Does “personal” matter?

Information sharing in an academic setting does not have to be personal, but is it important to have something personal somewhere? In face-to-face classrooms, personal sharing is common between student and teacher. Things leak out. In the online environment, is there room for the personal? Teachers typically present a bio or background note at the beginning, but does there need to be room for a greater personal presence?

The Social Presence in the Community of Inquiry framework does not directly suggest teacher/student interaction. The social presence considers the social role of the student. But I suggest that the social presence of the instructor may be uniquely important for student engagement. I am looking through the art school lens, which offers a special circumstance. Most art instructors are artists and provide a necessary insight into the profession. Social sharing is an informal way of sharing professional practice.

Personal information sharing in an academic setting gives students insight into how one works in a nebulous field. It can also be a way of encouraging students to improve those skills they otherwise neglect, such as writing and research. Too many online classes are designed to be cookie cutter in nature, which is a way to guarantee quality across many sections, but cuts down on personal connection. Personal information sharing could be built into a classroom by giving instructors more places and ways of connecting.

Why am I even writing this blog

I am interested in how online teachers build rapport in classrooms, but it is more than that. I have worked in art schools a long time and I have seen how new artists are made. There is an embodied practice in the studio. Students learn to become artists by working with their instructors. Through collaboration and modeling behavior, instructors cultivate their students and help them develop their own studio practice.

This practice is missing in online education. And yet we grow new artists all the time. The information sharing that is visible and palpable in person, is distant and isolated online. My research is around the information sharing practices of online art educators.

There is much research into information practices of artists and of art students. I have found theories that speak to me. The community of practice and the community of inquiry are both frameworks that seem sensible to me.

So that is why I am writing about education and information and online students and artists. Somehow I am trying to make sense of this and I hope I will learn as I go.

Facilitating/Navigating/Tutoring

There are so many ways of getting help to students. We speak of many options in the learning center world: tutoring, embedded tutoring, writing facilitation, supplemental instruction, and academic navigators or coaches. There are probably even more models of instructional support. It can be useful to know how these models address different needs and institutions.

Tutoring is familiar to many. A tutor works one-on-one with a student or with a small group. Tutors address academic deficits and help students build skills they learn in class. A student might need tutoring for remedial purposes or possibly just to enhance what they know.

Embedded tutoring gives the tutor more knowledge of a particular class or teacher by inserting the tutor into the class and making that tutor available to all the students. My embedded tutoring program gives tutors full access to the learning management system (LMS) so that tutors can see assignments, and discussion posts, and academic progress.

Supplemental Instruction (SI) is a more formal model providing group study and collaboration. SI usually targets challenging courses, and the supplemental instructor offers instruction on how to learn as well as helping with course material.

Writing facilitators are usually students — often graduate students. Writing facilitators are much more involved with the writing piece of a class, providing discussion board feedback, discussing drafts, helping with revision, etc. The facilitator must work closely with the instructor as they are offering feedback that the teacher usually gives.

Academic navigators or coaches are a hybrid of traditional advising and tutoring. A navigator may be able to answer questions about course sequences as well as the content of the courses.

Every institution must decide what will work for their circumstance given the student population, the length of the terms, the availability of peers, and more. A large institution might offer all of the options. A small school without a large contingent of available advanced students may find that traditional tutoring or embedded tutoring is easier to manage than SI or academic coaching.

Information/Education

Where does education end and information begin? Where does information end and education begin? Studying information science in a department of education has given me pause. We are studying information behaviors, but so much of what I am studying are also tied closely to the educational process. I find it difficult to tease out the strands of information behavior in higher education.

When instructors instruct, they are sharing information at a most basic level. I am personally very curious how that is done in an online setting, minus non-verbal cues. Online education is so dependent on the student constructing knowledge for themselves, that the instructor is often more a facilitator than a traditional professor. The information sharing that happens in face to face instruction is transformed by the transactional distance. So the information behaviors are necessarily also transformed. I just don’t really understand how.

Messiness

Let’s talk about the messiness of research and writing. It corresponds to art making, but rarely is the messiness as visible. Sure, you might see strewn papers or piles of books, but art messiness is more palpable.

The longer I work with art students, the more I am perplexed at their reluctance to engage all their studies with the same messiness they have in their studio practice. Research and writing can be such a challenge, whether it is out of perfectionism or fear, that students formalize their writing and have a hard time getting creative with it.

Research is best when it is a form of play. I try to encourage research games with students, but too often we are focused on outcomes and students miss the change to play with research. One of my favorite research games comes from the early days of good search engines. Search on two disparate topics at once and try to get the smallest result set. Such a game can impose a sense of serendipity on research that enhance the fun.

When students learn that research can take them down interesting rabbit holes, they become more comfortable with the entire process.

Assessment

We were looking at assessment of online learning today. There are a lot of tools for assessment, but I feel like you pretty much have to use them all to get a good sense of what a course offers. It is hard to disentangle the learning management system from the course content.

Does a course have large blocks of text, instead of smaller chunks interspersed with other kinds of content? Does the LMS allow for presenting material in other formats? It is easy to upload videos? Are they watchable if the student doesn’t have fast enough internet speed. You can assess the material, but if your assessment tool does not include a way to assess the functionality, it is missing a piece. We have to be able to address the current functionality.

All the pretty videos in the world are useless if the server doesn’t allow all the students to watch them at any time of day.

Motivation

All my reading about online coursework leads to one important aspect: motivation. Without motivation, passing an online class is impossible. No matter how much support is provided, motivation to finish the class lies in the student. No amount of pushing and prodding is going to help the student who just doesn’t want to do the work.

Can we, as educators, do anything to help students develop motivation in themselves?

Maybe. If we create engaging classroom space we open the door for virtual discussion. Proper activities that lead students quickly to fresh ideas and skills can help. Reminding students regularly about the reasons they are taking the class. Providing space for reflection.

Also, do not stress when students are so unmotivated that they stop showing up to class. This is not about you. Students’ lives can be very complex and if they are not in the right place for learning, you cannot fix them. While it is essential to make sure your students are healthy, physically and mentally, we cannot take responsibility for their actions when they give it up.

What is embedded support?

We can put learner support in the way of the student by embedding directly in the LMS those supports as necessary. Embedded tutors and embedded librarians are not uncommon. Less common, but perhaps necessary, are embedded advisors, embedded counselors, and perhaps even financial aid officers. Why is this beneficial? First, the support staff needs to know what is happening in the classroom to properly help students. Second, successful learner support has been tied to retention. Third, first year students, especially, need a one-stop-shop in terms of support. Rather than requiring they go to several places, even virtually, they have only one contact point.

This sort of support can be a scaffold to more independence. Embedded support can be emphasized in the LMS for first year students, but then gradually drop off as the student moves forward in their academic career. This is a wrap around method that ensures the student can access services easily. I envision each class with a button for the service needed, but also a human presence aligned with faculty. Some LMS systems allow for separate roles by support staff — a librarian role, for example. The current LMS system I am working with does not have that separate roll, but support staff can be installed as instructors. It would be best if each roll were defined in the system.

Teaching vs Training

I used to have long conversations with a colleague about our online component at a former school. He insisted that the online education was okay for training but true teaching didn’t happen there. I couldn’t disagree with him given the state of our online courses. The teachers were supposed to be facilitators, but often just let the automated systems do their work. Learning through knowledge creation didn’t seem to even be an option.

That was awhile ago in a different school. What I have seen lately is that learning and teaching can definitely occur in an online foramt. But the student’s motivation is a key factor. Motivation and willingness to engage are what drives successful learning.

And teaching online requires that teachers give up their lecturing habits and start looking for other ways to build and scaffold learning, ie, video lectures, discussion prompts, promoting pair interactions. It has been hard, during COVID, to switch to online learning for students with lower motivation levels. But learning has happened and everyone has new skills now.

Collaboration

To create something together. To produce in tandem.

Collaboration looks different in an online classroom. Face to face interactions can be noisy and messy. Online often misses that messiness. Messiness is a part of creation that we embrace in an art school. We almost expect it. Without that messiness, how do you know you are creating?

That is why collaboration in an online classroom needs to include more people than the instructor and the student. It is important to bring in others to develop a sort of psychic messiness that helps students build knowledge. Including all sorts of multimodal activity is essential. Videos, audio, discussion boards. But targeted discussion boards can be more effective. Pair students up and have them debate a point.

One of the most engaging teaching moments I ever had in person was a debate on local public art. I found my students more awake than they usually were in that evening class. Arguing a point of view got them het up! The same is possible in an online discussion board, but not if the whole class is arguing. Better to pair students and have them develop their arguments to present to the class later. They will build social presence and the cognitive presence will fall in line.