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Remembering Social Presence: Higher Education Remote Teaching in COVID-19 Times

April 2020

We are social beings. We need each other. And our students need us more than ever.

In the new epoch of COVID-19, we've been asked to practice social distancing, a term that first gained popularity and recognition in 2003. The World Health Organization and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recently updated their messaging with the term, physical distancing. Even so, the term social distancing is now out in the vernacular. As a result, our overtaxed psyches now easily connect the word "social" with a negative connotation.

That is unfortunate because in a time of crisis—in a pandemic—we need each other more than ever. Kindness and compassion should be our guide, even though we are, of course, overwhelmed and frustrated ourselves.

For those of us now suddenly teaching remotely in a time of crisis, the concept of social presence, or connectedness, becomes even more important. My research partners and I have conducted over 15 years of case-study research on social presence in online learning environments at university and K-12 levels. Our research suggests that until their basic needs are met, students simply cannot connect to the course content and engage with each other. With this crisis, tensions are high. Families are stressed with financial burdens, food and supply shortages, educational schedules, and resource allocation. We're all missing our normal routines and favorite places, and we are striving for balance.

teaching remotely by video with flashcards

A few years ago, I wrote a piece in EDUCAUSE Review that draws from Fred Rogers and his series, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. In that piece, I asked readers to think of their classrooms as a neighborhood, drawing from the Social Presence Model. This metaphor continues to shape and influence my teaching.

For those of us who have hurdled, ready or not, into the realm of remote teaching, can "the classroom as a neighborhood" metaphor offer a bit of help as we struggle to conceptualize and form our learning experiences in COVID-19 times? Here are seven quick tips that may help, along with all the things you are already doing for your students:

  1. Take care of yourself. Think of yourself as the Mister Rogers of your neighborhood. Without you, nothing is possible. Of course, as instructors thrust in a new world of on-the-fly online teaching and learning, we are not OK. Yet, we have special people in our lives who are counting on us. Thus, sleep, exercise, nutrition, and balance are paramount. Honestly, I'm only making slow progress in this regard, but that's what counts. Routines are best but try to do what you can. Forgive yourself for the emails, classes, assignments, and days that just didn't go well. And if you need a mental health break or a pause, just take one. Breathe, exhale, and return.
  2. Assume the best in everyone. There are always some students who are going to take advantage of the situation, but most students are simply doing their best. Many students have lugged all their belongings across the country or around the world. They are transitioning back home or to a new living situation. Some have unreliable Wi-Fi; others are caring for or coping with sick relatives and friends. At the same time, they are trying to learn new tools and techniques and are balancing deadlines from 5-7 different instructors. They are understandably stressed and frustrated about things beyond their control. Assume the best regardless of students' previous performance. Show compassion.
  3. Record personalized videos and tutorials. In these videos or quick tutorials, show your students compassion and understanding. Use humor and be light-hearted, if you can. I'm personally just not very funny, but I tell stories about my daughter bursting into my one-on-one Zoom student writing session and throwing a tantrum about not getting additional iPad time. I also tell the story about how on the very first morning of remote learning on our campus, I woke up to the fire department telling me and the kids to get out of the house because of a propane leak. Talk about trial by fire! These stories and anecdotes form what social presence researchers call "self-disclosure"; they make us real to our students, put them at ease, and deflect from the chaos around us. Let them know that you are there for them. Keep it short and sweet, yet include practical details as well.
  4. Compile a number list of clear, manageable tasks for each unit. I have only been able to work week-to-week, barely keeping ahead of the students. I begin each week with a short task list, due dates, submission locations, and additional resources. I also try to review and make connections to the previous course content, so that students feel the progression of the course content and their knowledge and skills. Knowing they have prior knowledge to build upon is extremely comforting and plays a vital role in social presence.
  5. Use multiple communication channels. Communication is the key. Communicate often using a variety of methods, even if you feel you are being redundant. Use multiple channels, consider email, reminder tools, and the learning management system itself. Also, don't forget to check your office messages and/or forward them. Students may be trying to reach you; give them the benefit of the doubt.
  6. Be prepared to kindly answer questions (that you've already answered) multiple times. Even though you have clearly laid out the instructions using multiple communication channels, they will ask those obvious questions. Use Elsa's advice: let it go. Breathe. Then, give positive, encouraging feedback with "great question" or "thank you for reaching out–keep it coming." They are also balancing a lot, and they need quick help, reassurance, and kindness.
  7. Use synchronous sessions wisely. Interaction is essential to social presence. However, I have seen well-meaning higher ed instructors, K12 teachers, and trainers all over the world engaging in synchronous sessions with too many people or with novice audiences who don't understand the protocols. I have heard horror stories about four-hour, straight-lecture Zoom classes. Be cautious to pilot them first, ensure your audience understands the expected protocols (e.g., muting when not speaking), use the breakout rooms for interaction, and leverage the other tools as needed (e.g., screen sharing or whiteboards). It is an incredible feeling to see your class together again! Because issues will always arise, be sure that you record the session for asynchronous viewing at a time and place that is convenient for the students.

Keep in mind that connectivity and troubleshooting issues often occur to marginalized populations who are already feeling left out. Students' anxiety and frustration levels increase exponentially when they are not able to engage online at a specific time for reasons beyond their control. Before COVID-19, the American Psychological Association cited anxiety and depression as affecting over 41.6 percent of college students, and that rate has now skyrocketed. If a student reaches out to you, be the calm in the storm. Provide them with reassurance and link them to the recorded session.

In summary, there's no denying that our lives and our worlds have been turned upside down with worries and tensions abound. Yet, as educators, let's focus on what is in our circle of influence: social presence and our newly-formed classroom neighborhoods. We'll get through this together!

Aimee Whiteside is an associate professor at the University of Tampa, where she previously served as interim co-director at her university's Center for Teaching and Learning. She recently co-edited the book Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Research and Practice, with Amy Garrett Dikkers and Karen Swan. She is currently collaborating with the REL Southeast's Florida Virtual School Partnership for Student Success in Online Learning around social presence supports.