Interactions between students and faculty in online classes are mediated through a digital interface. Students are more successful in classes, though, when they feel connected to their instructor and classmates. In this episode, Allegra Davis Hanna and Misty Wilson-Merhtens explore a variety of methods that can increase the social presence of all participants in online courses.
Allegra is an English professor and the department chair of English and Humanities at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. Misty is a history professor and social sciences chair at Tarrant County College. Allegra and Misty have been running The Profess-Hers Podcast since October 2018.
- The Profess-Hers Podcast- Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify
- Profess-Hers twitter account
- Bitmoji app- iOS, Android
- Allegra Davis Hanna’s Introduction Video
- Misty Wilson-Merhtens’ Introduction Video
- “79. Self-Learning vs. Online Instruction.” Tea for Teaching podcast episode discussing the need for substantive interaction in online classes.
- Content creation tools:
- Profess-hers podcasts referred to in this podcast:
John: Interactions between students and faculty in online classes are mediated through a digital interface. Students are more successful in classes, though, when they feel connected to their instructor and classmates. In this episode, we explore a variety of methods that can increase the social presence of all participants in online courses.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Allegra Davis Hanna and Misty Wilson-Merhtens. Allegra is an English professor and the department chair of English and Humanities at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. Misty is a history professor and social sciences chair at Tarrant County College. Allegra and Misty have been running The Profess-Hers Podcast since October 2018.
Allegra: Thank you.
Misty: Thanks for having us.
John: Our teas today are…are you drinking tea?
Allegra: I am drinking Earl Grey tea.
Misty: I didn’t know tea was a requirement. I have coffee. [LAUGHTER]
John: Someone hasn’t listened to our podcast. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: We have this debate all the time. Nobody’s ever drinking tea with us. [LAUGHTER]
Allegra: I am!
Rebecca: So I appreciate it, yeah. We appreciate that there’s coffee drinkers in the world too.
Rebecca: I’m drinking Christmas Tea today.
John: And I have Ginger Peach Black tea.
We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about social presence in online instruction. While listening to one of your podcasts a while back, I heard you were presenting on this at a conference in Texas. Could you tell us a little bit about the importance of social presence in online instruction and what social presence is?
Allegra: Social presence is everything that’s non-instructional in an online class. And when we give this presentation, we start by saying, “I know what you’re thinking… that everything in an online class should be instructional. But everything in a face-to-face class is not instructional.” Everything that makes you seem like a real live human person with likes, dislikes, and interest is social presence. So there’s kind of two layers. One is the social presence of the faculty member, so that’s showing your students that you’re a real person, and the other is allowing students to create social presence so that your classroom becomes a community of learning and a place where students feel like they belong and can relate to each other both in the curriculum and outside of the curriculum. There are lots of strategies that faculty use to create online presence and so that’s really the focus of our presentations that we gave four or five times a semester at various conferences, some in Texas and some not in Texas. We went to Las Vegas, Colorado, and then a few places in Texas.
Rebecca: Can you give a couple of examples of social presence in an online environment, like specific ones?
Allegra: Oh, yeah, I can give you a lot. So, if you think about your in-person students, your in-person students get to see your face and facial expressions, they get to see your nonverbal cues, your body language, they get to hear your voice and your inflection, your tone of voice, and they get a sense of your personality. They know if you’re a funny or a not funny person and they know if you’re a serious or not so serious person. They see your office, they see your book bag, they see what kind of books that you have on your bookshelf, and your students get to see you make and correct mistakes when you’re speaking and when you’re writing, and so they get a sense of you as a real person. And so we try to teach our faculty to replicate the same kinds of experiences in an online class. And some specific ways of doing that, like the basic critical thing that you have to have is you have to let students know how long it will take you to respond to them and that reduces anxiety. Even if your answer is sometimes it takes me two days to respond to emails, letting students know what to expect, is absolutely critical. Obviously, I would recommend that you don’t take 48 hours to respond to student questions, but letting them know what your timeline is. And if you say, “I’m traveling this week, so I’m going to take a little bit longer to respond” … just to let them know and ease their anxiety. And it’s fine to say I’m traveling because again, you’re letting them know that you’re a real person and you have things that you do in your life. You need some kind of substitute for facial cues and personality indicators so we, on our campus, are really big advocates for bitmojis which are…
Misty: um….some people are…
Allegra: Misty doesn’t like them. [LAUGHTER] Misty is a very serious person. But some of us are really big advocates for bitmojis, which are like little avatars you can make of yourself. I use them all over my class, and a lot of people do. And if you want to make one, you just go to bitmoji.com, or you can download the app on your phone. You can download one that’s a little avatar view that says, “It’s Tuesday,” and then you can post it an announcement on Tuesday. And they have some reading books and things like that, that you can post in your class. Some people just use emojis and some people use words as substitutes for facial cues. Like they’ll just say, “JK” for “just kidding” or something like that.
Misty: And some of us use pictures. So my announcements have a lot of pictures of me at historical places… such as those me at Independence Hall.
Allegra: As Misty pointed out, we’re not all the same. And we definitely don’t advocate that all faculty take the exact same steps because the whole point is to show that you’re a real person, and so it should be authentic…
Misty: …and individual.
Allegra: In my introduction video, it’s really goofy and elaborate. And I show a picture of my child, I show them the books that I’m reading, I show them a picture of me on vacation. And some people aren’t comfortable sharing that much information with students and so it has to be authentic and it has to speak to who you are as a person. Because the point is letting your students know how approachable you are and what kind of person you are and what kind of professor you are. Whatever works for you is what will work for your students. And students are very, very savvy when it comes to being genuine and they know when a person is being inauthentic. They always can tell when a person is being fake. So it’s really what is most authentic for the instructor. And of course, beyond the basics, we have lots of things that we do training sessions on to teach faculty how to increase social presence incrementally, because we don’t say you have to completely revolutionize your class. But those are the basics.
John: You mentioned videos. I happen to have seen your intro video, and it’s really well done. And if you don’t mind, we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.
Allegra: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
John:Do you use other videos in the class to provide feedback or instruction or other aspects?
Misty: For my class I have a lot of historical videos a little more like history.com, and they are more like me narrating and I use historical pictures and backgrounds and maps. And I know Allegra’s are a little bit more personalized than mine.
Allegra: I actually don’t use video. I don’t create video for my classes. My classes use curated videos from places like Ted-Ed. I use a lot of audio. We make a podcast, and I edit the audio for the podcast. And so I do a lot of audio for my classes. So my students can download… they’re like five-minute mp3s and they’re lesson introductions. When we start a new lesson on plot or on writing a research paper, I give them a rundown of what’s important as an mp3 file. Students could, if they wanted to, download that file and listen to it on their phones. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that. But when they open the class up in Blackboard, there’s just a play button so they can choose to read it, they can choose to listen to it, or they could choose to do both.
John: So you meet accessibility requirements.
Allegra: Yeah, and our instructional designers tell us it’s better to have a script. So, if you make a video or an audio file, just to start with a script and then you automatically have a transcript. And of course I find myself, as I’m talking, changing a little bit of what I’m saying or adding in an example or changing the way I wrote something. And so it’s really easy to go back and make five little changes. And then I have a transcript and I don’t have to transcript it after I do it. Plus, it sounds better if it’s planned out and it’s written and it’s scripted. We have a video studio on our campus because we’re a fully online campus. So we have a video studio for faculty to come and make videos. And the one thing our instructional designers say is, “Come with a script. Even if we change it, you need a script,” It helps take out a lot of the pauses and the “ums.” If you’re really nervous it helps to have a script, it kind of eases your anxiety…
Misty: …and it helps with your pacing.
Allegra: Absolutely. You don’t know in the moment whether you’re rambling or whether you’re on point. So if you have a script and you can stick to it, it makes it a higher quality video and of course easier to transcript for accessibility.
John: Do you use some type of teleprompter or big screen behind the camera,
Allegra: They have an iPad that’s dedicated to teleprompting, and they have an app on there. So they load up the word file and it, I don’t know how exactly how it works… but yeah.
Misty: So it flips it like a mirror, and it paces with you. And I have a tendency to talk really fast. So they’ll always say, “Slow down.” If the words are going too fast, they aren’t going to understand you.
John: On most of the apps, you can adjust the speed as well. I’ve used Teleprompt+3… and there’s another one I’ve just heard about, I don’t remember the name, that actually syncs to your voice so it will recognize your voice and pause when you get to a new place or will keep up with you.
Misty: That’s what we use.
Allegra: Oh, wow… that’s cool, but kind of creepy. [LAUGHTER}
Rebecca: So social presence is really important to the learning. I think sometimes faculty don’t necessarily think of all these little details that aren’t part of the curriculum as being important. So can you talk a little bit about how students knowing you as an individual, and knowing that you’re a real person, impacts how they learn or how they perceive the class as a whole?
Misty: The first is it’s a requirement that students and faculty are interactive in a course. As you had on your podcast in April or May I think, someone was talking about the federal regulations for regular and substantive interaction. And so that’s where we start with faculty. I say, “This is not me being like a touchy-feely, Kumbaya faculty member. This is me telling you, you have to be interactive with your students or we could lose federal financial aid funding, not to mention that our accrediting body would also have a problem with you running a course that isn’t interactive.” Beyond that, it is important to students that they feel like they can reach out to you. And that’s the number one thing students say back to us when they watch our introductory videos, or they listen to a few of my audio files. They say, “I feel like you’re a real person, I feel more comfortable sending you an email.” And they also say that it really matters to them because they can tell that we took a lot of time to make these things for the course. Or they can see that we’re spending a lot of time corresponding with them in the course. And it matters to them. They take note of the fact that we’re doing what they perceive as going above and beyond. They say, “I really appreciate that. Because not everybody’s doing that.”
Allegra: The thing I get in my student reviews that I really like hearing online is, “I can tell she cares about us…”
Allegra: “I can tell that she cares that we’re learning.” And I think when I first started teaching online, I didn’t know how to do that effectively. And I get that pretty commonly now in my student evaluations.
Rebecca: Can you elaborate on that a little bit and talk about some of the things that faculty often miss or don’t do when they first start teaching online. Or where you found that you’ve tweaked things to get a little bit better at this.
Misty: Some of them are really, really easy. So welcome announcements, having a “start here” area on your online class so that students know exactly where to go when they first open it. Remembering that everybody’s online class looks different and students who are fully online students, which is about a third of our students, they’re taking four different online classes that all look and feel differently. So helping them with navigation and making things redundant. One thing that’s really easy that makes a huge difference with very high impact is using announcements. I post at least one announcement a week. I tell my students at the beginning of the semester, “You’re probably going to get tired of the announcements but you’ll also get used to them.” And so I use announcements, to remind them, things that are coming up that are due, to congratulate them on finishing a big project. If several people are commenting on the same thing in the discussion board, I might make an announcement and say “This is a really good topic of conversation and here are some things I want to point out.” I might say, “Everybody go read so and so’s point in the discussion board because I think it’s really, really important to the discussion.” I use them for keeping everybody on track and say, “We’re moving toward this big project, here are the things you want to keep in mind.” And if students are making a common error, if they’re six or seven students are making the same mistake or have the same misunderstanding, I can post an announcement, and correct that. Because if six students have a misunderstanding that I noticed, chances are, 15 students really are having the same problem.
Allegra: So, something that I do in my class is in the introduction week, I have them fill out a Google survey, and it populates it as a spreadsheet for me, and I tell them if there’s a name you want to be called, so if it’s Tim instead of Timothy…. So it populates into a spreadsheet for me, and I keep that on the side of my computer all semester. So every time I respond to them in a discussion board, it’s Tim, not Timothy. If they go by completely different name, they really notice. And the other thing that I do is halfway through the course, I send out a personalized email to the students who are getting A’s, because everybody corresponds to those students who are C or below. But I give special attention to the ones that are getting A’s and say, “This is what you’re doing well, this is why you’re getting an A in my courses, what’s working for you, continue with these strengths.” And if they respond I’ll say, “And these are things you can work on.” But I don’t put that in the initial email.
Rebecca: I’m sure students respond really positively about that. I think that’s true in face-to-face classes too. The students that are really excelling often are the ones that kind of get overlooked at some points during the semester.
Allegra: And discussion boards are just important places for interaction to happen. And I think a lot of times, people set the discussion board up and then they let students run the discussion. And the only time faculty look at it is when they go into grade a student’s participation. And it’s very hard for me as a chair or when I’m conducting these trainings to really push people and say, “You should engage in the discussion, you should respond. Now, can you respond to every student and every discussion board every single week? Probably not. But you should be responding to about five students per class per day.” And that doesn’t take very much time. Students know that if you’re constantly in the discussion board, that if something is a muddy point or two people are unclear about something that there’s a strong chance that you will be in the discussion within that week, and that you’ll see that and that you can help correct or clarify the point for them. Faculty really don’t want to have to do that because they say, “I read the discussion board posts when I grade them. And so I don’t want to have to read them twice.” But I think it makes a really big difference.
Allegra: Well, if two students in your in person class were debating, you wouldn’t just let them fight it out. You would step in…
Misty: We would hope. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, we would hope that you wouldn’t just let them argue and just watch. Yeah, that’s the equivalent. And, you know, everything that’s in your class is kind of your responsibility. So you should know what the ongoing conversations are. And I’ll say, when I started jumping into discussions I noticed that the discussion posts tended to be longer and more substantive. Because first of all, you’re setting a model for them, right? They see you talking and they see what kinds of things you’re saying and what kind of detail you’re going into. So you’re posting a kind of model of posts, but also, if they know you’re going to read them, they put them at a higher standard, at least in my experience.
Allegra: I do think early on, though, when they see you in there, it freaks the students out a little bit, because maybe they’re not used to professors doing that. And so it takes a minute for them to like, adjust.
Misty: Yeah, absolutely.
John: I know some faculty are reluctant to do that. Because sometimes when they’ve tried they said it tends to shut down the discussion when they come in, and maybe they’re coming in with perhaps too heavy of a hand in the discussion.
Misty: One thing I do is that I ask questions. I never just get in there… And this is what I think. And that’s it. I’m the professor, we’re done. It’s “Have you considered this?” Or “Have you thought about this?” Or “What about this point?” And it’s up to the students to lead themselves there. I’m just kind of putting the guide post up.
Allegra: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. The other thing you can do is you can read the discussions. And then you can do like a whole class response in an announcement so that students don’t feel like you’re directly responding to them. But you can just say, here’s some great things I read on the discussion board this week, and kind of highlight some comments in an announcement. And that way you’re not in the discussion, but students still know that you’re there responding to and interacting with them, and that might be a happy medium for people who don’t want to full fledge go into the discussion themselves. But, as Misty said, if we were doing an in-person class, and we had an in-class discussion, surely you would be facilitating in some way.
Misty: You hope.
Allegra: Yeah, we would hope.
John: …and nudging people sooner might be more productive than after the discussion has wandered far afield.
Allegra: Absolutely, yeah. And if you’re grading it, it’s after it’s over. So you have no chance to redirect the conversation at all.
Rebecca: For faculty who maybe are hesitant to do other things… we’ve talked a little bit about hesitation of being in discussion forums. Sometimes faculty are hesitant about having their face on screen and don’t want to do intro videos and things like that. Have you found other areas that faculty might be hesitant, but once they try something, they’ve been pleasantly surprised?
Allegra: If you watch my introduction video, you notice it’s not me talking, because I’m very aware of my facial expressions.
Misty: It is your voice.
Allegra: Yeah, it’s me talking.
Misty: Mine is not my voice.
Allegra: No, it’s my voice. But it’s not a video of me talking because I’m very aware of my facial expressions. So it’s a slideshow of pictures, and me narrating over it. So I was reluctant to speak on camera. And so we found a creative way for me to have an instructor video. And that’s the other reason I have a lot of audio files is because I don’t want to speak on camera. We have faculty who say, “I don’t want to put a picture of myself in my class.” And so then I just google them. And I say, I’ve just found 20 pictures of you by googling your name. So, your students can find out what you look like. We have professional headshots. So why don’t you just put a picture in the class? You’re not giving them top-secret information about yourself. But, absolutely, if you force faculty to do something, if we were to say you must create five videos for your class, some of them would be the most boring videos of all time because they would be forced. So what we would say is find what works and run with it. And so Missy has videos. I have audio. Other people have a combination of them. Some people make their own videos on their back porch using their iPhone. Some people do lecture capture. Absolutely, if we try to force one specific thing, then our faculty will comply, but it will be not as high quality, and so it won’t be the impact that we’re looking for.
Misty: So in my introduction video, I am aware that I’m very awkward on film. Like it’s awkward for me, it’s awkward for the students… everybody doesn’t want to see that. So mine is pictures of me, but other people are narrating it. And actually, Allegro is heckling.
Misty: And making funny comments during mine. But then when I’m speaking on historical topics, I can do that all day long. I just can’t talk about myself. So people will find what works for them if they’re given the ability to do so. One of our instructional designers who’s very good at working with reluctant faculty says everybody’s favorite subject is themselves in some capacity. So if you don’t want to share pictures of your family, which I understand… if you don’t want to talk about your vacations, that’s fine. Talk about your research, talk about what you’re reading. And if you don’t want to make a video, make an audio file. The software that we use to edit our podcast, which is what I use to edit the audio in my courses is free. It’s freeware… and so our school did buy us nice microphones. So that is an investment. But, for a long time, I was using a Logitech headset with a microphone. It’s not a huge monetary investment to make audio files, and students respond to it. So it’s whatever really works. And sometimes you need a little coaching to know: “What do faculty need? How can we kind of get them comfortable with the medium?” But we have people who said: “No way. Never. There’s not a chance…” and they watched a few videos, and they got to know the instructional designers who helped make the videos. And so they’re coming around and they’re like, “Okay, maybe I’ll make one for the fall.”
John: Do you have students do something similar? Do you have them share bitmojis or audio or video files?
Allegra: So we do have some faculty who use Flipgrid. The instructor will make a video on Flipgrid. And it’s basically a discussion board of little videos. Our speech faculty requires students make videos of them making speeches and presentations. And I asked students to post pictures in their introduction. And I say, if you don’t want to post a picture of yourself, post a picture of your dog or your favorite sports team, or a screenshot from your favorite TV show… just a visual that helps us get to know you. Sometimes I asked students in discussion boards to respond to things with names. So to add a little personality and you can just think about ways to make your discussion board a little bit more open. So, in my lesson about setting, I have a formal writing assignment where they analyze the setting of a short story. But then I have a discussion board where they just write about the setting in their favorite movie, and how the setting helps augment the theme or illustrate something important or relate to one of the main characters. And so I say tell us about the setting in your favorite movie, and then put a screenshot of the Hogwarts castle, or the stuff in Hunger Games. So then they’re like, “Oh, my God, I love that movie, too.” And so they’re talking about the subject matter. They’re relating to each other more personally. And so I don’t know that there are ways easily to do that in every subject matter. But I know that there are ways that you can give students less formal assignments sometimes that allows them to interact in that way.
Misty: So I do hidden bonus discussion boards. If you get all the way through my notes, there’’ll be a link, “click this,” and it’ll take you to a hidden discussion board and I do “favorite things” as one of them. So they go on and they get to post a picture of their favorite things. So I get a lot of like Dunder Mifflin logos. [LAUGHTER] I get a lot of memes, and it’s a reward for them for actually reading the work. And then they get to do something fun at the end, and they get bonus points.
John: It’s an interesting idea.
Misty: Yeah, we have a lot of Easter eggs in our online classes; a lot of faculty make use of that. And so at the very end of my syllabus… this is a very basic one… it just says, send me an email with this subject line and ask me a question… anything you want to know… and I’ll answer it and give you bonus points on your introduction. So, if they read the whole syllabus the first week of class, not only do they get this chance to get bonus points for reading the syllabus, but they’ve already sent me an email and once you’ve sent your instructor one email, it’s much easier then when you have a question to send them an email, because that line of communication is already established. And they ask me the goofiest questions. You know, they asked me like “What’s my favorite TV show?” Or do I think dragons are real? [LAUGHTER]. They they have fun with it.
Misty: Do you have tattoos?”
Allegra: Yeah, I mean, that’s in my intro introduction video because I got that question so many times. I’m like, “Yes, I’ll just tell you, I have tattoos. They’re obsessed with tattooed professors. So I just went ahead and let them know Yes, I have tattoos and they’re all related to books in fact. So it’s sort of related to the course.
John: Have you done the AMAsa on Reddit yet? [LAUGHTER]
Misty: We should do that. We should try it.
John: That could be a podcast episode with your students.
ALEGRA: Yeah. Oh God… [LAUGHTER]
Misty: I’m scared.
John: It could be dangerous. But, you can edit it.
Allegra: Yeah, that’s true. We do tell faculty to use humor if they’re actually funny. And what I say in presentations is if people don’t laugh at you in real life, they’re not gonna laugh at you online. So….
John: …or at least not for the reasons you want them to….
Allegra: Yeah, laughing at you. So I say if you’re funny, and you can do it well, absolutely use humor. You have to be careful that you’re not making fun of people, obviously. But self-deprecating humor is always a winner. So, I tell people that. I do advise them like “Don’t try if your jokes don’t land, they’re definitely not going to work online.”
John: Do you include any social media in your classes outside of the LMS?
MISSY: I have tried. It has been an abject falure.
Allegra: Missy is remedial at social media. But, I tell my students that they could find me on Twitter. The Twitter page that I have is a professional Twitter. So I post things about online teaching, or about our podcasts or articles about education, or about cool books or things just having to do with authors, so it’s professional related. It’s not like me posting about my favorite TV show. But I don’t use it for the class. So, students sometimes will follow me on Twitter, which I tell them, you’re going to be really bored, but that’s fine. But I don’t use it for the class. We do have instructors in the English department who use Twitter for their classes as a way to ask me a question or to get more information as just an additional contact method. We’ve had some teachers try to use it as a discussion forum. And they said that they just would rather use the discussion forum in the LMS.
Misty: Some of our government instructors have been able to do it pretty well, because it’s easier to share news articles on Facebook… and they put them in a closed group, then they kick everyone out of the closed group at the end of the semester and start a new closed group for the next semester. But government’s kind of unique in that way. I don’t know if it would work for other disciplines.
John: You’ve mentioned bitmoji. Are there any other tools you use to create content in your classes that perhaps faculty should explore?
Allegra: So audacity is the software that we use for editing audio files, and our instructional designers showed me how to use it in about 10 minutes. And so then I’ve gotten used to the tools and the buttons and how they work. He says it’s like a Fisher Price audio editing…. So he thinks it’s pretty straightforward and simple in terms of how to use it. I create a lot of graphics for my course. So I create banners. I create getting to know me things. I create things related to the subject matter and I use Canva that’s like Canvas without the S. It’s a free service. It’s a graphic design online tool. So if you wanted premium content, or better looking designs, then you could pay for those things, but it is free to use Canva as well.
Misty: Screencast-o-matic… I use that a lot to create where you’re talking over a PowerPoint video, or even pictures.
Allegra: Oh yeah, talking over a slideshow? Absolutely. Right now we’re using YouTube for videos. I don’t know what they’re using for video editing. I was trying to look and see if it was in my notes.
Allegra: Camtasia is what they’re using, but it’s not free, so I don’t recommend it to everyone.
John: For people who are on Macs or iPhones, there is iMovie. And there’s lots of Android editing tools that are free and there’s a few Windows ones as well.
Allegra: I would say the newest coolest thing to make videos is Apple Clips, which you can get on an iPhone or an iPad. And I don’t know if you’ve played around with it, but especially if you’re going to do like a talking-head video. You can change the background or you can make yourself look like you’re a comic-book character. And it’s auto captioning the same way that YouTube does. So it might be like 85% accurate and it’s very easy to go in and edit the caption file to make it 100% accurate. You can make a very cool looking, engaging, and dynamic video using Apple Clips and upload it to Twitter or to your LMS very, very quickly… very, very easily. And of course, the sound quality on just an iPhone itself with no microphone is pretty good. So if you’re in a quiet room, it’s going to sound really good and look really cool. Unfortunately, I don’t have an iPhone. So I’ve only played with it a little bit on the iPads at work, but I think Apple Clips is free, 100% free. And it’s a very cool tool, If you are an Apple person… and QuickTime you can also use on Macs to do screencast videos. I think that’s all my tools.
John: The nice thing about uploading things to YouTube is the captioning in YouTube has gotten very, very good. Is probably 97…98% accurate.
Misty: Unless you have an accent.
John: Yes, unless you have an accent or there’s a lot of background noise…
Allegra: …or you talk really fast. Yeah.
And something that is probably more for English faculty or people who have a lot of essays to grade, is you can do audio grading, which is you can record like a two minute you explaining to your student where they did well and what they could improve on. And I found that it helps me deliver information in a more softer personal way, the same way I would be able to do an in-person writing conference. In TurnItIn.com, which we use through our LMS, there’s just a button on the side of the paper that says record audio and I think can you can record up to three minutes. You have to ask students if they want to opt in or opt out of that because not all students respond really well to audio comments and some students need it to be written down. But it’s it’s a good way to be engaging and students hear from your voice and you can kind of use your tone and soften things and emphasize things, so audio grading is something we’re trying to get into more. Of course, you can do it in the LMS. You just have to record an mp3 and then attach it. So it’s a little bit more cumbersome.
John: And there’s a number of apps that you can use on iPads and other devices to do that on PDFs as well. And then just email them back or share them back.
Allegra: Absolutely, yes.
So we use a lot of Spotify playlists, and so Spotify is free, and students don’t need a Spotify account in order to listen to a Spotify playlist. They can just hit play in the LMS. So, I use them in three different ways. One, in my introduction, I just have a playlist of music that I like, and some students can really relate to you in that way. So I just like 15 of my favorite songs, and I might change it every now and again. And so I just there’s a way to embed Spotify playlists, you just get an embed code, and then you can embed it in an announcement or an item on your LMS. And so students can get to know you that way. When I teach metaphors and poetic devices, I have a playlist of songs that are like riddled with metaphors and poetic devices, imagery, symbolism… metaphors, of course, very prevalent in music. So I have a playlist of songs, and I link it into my lesson on poetic devices. And so then students can listen to songs. And hear examples, like, Collecting my Jar of Hearts, right? Like that’s a metaphor and a song that they all know. And so it helps them understand that concept in a little bit more of an accessible way than the Shakespeare sonnet that they’re going to read for that lesson. And then Misty uses them…
Misty: …for every historical era. So it helps them connect with the pop culture of the time.
Allegra: So, she’s a 40 playlist and a 50s playlists and a 60s playlist in her history class.
Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of fun.
Misty: I actually have a Civil War playlist.
Allegra: A Civil War play…. I don’t…
Misty: Yeah, marching songs.
Allegra: They’re free accounts of students want you they can connect to your playlist but they can just play them right through the LMS.
Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting option that maybe a lot of faculty haven’t considered.
It’s very easy. And Missy was the first person on our campus, I think, to think of using Spotify for teaching. So it’s really simple and straightforward. And students really, really…
Misty: Are you saying that if I can do it, anybody can do it? Because that’s kind of what it sounds like. [LAUGHTER]
Allegra: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. [LAUGHTER]
And there are opportunities maybe to have students create Spotify playlists in certain classes. So, that’s an option as well.
Misty: I want to say one more thing. Make sure that your social presence doesn’t overwhelm the actual instruction in your course. Because we have seen that mistake a couple of times, where it’s so heavy on the means or it’s so heavy on the bells and whistles that they forgot to actually teach the material. [LAUGHTER]
Allegra: Yeah, I think that was really kind of an error. You know, we had a whole conference that was really about like increasing engagement and presence. And so I think a lot of people took away the message that that was really, really important, which it is. But, obviously, the subject matter instruction is what’s most important. And students can get lost in a sea of images. If you have a lot of stuff in there that’s not directly related to the content. So honestly, the best thing to do is to look at the way different people use different things and to find a good balance of what works for you, and really go with what students are telling you. So if students are getting lost in your class, if students are getting confused in your class, then you have to go back and make it a little bit more simple and easy to navigate.
Rebecca: Details, details.
John: But tying the social presence and the images and the playlist and so forth to the content reinforces the learning without distracting from the learning.
Allegra: Yeah, exactly.
John: How have students responded to your increase in social presence in classes. I’ll say about 50% of them have not mentioned it at all. So, we get feedback from students on student evaluations. So that’s like solicited feedback. And I have only ever taught online this way. So I don’t have anything to compare it to necessarily, but I get a lot of unsolicited feedback from students in the form of emails. A lot of them say I really don’t like English class. I was really anxious about English class. And watching your video or listening to the first lesson really helped me feel more comfortable. A lot of them say you seemed more approachable. I really feel like I can ask you questions. And it shows because students will send me emails halfway through the semester and they’ll just say, I don’t really even know what question I have. I just feel like I’m getting lost and I’m not doing very well. And I guess, can you just help me? And so a student will only send you that kind of email, if they’re really comfortable sending you that kind of like, “Just help me. I don’t know, am I doing okay?” if you’re an unapproachable instructor, if you are somebody who doesn’t consistently respond to emails, if you are somebody who seems like a robotic behind the computer grader, students don’t reach out to you with that kind of question. So, that tells me it’s important to cultivate this kind of sense of community in a class so that students feel comfortable when they are lost at sea. And they’re sitting at home all by themselves, they don’t have classmates they can turn to you and say, “Do you know what’s going on?” You have to really create that sense of community very intentionally. And it shows. I get about 15 to 20 unsolicited emails a week in the first six weeks of class when students are orienting themselves to where things are, and they all say the same thing: “I feel comfortable. I feel less anxious. I appreciate this.” And then on the evaluations, they say I can tell that she did extra work. She always responded to my messages, which it’s heartbreaking to me when students thank me for replying…
Allegra: …to them.
John: Yeah, I know.
Allegra: Because I’m like, “Does that mean you have faculty who don’t reply to you?”
Misty: Yes, it does.
Allegra: But it does show… and I don’t mean this like in a bragging, like, “look at me, I get all this great feedback” way… But I do get a lot of great feedback. And it’s because of all of these things. It’s not because they all love reading poetry.
Misty: So, all the research shows that if you create community, students will stay in your course and will stay in college, and all of the research for years and years and years focused on in-person classes. So, we’re trying to take that research and adapt it to our online classes. And as chairs, you and I both get success rates every semester. And I can tell you, immediately when I look at the success rate I know who’s creating a social presence in their class and who isn’t because if a student feels connected to you, they don’t want to drop your course. And they want to try to do well for you. And the high success rates generally usually typically correspond to courses where the instructor’s engaged, involved, and has an actual dialogue with the students.
Allegra: Absolutely. Everybody has good semesters and bad semesters, including me. But if somebody consistently has a low success rate in an online class, then that is a person that we start to intervene. And we say, like, “Let me help you. Let me give you some strategies. Let’s talk about ways that you think you could do better, because my job is not to change the way you teach. But my job is definitely to make sure students are as successful as possible.”
Misty: And that doesn’t mean 100% success rate’s a good thing either.
Allegra: No, no. Just definitely not. [LAUGHTER] But we’re kind of sorting this out in terms of making our online classes as good as they possibly can be while at the same time evaluating our faculty’s online classes in a formal way, and also mentoring online faculty to improve their classes in a less formal way. And a lot of times they ask us, like, “How can my students just feel like disconnected for me? How can I fix that?” And I’ll say, “Why don’t you try… just post an announcement every week. Just start there. It’s very easy, doesn’t take very much time. And you’re reaching out to every single student and then we can talk about individualized emails, reminding students who haven’t submitted something, all those kinds of things. The other thing is, in an online class at a community college policies like I will never take late work under any circumstances, no matter what, I don’t care who died, it’s not going to work. And students perceive that from you. And to be that rigid and inflexible in these circumstances is a breakdown and that is what I number one thing I get student complaints about is: “I submitted it five minutes late,” or “I was in a car accident and my teacher didn’t care.” And those kinds of things we can’t accept anymore. That’s just not the nature of online teaching. And that’s not the nature of community colleges.
Rebecca: These are really good points. We want to make sure that our students succeed, and putting artificial barriers in their way is certainly not going to help that.
John: It’s a serious issue. As we’re getting a broader spectrum of society entering college, many of the students are ones who are on the threshold of deciding whether to go or not. And when they’re turned away with because of major life issues and they get discouraged, they often just disappear… and being welcoming and dealing with real-life situations in a realistic way (in the same way that they’d be dealt with in a workplace) isn’t really unreasonable.
Misty: Yeah, absolutely.
Allegra: That’s what I say to faculty. I’ve had a circumstance where a student forgot to attach the document and the faculty wouldn’t accept it. Even though the student submitted it, it was just blank… I attached the wrong document, and I can pull back an email from that same faculty member and say, “Here are three different times you sent me an email, and you forgot the attachment.” Be realistic, we don’t have to cut everybody a break. But like you said, people make the same kinds of mistakes in the workplace. And we don’t have this artificial rigid system where there are no exceptions, and zero tolerance for anything. And when there are students who are on the border of whether or not they want to continue in college, or whether they have enough support, or whether they feel confident enough to become successful, your attitude can make or break that student’s experience.
Rebecca: That really does tie back to this whole idea of social presence in a lot of ways because these are the things that aren’t really about the content of the course, but really about how it’s delivered. And that’s really what social presence is about.
Allegra: Absolutely and if you have a student who says “I felt anxious, and you’re silly video and your bitmojis helped me feel more comfortable,” that is a student who maybe would have dropped when they had the first difficulty with an assignment. But instead, they felt comfortable enough to reach out and say, I’m really struggling, I don’t have any idea what’s going on. And I can just explain it in a different way. Or say, actually, it seems like you really do know what’s going on. And you just needed me to kind of build you up a little bit. And that’s what my job is supposed to be. My job is not supposed to be to enforce a bunch of rules, and to be the arbiter of what’s on time and not on time. And to just sit in a room and grade your paper, like my job is to build you up and help you learn.
John: It’s nice to see two people who are department chairs using these techniques in their classes. [LAUGHTER] Because that sets a nice role model which we don’t always see in all departments at all institutions.
Allegra: It does help to be a fully online campus, so we have a whole campus culture. Our administrators support this, our instructional designers help us with all of this. There’s no way I could have made that video without them. And they really emphasize it and reward it.
Misty: Well, and to some extent, we’re still the Wild West, right? So we’re still getting to determine the culture, whereas brick and mortar campuses, maybe that culture has already been set. Maybe it was set in the 1970s. And that’s kind of hard to change.
John: Or the 1870s, as the case may be, [LAUGHTER]
John: Your podcast…. Tell us a little bit about how that got started.
Allegra: Our campus administration said, “We have all this equipment, and we want to make sure that it’s getting used.” Our campus President, I think, is the person who said somebody around here should make a podcast.
Misty: Well, no, what he said was, “You guys need to make radio shows.”
Misty: …and I didn’t understand.
Allegra: So it was Misty’s idea, because she teaches history and I teach English and you can tell we don’t agree on anything or everything. But we do have shared passions for feminism and for social justice, and we’re both very passionate about the things we like. We don’t like the same things. [LAUGHTER]
John: It’s a great blend, though.
Allegra: So, I will talk about Grey’s Anatomy, and she will talk about the War of 1812. No… but it’s a great integrative learning model. So we, in almost every episode, are able to integrate history and literature, or history and information literacy. And we can also talk about how the same ideas of textual analysis apply to Grey’s Anatomy and Game of Thrones, or how there are historical figures who are similar to the figures that you see in Game of Thrones. That’s actually episode we’re going to record later today is about history and Game of Thrones connections…
Misty: We also want our students to see the connections between their subjects.
Misty: Because we think that they leave a history class, they don’t see how it touches literature, or they leave a literature class or they don’t see out to just psychology and so having the podcast can help bridge that gap. And it can kind of wrap them in this world of the humanities.
Misty: I mean, we try math and science, too. But it’s not our strong…
Allegra: It’s not. So yeah, in our math episode we have historical women in mathematics. And then I’m like, “Here are some great books about women in mathematics.” But we the two of us are certainly not experts in math. And because we’re a community college, we don’t have like a gender studies program. So it’s a great way for students to get exposed to some of those ideas that if they’re transfer students to universities, that will be more prevalent on the university campus. So more cultural studies, more applications of history, English, sociology, and all those kinds of things together. And we sometimes have our Dean as a guest star on our podcast, because she was a speech professor and now she’s an administrator, and she has new perspectives to add as well.
ALLEGRA And the other thing… it lets our students see that were people, that we’re actual real people and they can hear us joke with each other and they can see the difference in personalities. So, I’ve started including these in my course, especially the ones that relate directly to a historical era.
Misty: Interestingly, our most popular episode is called “The Trouble with Tropes,“ which is about tropes of female characters in TV, movies, literature. And so obviously, that directly relates to literary analysis, and I teach tropes in literary analysis. And I think it’s hilarious that it’s one of the most academic episodes of our podcast, and it’s the most popular. But I definitely, when I talk about stereotypes and archetypes and tropes, direct students to that, and beyond that there’s a link to the podcast in my “About Me” section in my course. So students want to listen to it, they can have some students say, “You know, I listened to your podcast.” I’m not going to give them extra credit for listening to me talk for an extra hour because that seems a little self serving, but I do tell them about it and like Missy said, if it directly relate to the content, I will add it as an additional resource in that lesson. Absolutely.
John: I know we mentioned this at the beginning of the episode, but could you remind our listeners of the name of your podcast?
Allegra: It’s the Profess-Hers Podcast, and its history, literature, pop culture, sports, through a woman’s perspective and a feminist perspective.
Rebecca: And we can download it where?
Allegra: Everywhere you get podcasts: Apple, Stitcher, Google, all those places that you get podcasts. They’re in all of them. Yeah, it’s in a lot of places. I didn’t know how it got there.The same places you can get the Tea for Teaching podcast.
John: Are you on Spotify?
Rebecca: Well, they have to be, right, they’re promoting Spotify. [LAUGHTER]
Allegra: Yeah, I should be getting a check from Spotify any day now. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Yeah. We all wish, right? [LAUGHTER]
John: Our Spotify take up just doesn’t seem quite as high as the others. But we do get a few every month.
Allegra: Yeah, I think it’s 50% from iTunes and Apple.
John: We always end with: what are you doing next?
Allegra: Well, next we are recording two episodes of our podcast because our semester is coming to a close. So we will have a few weeks where we’re not on campus. So we’re also trying to record ahead a little bit so that we have the consistent podcast releases even while we’re not at work. I took Misty’s answer because as soon as we’re done with this we’re going to eat some nachos, and then record some Profess-hers podcasts…
Misty: …and beg our teachers to get their grades and on time. Please submit if you’re listening. Always submit grades on time. Thank you.
Rebecca: Public Service Announcement. Yes. From every department chair ever.
Allegra: …of all time. Yes, indeed.
Rebecca: It’s been really fun. Thanks so much for joining us.
Misty: Thank you.
Allegra: Thank you.
John: And I’ll keep enjoying your show. And Rebecca will be listening to your show.
Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.
John: It’s been a lot of fun.
Allegra: It has and I’ll get Misty to listen to yours. I’ve been listening to it.
Misty: New subscriber.
Allegra: Yeah, you’ve got one here.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.