Friday, August 2, 2013

Be There Now (or Later): How to Be Present When Your Students are Somewhere (or Somewhen) Else

In 1971, Ram Dass published Be Here Now, a life-changing book for many of the Boomer generation. The book emphasized spiritual truths and the admonition to be present at the only time that matters - now - and in the only place that matters - here. With quotes like "the next message you need is always right where you are," it brought many readers to an awakening based on the present moment.

Teachers in the virtual classroom often have a difficult time with the concept of "presence" and "here and now." They miss the eye contact with students that the traditional classroom provides, making it difficult to hold the audiences' attention or even to know when they are holding it. Non-verbal signals (facial expressions, body language, hand gestures) are also missing online. Students who wish to can get up and walk around, turn their backs on the instructor, switch screens, feed babies, etc.: there is little physical control granted to the instructor over the virtual classroom. Distractions - barking dogs, incoming text messages, e-mail, Facebook prompts, etc. - are difficult to control and have the potential to destroy instructor presence. We've all got horror (or humor) stories about that: one that recently appeared in The Chronicle's Wired Campus spoke of "barking dogs, wailing babies, and a naked spouse" as intruders in the virtual classroom.

The potential for disconnectedness or distraction is so great that virtual classroom instructors have to be proactive, just as the readers of Ram Dass's book were urged to "wake up" and "be here now." They must pay attention to what they're saying, how often they pause to ask questions and wait for answers, and how they recognize opportunities to solicit feedback and participation. They regularly check the class roster and call on students to contribute thoughts or materials. They know that injecting humor or surprise is an effective method for breaking the ice and getting everyone's attention. They find ways to personalize their presentation, often by using the Web cam judiciously to show themselves and/or their environment or by inserting personal pictures (of themselves, their garden, a pet) onto slides or whiteboards.

Where synchronous collaboration is possible (i.e., where you have an online audience now), it should be encouraged and planned for. I like to make my students believe that they can be called on anytime to do something - and then prove it by calling on them randomly and often. If more than three minutes go by without my pausing to engage my online audience, I'm in danger of losing both them and myself in the lecture, not the present moment. I like to insert a PAUSE slide about every 10 slides in my presentation to ensure that I use it and "wake up" to my audience. The chat back-channel is a great way to reinforce presence and engagement, as long as you pay attention to it and encourage student participation.

Vicki Davis cites 12 healthy habits to grow your online presence in her Cool Cat Teacher Blog:
  1. Share.
  2. Respond.
  3. Comment.
  4. Link Generously.
  5. Read (or Listen) Prolifically.
  6. Distribute Yourself.
  7. Beware of Flattery.
  8. Live Life Online and Off-line.
  9. Latch Key Your Legacy.
  10. Laugh (a lot).
  11. Take Every Presentation Seriously.
  12. Expect Criticism.
Be there!

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