5 ways to build social presence in online courses, from #HumanMOOC

I have survived into week 2 of “Humanizing Online Instruction” – the HumanMOOC! I will admit that I had some slight reservations at the beginning, and I was initially disappointed that the course syllabus and assignments seemed to be about throwing multimedia technology at online courses to make them more human, and so my impression of the course was a bit like this:

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Now, I enjoy a bit of technology, and like experimenting with tools (as per my previous post), but I’m approaching online learning from a low-bandwidth (and simple ‘LMS’) angle and my original objective was more about picking up some general tips and ideas on how to ‘humanise’ online learning, which can seem quite lonely and boring at times.

However, having delved deeper and watched/read the discussions, common themes have emerged around putting pedagogy ahead of technology (or informing and leading the use of technology), and the small changes we can make to appear more human and add social presence and value to online learning. So here are five things that I have learnt that seem to go beyond ‘using social tools’ (or what should inform your use/selection of such tools).

  1. Creating a personable teacher profile
    Do we provide enough information on ourselves? How can students get a sense of our personality? What are our interests? What are we passionate about? Where can they find out more about us? Alec Couros looks more in depth at Digital Identity / Digital Presence here. One of the things I’ve done as a result of watching this is starting up an about.me page.
  1. Showing you care
    How much does your course design and facilitation show that you actually care, and that you are really interested in seeing your students succeed? This reflective blog post from Lisa Hammershaimb suggests that teacher presence might be as simple as “…showing myself as caring enough to draw out the intentions and ambitions of my students?”. Ok, so maybe that’s not a ‘simple’ task, but how can you show you care about the student’s progress and what they achieve from the course? This might be particularly difficult in a MOOC.
  1. Humanising announcements
    Why not make general announcements/news more interesting? What is news in your world, or the world outside the course? What did you find interesting this week? In my zeal for all things low bandwidth, I never considered the effectiveness of including simple pictures in announcements – we could, for example, share a picture of our workspace (that might be brave for some people *hides McDonalds boxes and beer bottles*). We could also encourage participants to post a picture of where they work – this would be fascinating if you were running an international course/MOOC. Also, does your infectious enthusiasm for the subject rub off in your posts and announcements? You do have enthusiasm right? 😉
  1. Encouraging participant bios and digital stories
    In the courses I work on, we encourage participants to provide plenty of background information in their bios, but perhaps we need to give them more specific guidance. We also encourage them to post a forum welcome message to introduce themselves. This didn’t work brilliantly in the last course I did, perhaps because it wasn’t a prominent part of the first week’s activities. It would be great to flesh this out a bit – get them to share their ‘digital stories’. Where are they in their career/learning, what do they want to get from this course? What could other learners potentially identify with?
  1. Presenting yourself as a co-learner
    Does it help us to seem more human (and therefore more approachable) if we can show that we are also co-learners? Definitely! A good way to do this is to invite ‘expert’ guests onto your course for interviews/guest posts/guest facilitators/ask the expert sessions. On a course we recently run, we were lucky to be able to call on a team of about 20 volunteer “guest facilitators”¹ with various levels of knowledge and experience in that field – I think we all ended up learning from each other, and that only helped the learning experience for the students.

I’ve picked up many other tips on #HumanMOOC (follow the Twitter hashtag for loads more), but for now these are my goals for adding social presence to online courses

¹ This might be unrealistic for many – we are a charity (http://authoraid.info/) with a very helpful network – the volunteers were either mentors on our website database or trainers we have trained in our previous face-to-face online courses. I know of other MOOCs who have enlisted experienced/post-grad students or particularly enthusiastic participants of previous courses!

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