#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.