Friday, October 8, 2010

Are You There? Presence in the Confer Classroom

"Some people, when they teach, are right there with the rest of us... others seem imprisoned in their own space, on the far side of an unbridgeable gulf. And of course there’s an abundance of positions in between... These differences in the degree of presence seem so obvious, so tangible that you would almost think there could be an instrument that would register them, not only from one teacher to another, but even, with a single teacher, from one session to another or even one moment to another." - Jerry Farber, "Teaching and Presence" in Pedagogy, Volume 8, Issue 2, Spring 2008, p. 215.

Garrison, Anderson, and Archer developed the COI (Communities of Inquiry) model, pictured in the graphic above, which posits that the learning experience is a function of social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence. Social presence is the quality that allows online participants to feel affectively connected with one another. Teaching presence - what Jerry Farber was discussing - is a sense of immediacy, openness, and spontaneity on the part of the instructor. Cognitive presence stems from the concepts of John Dewey and the need for integrated thought and action along with discourse and reflection.

How do you ensure teacher presence in the Confer classroom? One way is to ask questions designed to provoke your students and draw out their thoughts. Can you stimulate them into thinking about what you've taught them or even about how they feel about the content you've presented? And can you do this in a natural, spontaneous manner, even though you've done it several times before?

This latter part - making even a repeated, routine part of your lesson plan seem new and fresh - is the key. It isn't so much how well you know how to post a question to the whiteboard or present a poll to students. It isn't even a matter of making sure students are allowed to voice their questions. It's about BEING THERE when you teach: not giving in to what Farber calls "pedagogical mindlessness." Do your online students sense that you're actually present for them when you teach? Or are you spewing thoughts at them, going through the motions of listening to them or reading their chat responses, and not really paying attention to what's happening in the classroom right now?

Don't settle for less than full presence in your classroom. This is Farber's first point: that presence is most likely to occur if you insist on it. Make full teaching presence a standard by which you judge every online session with your students.

Watch what's happening. Farber also suggests that every student - every online participant - is doing something all the time. How are they engaging with you, individually and as a group?

Watch your energy. You're teaching at a particular moment in your life, and full presence requires all the energy you can muster at this time. What can you draw on that will give you the strength and stamina to focus fully on this moment and your time with your students?

It's certainly easier to hide behind a veneer of formality or a predetermined script. It's not only easier: it's safer, because being present makes you vulnerable to mistakes and criticisms. But it's what your students - and you as a teacher - deserve.

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