I have to admit that I have never thought *overtly* about PRESENCE in the classroom. Like many, I have been trained to work on instructional design, which means I am mostly consumed by designing my modules to ensure that students are able to “learn” the content by the end of the semester. Each weekly topic is normally a sub-section of the subject matter that taken together the student must have “learnt” by the end of the semester.
So to hear, read and reflect on PRESENCE as articulated by the Community of Inquiry framework is eye-opening. It resonates with various issues that I have grappled with in my own teaching, concerns about how to better engage students, and how to get to a deeper level of learning on subjects which are often perceived as sensitive or “difficult.”
Transiting to Blended Learning
A couple of years ago, I put together a typical seminar-style module on the subject around religion and politics. The institution felt that there was a need to engage the students on a sensitive and controversial subject in the aftermath of 9/11 and global terrorism. There was some nervousness around the course, both from the students who were worried about speaking on the subject with little knowledge of the religion, and among the School’s administrators who were worried about a possible fall-out if the class become “too emotional” and would create divisions among an already very diverse student body (students of different nationalities and also religious inclinations).
Understandably the class started small. The first iteration of face-to-face, in-class seminars centred around weekly topics, students presentations and subsequent discussion around the presentations worked well. Our problem proved to be poor time management and sense of “feeling lost” as we never wrapped up each topic properly, even if there was clearly no right or wrong in the discussions. Students enjoyed the class but there was still something lacking. In the student feedback students commented on not having time to fully reflect on the subject matter.
After a few tries at better time management, I inadvertently stumbled into designing my first blended learning module. The experiment, albeit imperfect, produced one of the most satisfying modules I have ever taught. I say stumbled because it evolved out of the suggestions from a few students. After Week 2 of the module that semester, two students approached me and said that they thought it might be good if there was a way for questions and “confusion” among the students to be addressed outside of the face-to-face class time. One of them volunteered to start a discussion forum where questions and additional materials could be generated from among the students, with the more “knowledgeable” ones facilitating. I remained wary of handing part of the class to students – after all I was the instructor – but relented and gave it a try.
This paved the way for discussions to occur asynchronously on the University’s learning management system (LMS). I readjusted the design of the course to include scaffolds that would be emailed to students and uploaded a week earlier, from which the students could then start engaging on the discussion forum among themselves, facilitated by the self-selected student leads. This helped significantly in alleviating the stress of too much material to cover in a single face-to-face interaction, and I began to see students start engaging with each other and with the subject matter in a deeper way. The students adjusted to the new design quickly and liked it. They were far more comfortable to discuss the issues/questions at their own pace and in their own time. The discussion forum allowed this to happen.
Creating Space for Emotional Presence
More interestingly, several students, in their discussion forums, spoke up early on about their worries about discussing a sensitive subject like religion, and felt uncertain about how their own emotions may interfere in their “objective learning ” This was a very interesting set of observations among the students, and led me to think about how I should help get the students comfortable with their own emotions so that we could in fact learn about the complexities around the subject. I realised then – almost like an “AHA!” moment – that I needed to factor emotions in this module. The question was how?
As it turned out, again, the students came to the rescue. I had two students in the class who were clearly at the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, though they were Muslims. We agreed that we could spend the next 2-3 face-to-face classes to engineer a debate/discussion around scenarios in class. My role as facilitator was to help students navigate this safe space with their emotions present, and to acknowledge and celebrate all expressions of emotion in the debate. We allowed ourselves to ask questions that may seem offensive, laugh at each other’s comments, come out as a passionate advocate or detractor, sometimes deliberately in a role we wanted to play. We had FUN.
This was not in the original plan for the course and I remained worried about the materials that students needed to cover by the end of the module. But with us beginning to use asynchronous discussions, scaffolds, and scenarios, we were able to get the face-to-face classes to be about deep, open, engagement. The overall social and emotional presence we were collectively able to produce in this course was truly amazing. By the end of the module, students were fully engaged with me, with each other and with the content. It was evident from their assignments how much more they learnt by engaging with each other. To this day, they continue to engage with me and with each other on the subject matter via WhatsApp even though many returned to their home countries.
I became a convert to the blended learning, and without necessarily knowing it at the time, to the importance of PRESENCE and a Community of Inquiry framework to deep learning.
How Now? Emotional Presence in Online Blended Learning
I was recently approached to convert this module into one that would go fully online. There is interest, the University explained, for a module like this to illicit an important discussion among a larger global audience. I have been struggling for a while now on how we might convert a blended learning module, where face-to-face, physical presence has been central to helping engineer full presence in the learning, to one which would be 100% online, without any physical, in-class contact.
How can I replicate these debates and discussions in an online space?
The debates that we had in the class required physical presence. Students were able to react and respond to the body language, gestures and intonation in the statements that peers were making. How can we do this in an online space where we would need to depend on asynchronous discussion forums and possibly shorter more static synchronous, “LIVE” ZOOM sessions? We also already realize that ZOOM sessions end up being exhausting because they tend to be staged and the recording element creates an atmosphere of play-acting.
So How Now?
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- Cleveland-Innes, M., & Campbell, P. (2012). Emotional presence, learning, and the online learning environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(4), 269-292. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v13i4.1234
- Garrison, D. R (207), “Online Community of Inquiry Review: Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence Issues” in Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, v11 n1 April, p 61-72
- Supiano, Beckie, “Why is Zoom so Exhausting?” in Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 April 2020