The next week is largely one of reflections around academia, not only for myself, as a graduate student finishing the Spring 2017 semester, but also for my own students. Both my Composition I (ENG 110) and Introduction to Poetry Writing (ENG 203) classes will be writing their Reflective Introductions soon, and this final assignment serves as a sort of metacognitive elaboration on what they’ve learned over the semester, what difficulties they experienced, and the approaches they took toward the writing and revision process. Many of my poetry students came into ENG 203 with no prior exposure to poetry writing, and only a handful had any substantive experience in reading poetry, contemporary or otherwise. Similarly, many of my composition students had never written a substantive research paper, engaged in argument analysis, or examined academic writing from a rhetorical perspective, prior to taking ENG 110. Thus, there are two groups of twenty students undergoing some reflection over the next week, and much of their reflections will likely entail the experience of treading new paths over the last four months.
On my end, I’ll stride alongside these students, in reflecting on my experience in a course whose material and subject matter was largely new to me – Teaching Writing Online (ENG 704). If you asked me four months ago what “social presence” meant in a pedagogical sense, I’d have fumbled, probably cobbling something together that touched on the meaning, but I wouldn’t have been genuine in my comprehension. Today, I can recall that social presence is comprised of three components: co-presence, intimacy, and immediacy. Further, social presence is an important construct from the perspective of Social Cognitive Theory, and a fundamental determinant of success in knowledge acquisition (i.e. ‘transfer’). But so much for the formality. Essentially, social presence is the emotional sense of belonging, of being a part of a group of peers, wherein one’s contributions are important, and the relational simultaneity and immediacy of communication is relatable to one’s own life experience. Social presence in an online classroom involves not only the co-presence, intimacy, and immediacy inherent in the communication of the student peers, a distinct discourse group, but also the degree to which these three factors apply to the instructor and his-or-her interaction with students. This is a bit of a paraphrasal hatchet job, as the concept of social presence is difficult to sum up succinctly.
Regardless of definitional semantics, I bring up the concept of social presence because, perhaps more than anything I’ve learned over the semester in ENG 704, it touches the spine of the virtual classroom. To succeed in online instruction, we need to create virtual environments where student voices are heard amongst each other, and where valuable contributions are acknowledged and rewarded. We need to be present in our courses, and not just a looming avatar or a critic long after the fact. We must build credibility with our students anew with each section of an online course, and there is sweat equity in this process. There is a mechanism of having to earn this, and I think online instructors too often take credibility for granted. Students need to know who we are; they need to feel a co-presence with us and other students in the virtual classroom. Likewise, activities in the virtual classroom need to be dynamic and value-added. I ask myself, when evaluating the merits of a student activity, whether it adds value and whether I would implement the same activity in a seated class. Students need to recognize the value in activities and foresee the application of these activities toward learned concepts.
I bring up social presence also because it touches a research component of ENG 704. Specifically, social presence was the subject of my favorite academic article of the semester: “A Model for Social Presence in Online Classrooms” from the June 2012 issue of Educational Technology Research and Development. I thought this article, and the underlying experimental data involved, was not only fascinating, but completely transferable to the construction of a quality virtual classroom. Of the legion of academic articles I read this semester, I found this one touched closest, perhaps, to the core of teaching writing online.
In reflecting on a course in which many concepts were new to me, there is a lot of potential ground that could be covered. I hope that, going forward, we all continue to explore the pedagogy of teaching writing online, and I know some of us will be (or already are) getting their feet wet in gaining real-world experience. Hopefully, the discussion of teaching writing online will continue, in other circles beyond ENG 704. For now, though, adios amigos. I hope to see you further down the path in the months and years to come.
Chun-Wang, Wei; Nian-Shing, Chen; and Kinshuk. “A Model for Social Presence in Online Classrooms. Educational Technology Research and Development, vol. 60, no. 3 (June 2012), pp. 529-545. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41488597.