This is the conclusion I have come to during my time spent researching the use of Google+ video posts and Hangouts as a way to help create social and teaching presence in my online classroom. This sentiment is not revolutionary, I’m pretty sure everyone feels the same way. They want to be seen as people and not simply thought of as one more wheel in the cog. But based on student feedback, apparently that message has not gotten through to a lot of college faculty.
Of course I am speaking with the hubris of a noob, this is only my second semester as on online instructor at a university. This semester I have used two platforms for class discussions; WebCampus and Google+. The class was split in half and assigned randomly, then halfway through the semester they switched. The original purpose was to eliminate the effects of my teaching when it comes time for my students to respond to the presence surveys they will receive in a couple of weeks. I can’t wait to see what the data shows.
But while I am waiting, I already know how the difference between the two affected me, and my teaching. While I am new to online post-secondary teaching, I am not new to teaching. I taught high school science and loved working and interacting with my students. When it came time for my GA teaching stint, I knew I wanted to pursue online teaching as my area of emphasis is educational technology and we know how quickly online education is proliferating in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary arenas (#MOOCs, #K-12, #whocaresaboutempiricalevidence). But I also knew I would miss the interaction. Our university uses a text-based discussion platform. Yes, we can use Blackboard Collaborate to conduct videoconferencing, but it is bulky and inefficient. I was used to the natural feel of Hangout and intrigued by the relatively new video post feature of G+ and knew I wanted to implement those in my online class.
After having participated as a student in several online course via WebCampus, I knew that experience well. Watching my first student video post was thrilling and so much more organic that black text on a white background. Hearing and seeing emotion, facial expressions, and better yet talking to them live on Hangout did allow personalities to come alive and connections to be made, at least for me. I know I miss my students who are now on WebCampus after having had the opportunity to connect with them via video and videoconferencing during the first half of the semester. It feels like they are only partially “there” now. Teacher presence has been shown to effect student outcomes (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000; Graff, 2006; Rovai, 2001; Shea, Swan, Li, & Pickett, 2005). Google+, by allowing me to actually see and interact with my students at a deeper level than text-based options, helped motivate me further to provide that teacher presence, to see my students as people. Would I have felt the way and taught the way I did had I never used Google+? I can’t answer for sure as I really do like connecting with my students; perhaps I would have found a way to recreate those affordances. But I do know I feel slightly more drawn to the students on G+ right now than those on WebCampus.
“I have never had a college instructor concerned about my progress in class.”
The quote, used with permission, was made by a student on the mid-semester evaluation survey. I had noticed that this student had missed the week’s discussion and not turned in the weekly assignment; both strange for this student. I sent off an email and found out a family crises had occurred, so we worked a few things out that allowed this student to continue to be successful in the course. The quote was part of an overall response to that situation, but that statement by itself saddened me. Students are people, and each one should be treated with dignity and not just one more paper to be graded. Hopefully platforms such as Google+, Skype, whatever videoconferencing du jour an online teacher, instructor, faculty member decides to use will help him/her remember that simple fact.