Friday, May 29, 2009

Online Social Presence: a success story

About five years ago, I attended a commencement ceremony after my first year of online teaching. I sat in the faculty section of the audience as the graduates names were called, applauding excitedly as I heard names of my own students. But that year I realized something very interesting. It occurred to me that my online students wouldn't be extending celebratory handshakes and hugs to me after the ceremony, which really is one of most rewarding and heartfelt aspects of teaching, because they wouldn't be able to recognize me.

I was deeply bothered by this because I knew I spent much time with my online students in dialogue but it was text-based dialogue which didn't allow for us to exchange facial gestures, emotions in our voice, etc. There was a lot that was lacking from our dialogue, this I knew all along, and this empty moment at graduation is when it all became poignant to me.

That was a turning point for me. I then began to integrate podcast lectures (hosted on iTunes U); engage students in VoiceThread discussions that allow for me and my students to discuss topics in text, voice or webcam comments; and leave weekly announcements embedded in video format (recorded live from my webcam with viddler.com). The video announcements and podcasts all were accompanied with text-based transcripts to help promote accessibility and give students options for how they wanted to engage the content.

Yesterday I had a great moment. I was on campus (it was actually my very last day there before beginning my new position) and I was in my car stopped at a stop sign. A young man walking along the side of the parking lot flagged me down as if he wanted to ask me something. I assumed he needed directions. When I rolled down my window he said, "Excuse me, aren't you Michelle Pacansky-Brock?" When I replied, "Yes, do I know you?" He said, "Yes! I'm Cameron. I was in your online class this semester!"

It was really a cool moment. We proceeded to talk about his experiences -- I asked him about his new baby, as I recalled he had a newborn as the semester was beginning, and we talked about his wife who is an artist. I recall in his final class blog post he mentioned that the class (art appreciation) actually brought him closer to his wife because he now had the vocabulary to discuss visual arts with his wife intelligently.

We said our good-byes and I went on my way. To me that moment is evidence of the potential for multimedia communications to increase social presence in an online class and foster and deeper sense of community. If anything, bridging the gap between virtual learning and face-to-face relationships really makes the experience feel more valuable and meaningful.
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