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Jones, I M --- "Can you see me now? Defining teaching presence in the online classroom through building a learning community" [2011] LegEdDig 45; (2011) 19(3) Legal Education Digest 49

Can you see me now? Defining teaching presence in the online classroom through building a learning community

I Jones

Journal of Legal Studies Education, Vol. 28, No 1, 2011, pp 67-116

Think of a college classroom and a certain image arises. The professor enters a building, walks through the classroom door, and steps up to the lectern or sits down at the seminar table. A lecture or discussion follows that covers material that students have (presumably) read. An attendant implication is that students must be physically present in the same classroom as the instructor, at the same time, to listen, discuss, and become involved in the learning environment. In the online environment, students and instructors are virtually, but not physically, present in the same environment.

Effective learner–instructor interaction presumes that the instructor will facilitate learning and guide learners to acquire knowledge. Learners acquire knowledge through their involvement and interaction with the content, with the instructor, and with other learners.

The lecture style of teaching and learning has been used for centuries. However, the lecture has been challenged as a teaching method because of the wide availability of printed materials and, arguably, because of the vast amount of information available on the Internet.

‘Active learning’ involves putting students in situations that compel them to read, speak, listen, think deeply, and write. The ‘Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education’ developed in the late 1980s by Chickering and Gamson helped to define active learning. Those principles have been widely circulated and widely used as guideposts to evaluate education and to develop faculty evaluation tools. Active learning practices have been encouraged for the online classroom also.

The transition of active learning principles to the online environment has been evidenced by Chickering and Gamson’s modification of their principles for undergraduate practices in education for the online environment. In the technology-focused modification of the principles, the principles remain the same, but the discussion concentrates on how these practices can be implemented using technology.

Because the instructor and students are not physically present in a physical classroom, instructors in online courses must determine how to create an effective learning environment in a virtual setting. In the physical classroom, one looks at whether the instructor is physically present. But there is a deeper meaning of presence – teaching presence is the ‘design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realising personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes’. The instructor’s first role is to design the educational experience so that it is personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile. Part of the design process is developing assessment tools to determine whether learning has occurred and whether the learning objectives have been accomplished.

Another role of the instructor is to function as a facilitator. In the face-to-face classroom, the instructor may guide learners using a combination of lectures, case studies, small-group discussions, multimedia exercises, games, and other learning activities. In the online environment, instructors must use technology tools to provide that guidance. The instructor’s guidance online can be through using a variety of tools, such as videotaped lectures, written or verbal responses to student comments in online discussions, exams and feedback through scores and/or written comments, email, or conversations during synchronous sessions that use Web conferencing tools.

Teaching presence, for purposes of this article, involves determining whether my design and implementation of two online courses permitted students and me to interact successfully with each other and with the course materials in a way that created a cognitively meaningful learning environment.

In the fall of 2008, I taught two Web-based (totally online) courses at California State University, Fresno. One was a three-unit graduate legal environment class. The other was a one-unit undergraduate legal environment class. Both courses were taught using Blackboard as the CMS.

Graduate legal environment class: The course is a required course – the only required legal environment course for the MBA degree.

The only student orientation for the graduate law class was through several real-time online classroom sessions using Elluminate, a Web-conferencing system. During the first two weeks of class, I scheduled two different sessions during which students could ask questions about the course and its structure. During each session, participants logged in at the same time from any location.

The online discussions required that students use a threaded discussion format, also known as a discussion board. These online discussions required that students ‘meet’ through posting written comments on a discussion board. I created a discussion topic, added a list of readings, and posed questions to the students.

Most of the additional online discussion assignments required that students develop a group document in response to a series of questions or a scenario. These discussions were created to be equivalent to in class small group discussions. Each group consisted of five to seven students randomly assigned to groups at the beginning of the semester. I created an online group classroom within which the members of the group could engage in either a real-time (synchronous) or threaded (asynchronous) discussion and exchange drafts of their group document before submitting the final document to the class for review and comment.

This assignment required that students draft a memo in response to a scenario relating to e-discovery. Students were assessed based on the quantity and quality of their contributions to the group and class discussions. Each of those discussions required a specific minimum quantity and quality of postings in order for the students to earn credit.

The graduate law class required that students attend three Web-conferencing sessions during the semester, one each in September, October, and November.

Each Elluminate session consisted of an introduction to the session and an opportunity to ask questions about the course and a discussion of the topics presented in the agenda. I randomly selected students to answer the questions initially posed in the agenda and randomly selected students to respond to any follow-up questions. Most students used text chat to respond to the questions; sometimes students brought microphones and used those to respond to questions. Each session was recorded. Students who attended second and third sessions each month were required to listen to previously recorded sessions that month so that they could be prepared to follow up on the discussion that occurred at the previous sessions.

Quizzes constituted approximately 18.5 per cent of the students’ grades. Each quiz consisted of five true-false, objective questions valued at one point each and one short-answer question valued at five points. I gave the students a list of the potential short-answer questions approximately two weeks before the quizzes were due.

The last component of the course was the final exam. Students were required to take the final exam in person.

Undergraduate legal environment class: I developed this undergraduate legal environment course as a six-week course. I did not use a textbook for the class; all the resources were online readings (which students could print if they wanted) along with audio and video resources.

Students’ grades in the undergraduate course were based entirely upon their development of answers to group quizzes. At the beginning of the semester, I randomly assigned students to groups of no more than six students. Each group was given a series of weekly assignments to answer quiz questions I created. Each assignment consisted of online readings, a list of questions the group of students must answer, and a quiz. To answer the questions, the student was required to submit the group-developed answer.

The bulk of the student’s grade was based on his or her contributions to developing the group response to each of the questions. This meant that each student’s grade was assessed individually for that student’s participation in the group discussion board –that participation was written and I could review each written comment. Then, the student received a separate grade for the quiz response that was the answer developed by the students within the group.

For that assignment, students were required to do online readings and watch videos in order to discuss certain baby bassinettes that were recalled because of a safety hazard. Students were asked to read online resources on constitutional law and administrative law and to read certain sections of the website of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Students were also required to read news articles and view videos on the safety of bassinettes at issue. After completing those tasks, students were to meet in their groups to review and answer 10 questions about constitutional and administrative law and the power of the CPSC. The last two questions asked about the bassinettes and their safety. After the student groups answered the quiz questions, each student took the quiz composed of four of the 10 questions answered in their group. The final task was to engage in an online asynchronous class discussion of the issue. I suggested questions for the class discussion. This and the other assignments were deliberately structured in two parts – a group assignment that required doing background reading and discussion within the group, followed by a class discussion. This design encouraged students to acquire background knowledge about the topics through reading and discussion of basic concepts prior to application of that information to a specific issue.

I surveyed students in the above-described courses to explore two research questions. First, did the instructor create a ‘classroom’ or learning community? To find the answer, I surveyed students about their perceptions of whether the courses were academic environments where learning occurred. The second question relates to the first but focuses on whether students perceived the instructor’s presence in the online environment.

All students in the graduate legal environment course agreed or strongly agreed that the instructor provided clear instructions on how to participate in the online activities of the course.

Because this was a local course, however, many of the graduate students worked on group projects for the course by scheduling in-person meetings among themselves. This may be a distinguishing point for this graduate course – that many of the students knew each other from other courses in the graduate program and chose to study together in person. In the undergraduate legal environment class, nearly 92 per cent of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the instructor provided clear instructions on how to participate in course learning activities. Note that, in this undergraduate course, the students were primarily transfer students who had not taken other classes together.

Ninety-six per cent of the students in both the graduate and undergraduate classes agreed or strongly agreed that the instructor clearly communicated due dates and time frames. I posted regular announcements on Blackboard, reminding students of due dates.

The survey results suggest that the teacher was present in the graduate and undergraduate classroom. These survey results confirmed that students believed that the instructor communicated course time frames and instructors on how to use the course effectively.

Students were also surveyed about their perceptions regarding whether the course objectives were clear and were met. Ninety per cent of the students in the MBA class agreed that the assignments matched the course objectives. This result may be a function of several tactics I used. The course objectives were described in the syllabus. In addition, the relevant course objectives were stated at the beginning of each assignment. For the Elluminate sessions, the course objectives were stated at the beginning of the meeting agenda. In these ways, I sought to clarify the purposes and goals of each assignment.

My pedagogical approach was to encourage students to read the text and learn basic principles of law before engaging in critical thinking and synthesis of information in the online class discussions. Thus, students were required first to discuss issues online in a small group, and then they were to apply the principles discussed in either a threaded discussion with the entire undergraduate class or in a discussion board and/or web conferencing system session in the graduate class. This approach did not differ significantly from using small-group discussions in the face-to-face classroom.

There are many pedagogical benefits of collaborative or group activity, including increasing socialisation (peer-to-peer interaction, peer-to-instructor interaction), peer assistance, assisting learning through problem solving and interaction, and encouraging individual students to explain their conclusions to others, thereby increasing the students’ comprehension of concepts. When used effectively, these collaborative tools are active learning techniques that reflect several of Chickering and Gamson’s principles, including encouraging contact between students and faculty, and encouraging reciprocity and cooperation among students.

Eighty-nine per cent of the students in the MBA class agreed that the instructor fostered a sense of community. Eleven per cent neither agreed nor disagreed. Recall that, in this class, a significant number of students had taken or were taking the class together, and thus they may have answered this question based on their in-person collaboration in addition to the online collaboration.

This figure was also confirmed in the student narrative responses to the Elluminate sessions. In those comments, students noted that they liked the ‘actual’ conversation about the topics and their application, the discussion of various legal viewpoints, the requirement that they contribute, and the immediate feedback to their comments. Seven per cent of the students neither agreed nor disagreed that the Elluminate sessions were very useful, and four per cent disagreed that they were useful. In their narrative responses, some students explained that the chat technology or chat and microphone technology was too slow and thus a hindrance to the discussion.

Students were asked several questions that probed their responses to the global question about the sense of community. Students were asked whether their group’s activities guided or helped their learning.

There were similar results in the undergraduate course, the overall number strongly agreeing and agreeing that the instructor’s actions reinforced the development of a sense of community was similar, although somewhat lower, than that in the graduate class.

The survey results demonstrated that course design was clear, that students were engaged with the instructor and with each other, and that they believed they had learned.

The instructor, as course designer and as facilitator, created a learning environment where students knew the course learning objectives, understood and followed the instructions, believed that the objectives were met, and believed they were part of a learning community created by the instructor and with other students. Overall, using the online discussion board and group projects seemed to successfully get students actively engaged in the process of learning. If teaching presence is defined as course structure and fostering development of a learning community, then students determined that the instructor was present in each of these courses. The answer to the question ‘Can you see me now?’ was ‘yes!’.

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