Friday, November 27, 2009
  Degrees of Presence IV: My experience
I have already mentioned the striking presence some students presented to each other in the blog assignment. This kind of experience has been often repeated, though not with quite that dramatic intensity. Such assignments which force students to interact with each other's thought, and not merely with that of unknown "scholars" who (despite being named in the heading, and sometimes being easily Googleable) remain somehow "anonymous", impersonal, to most students, who do not read enough to pick up the peculiar tone and voice of individual scholars. (Is it just good-old-days-ism or did we really read more and more intensely?)

I have also repeatedly (though sadly only in private communication not often in the more public forum of "Student Evaluations" of courses and teaching :( noted with pleasure the positive comments students make about my quick response to emails, and discussion forum posts. Several of these comments have been phrased in ways that make it clear that a greater sense of "presence" is generated and supported by this promptitude. Interestingly the student's own presence in the class seems reinforced in this way as well as the presence of a teacher in the class.
Photo by Ed Yourdon
Then this semester I used Adobe Connect to provide a "meeting room" in which I could conduct "distant tutorials". The software allows two way (or indeed multi-way) audio communication, live text messaging either to the group or privately to a selected individual, sharing of screens and programs as well as computerised whiteboard. The idea was to mimic the face to face tutorials in which we led on-site students through the practice of biblical interpretation.

The weekly Connect tutorials were supplemented and supported by other (asynchronous) online interaction: forums, exercises, online tests etc... This is an element of the course that needs more work and to be better done next year. But apart from that, with respect to distant tutorials what did I learn about  generating and nurturing "presence" at a distance?

Microphones: it makes a huge difference when most students have mics that work. Comparing a class where most have the ability to talk aloud with one were only a few have this capacity the difference is huge. (At least for me as teacher, I'd need to do some research to discover if the students' perceptions match mine.) Text messaging, in this multi-medium environment, is great as a back channel, but acts as an inhibitor of "presence" when used instead of voice as the main communication medium.

Multitasking: the multiple channels (voice, screen, whiteboard and text) combined with all the technical issues that need to be resolved, on top of the pedagogical responsiveness needed mean that having one "presenter" is not ideal. Often I was less present, or less effectively present (again targeted research would be needed to be sure which), than was optimally possible.

Task oriented: because it was the first time (apart from a couple of "practice" sessions) I had used the medium, and because I was aware that colleagues would be judging the utility of "virtual meeting" tools like connect to a significant degree based on how students performed in this class, I was too focused on the task. When the speaker is thinking more about the "content" than the communication presence suffers, and the interactive medium becomes more like a video lecture :( Fear of failure has much the same effect on many presenters at academic conferences, as I discovered afresh in a few gabbled sessions at SBL over the last few days - though in the room those presenters were hardly present for me, and I wish I had not been present for them ;)
Failure to encourage “social” contact: (probably one to file under Duh!) related to the above task orientation, I failed to realise that I should make more effort (in a relatively - at least compared with a face to face tutorial) impoverished media environment to generate mutual presence. We should have "wasted" more time on chitchat. By the end of the semester we did at least use the minutes while everyone collected in that way (at the start I am ashamed to note I was too busy with the technology to make small talk).

Despite these teething problems several students have already (without being asked) commented on the richer experience this richer medium permitted, and among these comments some already have chosen particularly to mention terms that relate to "presence" to describe the benefits they experienced compared with a "standard" distance course.

PS: I have not looked at the issues or research around "communities of inquiry" in this series because my goal is not to change the pedagogy we use radically - even if I am convinced such a change is desirable - but to explore the concept of "presence" and how it is experienced in teaching and learning at a distance.

List of works cited in this series so far

Garrison, D. Randy. 1997. Computer conferencing and distance education: cognitive and social presence issues. In , ed. International Council for Distance Education . Pennsylvania State University.

Richardson, Jennifer C., and Karen Swan. 2003. Examining Social Presence in Online Courses in Relation to Students' Percieved Learning and Satisfaction. Sloan Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7, no. 1: 74.

Shatzer, Milton J., and Thomas R. Lindlof. 1998. Media Ethnography in Virtual Space: Strategies, Limits, and Possibilities. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 42, no. 2: 170-89.

Short, John, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie. 1976. The social psychology of telecommunications. London u.a: Wiley.

Short, John. 1972. Medium of communication and consensus. Lond.: Long Range Intelligence Division of Post Office Telecommunications Headquarters.

Short, John., Joint Unit for Planning Research. Communications Studies Group., and Great Britain. Post Office. Long Range Intelligence Division. 1973. The effects of medium of communication on persuasion, bargaining and perceptions of the other. Long range research paper, 50. London: British Post Office.

Stacey, Elizabeth. 2002. Social Presence Online: Networking Learners at a Distance. In , ed. Deryn Watson and Jane Andersen, 39-48. Springer, August 31.

Wheeler, Steve. 2005. Creating Social Presence in Digital Learning Environments: A Presence of Mind? In Learning Technologies 2005 Conference: Combined Presence. Queensland.

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