3 Holiday Gifts For Online Learners and Teachers
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Time, Support, And Presence, Holiday Gifts For Online Learners And Teachers

Happy Holidays! Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza (or even Saturnalia or Festivus), we all want to make sure that we get that special gift for those special someones.

But during this holiday season, let’s also remember our online instructors and learners! In the spirit of giving, this article proposes 3 gifts that every online instructor and student need but often lack.

1. Time

There's a perception (erroneous) that online learning doesn’t demand a lot of time. Indeed, one of the attractions of online learning to those who are new to it is the belief that it takes less time than face-to-face learning. Many universities, businesses, and organizations share the same belief and often fail to provide online instructors with sufficient, dedicated time to teach and manage their online courses.

If you’ve taught online, you know it’s something you do every day. You know that you may spend many hours in one day helping one student. You know that you need to provide comprehensive and detailed feedback on assignments and tests. You know that writing online and shaping what you want to say and how you want to say it is time-intensive. You need time to explain concepts that may be complicated or complex. You need time to carefully read and respond to learner posts. And, you need time to reach out to those students who are struggling, who want to drop out, or who may have dropped out.

Time is the most precious of gifts in an online environment. When online instructors are given insufficient time, they reduce communication. They may eliminate certain activities—like detailed feedback. They may respond rapidly and briefly, unwittingly communicating a tone that is interpreted negatively by the learner. They may triage what is absolutely essential, focusing on assessing activities but abandoning the rich interpersonal communication that is so critical to creating a meaningful online experience for learners and instructors alike. This dilutes the quality of online instruction. It dilutes the learning experience for the student. It renders online learning a pale version of face-to-face learning.

Our first gift, then, to instructors is this gift of time. Here I've focused on time for instructors, but the ultimate recipient of this gift is the learner.

2. Support

The second gift is support.

What do we mean by “support”? Support is essentially any assistance that an online learner needs in order to successfully complete a course or program. In an online environment, support assumes many forms. It can be technical. It can be logistical. It can be cognitive, emotional, moral, administrative, academic or informational. It can be resource related. It can be episodic or intensive, as needed or constant. We know that learners need support the most when they are trying to implement a new idea, change a behavior, or transfer learning from an online course to their professional environment—whether it be a boardroom or a classroom.

This issue of support in online courses is linked to learner completion, satisfaction, and performance. High rates of attrition in online courses are in large measure due to feelings of isolation and anonymity, and the feeling that there is no one to help (Hope, 2006). High rates of learner dissatisfaction with online courses occur when online learners lack support, contact, and confidence (Burns, 2011).

Online learners need the types of support I've listed above. But so do online instructors—a reality that is often overlooked. When online instructors feel unsupported and overburdened, they, too, become dissatisfied, frustrated and “check out.” They do less. They go through the motions. In some cases, they may do the absolute minimum. Without support for instructors, there's little support for learners.

3. Presence

Presents? Didn’t you just say that?

Ah..presence! The third gift.

We know from research on online learning that the physical and temporal separation between online instructors and their students poses challenges to this most fundamental relationship. Like the lack of support (mentioned above), it can increase the risk of online learner isolation and, inevitably, attrition. As such, developing a sense of “presence” in the online learning environment is critical to establishing a feeling of community and shared purpose for learners.

Like support, “presence” has a cognitive, social, psychological, emotional, instructional and managerial dimension. Cognitive presence pertains to the learner and instructor co-constructing knowledge in an online environment and to the instructor helping learners master content.

Social presence, which is critical in mitigating against the isolation of online learning, involves learners and the instructor seeing one another and others as “real people” united in a common, though virtual, task.

Emotional presence involves sharing emotions in an online environment. Psychological presence (closely related to social and emotional presence) involves the instructor creating an environment in which learners feel safe, believe they can “be themselves,” and where they know they are not alone but rather are part of a community of like-minded colleagues “working together” on shared goals.

Instructional presence involves active facilitation, modeling of learning strategies, and regular and constructive feedback to learners. Managerial presence represents the course instructor demonstrating that he/she is actively involved in the administration and functioning of the course through assigning grades, resolving technical or administrative issues, etc. (Lehman & Conceição, 2010).

Thus, presence essentially involves the instructor doing as much as possible to demonstrate to learners that he/she is engaged, available, responsive, and caring. Presence manifests itself in ways such as communicating with learners, reaching out when there are problems or when a learner drops off from activities or discussions, facilitating discussions, helping with content, tutoring, providing instructional support, sometimes providing emotional support, connecting learners, assessing and providing feedback, and direct and guided instruction.

Presence is not only an instructor's responsibility. As members of an online course, learners must realize that they have a responsibility to be a caring, engaged, active colleague. Such behaviors help to cement the ties among all online learners, elevating the experience for all.

These 3 gifts are cumulative and intertwined. Instructors and learners need time to offer support and develop a sense of presence. Support is an important manifestation of presence. Yet, surprisingly, these gifts of time, support and presence are often overlooked in online courses. But they are ineffable elements of online learning that can transform it from a pro forma experience to a rich one, that shift the course ethos from one based on compliance to one based on commitment, and that foster not just a sense of collegiality but of community that benefits both learners and instructors alike.

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