The Great Gift of Presence in the Online Classroom
- December 20, 2016
- Posted by: tgpanthadmin
- Category: Resources
Every teacher who has spent time in the classroom knows the drill. You’re standing in front of 30 students in a disheveled classroom. Posters, art projects and calendars brighten the walls, and your charges are in varying states of awareness at their desks. As you read aloud from the text-book, you begin to wander slowly along the aisles between the students’ desks. As you pass each child, you make notes to yourself even as you continue your instruction. Joey makes eye-contact as you pass; you smile at him encouragingly. He’s a great learner. Savannah looks like she’s falling asleep; as you pass her, you tap gently on her text-book to indicate where you’re reading from; she sits up and looks back towards the book. You’ve finished reading the text and begin to outline the assignment. From your vantage point now at the back corner, you notice Jared looking frustrated and lost. As your other students get started on their classwork, you approach Jared and crouch so that you are at eye level. He looks at you, lost, and you whisper, “Hey, what’s going on? Do you need some help?” A look of relief washes over Jared’s face as he nods, and you sit down next to him and discreetly explain in simpler terms the assignment his peers are already working on.
It is the mark of a great teacher, the most important tool in an educator’s arsenal, the kind of thing about which they say, “you either have it or you don’t.” It can mean the difference between active learning and utter chaos, between frustrated students and empowered ones. It is presence. And, ask any classroom teacher, 90% of this magical educational power is simply being there.
So what happens when your students are not sitting in front of you, when you can’t pat them gently on the back, sit down next to them, point your finger to the text they should be reading? What happens in an online classroom with students who only seem to exist in a virtual realm, a screen and possibly thousands of geographical miles separating you from them? Does presence exist in the online classroom? And if it does, then is it the same? Or perhaps…better?
As a school-teacher, I have always been adamant about the power of presence. Every success I can point to in my educational career can be traced back to this superpower. I’ll admit, when I first started to make the transition from the brick-and-mortar classroom to the online classroom, I was skeptical. I couldn’t fathom how this could possibly work, much less how it could possibly be perceived as superior in any way.
Very quickly after diving into the world of the online classroom, I became a believer. My husband, a computer engineer always tells me (usually when I am frustrated by some new technology that I can’t figure out) that a computer is only as smart as the person who is using it. It actually goes way beyond that– if a teacher is smart, and educates him/herself about the tools at his/her disposal, the computer can actually take that intelligence and those abilities and expand them exponentially. The tools that the online classroom gives us, if used correctly, open up so many new doors and possibilities– not only on the academic level, but on the emotional, empathetic, connecting-with-the-student side as well.
I discovered very quickly that there was something about the combination of live instruction and the online platform that gave my students a feeling of security and confidence that they didn’t always feel in a “regular” classroom. First of all, I noticed that students were interacting much more openly with their peers on the computer than they did with those same peers in the brick-and-mortar halls of their school.
In the online platform, all participants (teachers and students) send a continual video feed which shows up on the side of each screen as a quilt of 6 or 7 little “boxes”, each displaying a different participant in real time. While everyone receives this live video feed from all participants throughout the class, whoever is talking at any given moment is automatically displayed on the main video feed, which is a much larger “box” displayed above the lattice of little “boxes”. This means that any student who has something to say, as soon as they begin speaking, is granted the “talking stick”, as it were—their video shows up larger and more prominently to both the teacher and their peers. Just by opening their mouths to voice an opinion, they are placed in a position of leadership, commanding both attention and respect from their teacher and their peers. The students, whether consciously or not, honor this position—when a student begins to speak and is displayed on the main video feed, the other participants have almost no choice but to turn their attention to the speaker. Students who may be too timid to speak up when in the physical presence of their peers suddenly become confident orators, commanding the attention and respect of their fellow learners.
The live audio-video feed fosters another level of interaction, which is, surprisingly, a sense of intimacy between teacher and student. Let’s return to the scenario I described earlier, where a teacher uses his or her presence to physically approach each student, one by one, leans in to make eye contact, starts a conversation in a low voice—a private exchange between teacher and student, unnoticed by the rest of the students in the classroom. In a brick-and-mortar classroom, I can only have this exchange with one student at a time. In the online classroom, it is the default. At any given moment, my students and I are looking directly at each other, able to listen to each other’s voices even in the lowest of tones. My students may be in six different states and 3 time zones, but in the online classroom I am much more present to each of them at one given moment than I was ever able to be (at one time) with the 30 students with whom I shared the same physical space. With one look at my screen, I can recreate the feeling of crouching down next to my students, looking them in the eye and showing them, I am here. The computer may connect us virtually over thousands of miles, but that presence, that assurance that I am here to help, is tangible in every exchange.
My favorite tool of the online classroom, however, is the chat box. Using the chat box, I can send a message to the entire class, or have a private conversation with one student at a time. Imagine being in a classroom and instead of having to stop instruction, to put a student on the spot, and ask them what they need help with (or why they aren’t paying attention), you could have that entire conversation privately, without even missing a beat? Your unengaged student feels your attention and can respond knowing that his/her peers don’t know that he/she has been singled out. Meanwhile, the rest of your students carry on learning without interruption.
The chat is an essential tool for differentiated instruction—I can privately give my students different tasks based on how much they need to be challenged. The result is a classroom full of students who are far more focused on learning than looking around the room and comparing themselves to their peers.
The greatest part of the chat, though, is the opening it provides for my students to speak to me in real time, in private. My students know they can share their feelings or concerns during class – and they do! Sometimes it’s a simple “I didn’t understand the assignment”, which I can clarify quietly and simply. Often students will start a different conversation entirely—“I don’t feel well today”, or “I’m really excited about the play tonight!” They love sharing bits of themselves with their teacher, and the chat allows these exchanges to take place in private, without interrupting the lesson. Imagine in a real classroom if you had the time and the emotional bandwidth to relate to each and every student’s emotional state—positive or otherwise—in real time. You can give each student the attention they need for those few seconds, while still being able to engage your entire class in challenging instruction as all this is happening. That’s the online classroom.
In the online classroom, I may not be standing in front of my students, but I am present for them—for all of them, all at once—on so many more levels than I ever could be if we were all in the same physical space. Like the computer itself, the online classroom is only as present as the teacher using it—and a teacher who possesses that educational superpower will only find his/her powers increased exponentially through the screen.