really?” which is kind of asking the student, “like, do you mean to say this?” But it’s such shorthand and abbreviation that it’s not helping the student to know you at all. And doesn’t help them understand what they have done wrong.

In contrast to serpentining, the opposite is being present, paying attention and being clear and direct. When we are being present with students, we are responding to exactly what they need. If they’ve written an essay about a completely wrong topic, we are letting them know that, unfortunately, they have interpreted the essay directions incorrectly and have written about a wrong topic. Maybe it would be even helpful to say, “I understand it happens sometimes. You might be stressed or busy. I’m happy to work with you on a rewrite.”

Whatever it is, you need to say it in a clear, direct, and kind manner, and really pay attention to what’s going on. This takes less energy, and you can save yourself a lot of time.

Tip 4: Don’t Be Cynical or Critical

A fourth idea from Daring Greatly is to avoid using a shield of cynicism, criticism, coolness or cruelty. When you are being your most authentic self, not everyone responds. Sometimes people misinterpret what we do or say, because they’re assuming, or they are not engaged. Online, our intentions can be misinterpreted.

We have to take great care, to avoid getting cynical or critical, and to avoid hint-dropping or cruelty. Comments that attack or insult students can be part of this cynical, critical shield.

If we believe the student has approached their work with a lack of care, while tempting to respond about our thinking, it can be helpful to take a break, pause, and assume the best intent while responding in a helpful, authentic way.

Ideas to Review Your Authenticity Online

For seven years, I supervised online faculty in the Faculty Director role, and over that period I observed several hundred educators. I did not lead these faculty all at once, this was over the course of time in two different schools and seven different departments. And among all those faculty that I have observed, I’ve noticed a variety of engagement styles and approaches to online teaching. And, occasionally, I’ve observed an educator who seemed absent, without any social presence.

In this kind of observation, I could find no trace of personality or personal experience or educational experience. I found no image of the instructor and no written notes to the students outside of the course materials. There were no stories or examples in the announcements or discussions.

In these cases, the instructor’s presence throughout the entire course was very light. And it seemed as though that educator really could be just anybody. There was nothing that indicated who that person really was. And if I’m observing that, and I’m getting that sense from the observation, I would suppose that students are too. They likely have no idea who that person is, when this approach is used.

In this kind of approach, authenticity is not apparent. One solution would be to begin sharing some of those ideas and insights the instructor brings to that experience, and along with that, to share a few details to introduce themselves to the students.

At one university, it’s encouraged to give a brief background of their educational and professional expertise in language students will value, meaning that we are not listing this in the same dry manner we might in our resume or vitae. And, it’s encouraged to add some points that humanize the instructor, like telling about a skiing hobby or writing something about a love for digital photography.

If you wonder whether you are authentically coming through to your students, consider whether you could add greater personalization to help your students get to know you and feel your presence.

On the flip side, I’ve had the very delightful experience of observing faculty who have a strong social presence. They appear to be “all-in.” They are showing up.

Some things I might see include a video on the front page that introduces the educator, and they’re speaking in their own voice. There are images to illustrate different points. There are comments that bring in their insights and their expertise.

And there are really thoughtful questions. And they’re not the same for every student. They’re based on what the students are saying. There is a sense of personality there. And that personality is incredibly clear.

If you look over your online classroom, check for these aspects that bring your presence into the course. What do you do that helps students get to know you at the beginning of class? And how do you keep your personality in the course throughout the session?

On the idea of floodlighting or oversharing, I’ll first share an example of this, then a checklist from Brené Brown that can help us all keep it in check.

Several years ago, I observed an online instructor who had a personal situation that kept her from solid online teaching. I’m not really sure what was going on with this person. But the story was in the course announcements, weekly. And she posted announcements to her students explaining her internet problems. On one occasion, she talked about how the internet company had constant interruptions, and they just didn’t have good service in her area and she couldn’t get online last night because her kids were doing something. And then today, there was an outage. And last week, she had a lot of explanations about why she wasn’t in the classroom.

It appeared to me as the observer, as if this overly detailed personal backstory was intended to relate to the students, to connect to them. And to help them feel sympathy for their instructor. Perhaps she wanted them to be forgiving about her late grading or her absences.

Instead, it just looked like a bunch of personal circumstances and a lot of comments about her grading and absences. Because of the level of detail and the regularity of the announcements about this, it really was oversharing in the extreme with way too much detail. Students may have wondered why this educator did not seek out the appropriate people to help solve the problem and deal with the issue.

It’s always human and authentic to let your students know generally, due to circumstances outside your control, something happened with your grading or whatever, and when to expect it. But overly detailed stories about the circumstance at home are unnecessary and can end up oversharing. We all need to have good outlets to talk about things we’re concerned about, complaints we have, grievances we have, and usually not in the classroom.

Here is a short checklist Brené Brown shares in her chapter on the vulnerability armory in “Daring Greatly.” If you have a copy of this book, it’s around page 162. And these are the good questions to think about when authenticity comes up when sharing things with online students.

  • First, why am I sharing this?
  • Then, what outcome am I hoping for?
  • And what emotions am I experiencing?
  • And next, do my intentions align with my values?
  • Is there an outcome response or lack of a response that will hurt my feelings?

If you’re provocative as a human being and you seek responses all the time to your comments in the classroom, if you feel like you need this kind of thing in an approval-seeking way, students are eventually going to complain about that, so it’s something to be aware of.

Another question: is this sharing in the service of connection? Will it help you build relationships with your students? And lastly, am I genuinely asking the people for what I need?

If it’s still a challenging idea to build authenticity into your online teaching, you might consider asking your students questions about how the learning materials connect to their lives. That could promote an education-based agenda and help them think about something more deeply. In doing so, you might share some of your own thoughts about it. And that could be a really great way of being authentic and yet making connections with your students.

Authenticity might mean sharing the mutual struggle you might be having. For example, when COVID-19 was going on and everyone was struggling to get a sense of routine, like remembering whether it was  Monday or Friday, that’s something where a comment sharing the experience and conveying understanding to students would be a great way to authentically show up.

One way to show up authentically is from the very first day of your online class, share some things about yourself. One instructor I really loved, shared this image of herself in another country. She was sharing the fact that she had a particular love for this country and had done some research there. It was just one way to help her students get to know her. And I just loved that approach.

Another one had a tandem bike that he and his wife would ride, and there was a picture he placed on the homepage of the course of the two of them with their tandem bike. Again, it humanized him. And it showed a very authentic person there.

Anything you can do to bring the “you” into the classroom without oversharing adds social presence and authenticity while being direct and avoiding cynicism or criticism. When you can be direct, assume the best intent of your students and share the authentic person that you are, you’re going to get a much better return from your students. And, you invite your students to bring their authentic whole selves to class as well. It’s a much better experience for everyone.

In closing, I encourage you to think about some of those things that help you enjoy life and enjoy teaching, and most of all, enjoy the subject matter that you’re teaching. Find ways to integrate those naturally into the comments you post into course announcements and include any videos and images you can share. And explore ways that you’re already bringing your authenticity to the classroom, and what you can do to add to that for your students.

Your authenticity will keep growing until it’s natural and inviting. And as you do this, you will enjoy yourself in your online teaching more, and feel a greater connection to your students, regardless of the innate ways that online modalities create distance. Best wishes this coming week bringing your authenticity into your online classroom.

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/requests. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

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