This post is part of our series exploring the various new ways staff in Arts and Humanities have found to create a sense of “presence” in online and blended learning during the pandemic.
Dave Mann, Senior Lecturer within the Nottingham Language Centre (NLC), has explored new ways to connect with students, and encourage them to connect with each other, to help students feel seen and valued without the reliance on webcams.
A different Dave (Dave White), who inspired this entire blog series on Presence, points out that the pandemic “ripped away our opportunities to be physically co-present and we immediately turned to our technology in an attempt to repair this loss. We wanted to ‘see’ each other and feel connected in meaningful ways” (White, 2021). We have all felt the loss of face-to-face connection and presence, and how online teaching without the use of webcams can feel like you are teaching into a void, with each student remote and isolated from you and one another. With large groups of students, there is perhaps even greater potential for facing The Abyss. Nevertheless, Sean Michael Morris (2021) points out learning is still undertaken by the students “in a real place somewhere, where there are hands and fingers, feet and toes, a breathing person with a heartbeat whose eyes blink more slowly when they think hard.”
Engagement in online sessions can also be challenging due to external factors e.g., students with caring responsibilities, disabilities, and/or neurodiversities. It is important to also note the possible “digital divide,” as some students may not have access to a reliable internet connection or a computer with a working webcam (Cullen, 2001, see also Bali, 2020).
Dave Mann’s approach builds in a range of different types of interaction that support student visibility and engagement in large group sessions, challenging the common view that student ‘visibility’ solely comes from being on a webcam.
“I wanted to break down the barriers and wanted to remove the formality.”
He greets his students “on mic” as they come into the meeting space, so those who arrive early get a personal “hi, how you are doing?” which opens a dialogue before the session. Students are also encouraged to post a GIF on a weekly theme as they arrive, serving as an ice breaker and fostering a sense of community within the large group. Dave even points out the ways that the online sessions can provide a more relaxed, “informal means of communication,” something that “you wouldn’t be able to have in a face-to-face session.”
“At the beginning of every single session I do my pre-flight checks”
When Dave starts the subject content of the session, he begins with what he calls “his pre-flight checks.” Students use emojis in the meeting chat to give him the “thumbs up” that the slides are visible, and the audio is also working as expected. This initial small step ensures that the session can start with confidence all round, and already students have supported the success of the session through their engagement.
Inviting student interaction
He also creates lots of opportunities to review the engagement of his students and to gauge their understanding of the session e.g., through confidence checks. By inviting students to ‘react’ using Mentimeter (Similar to reactions in Teams), it allows him to gauge their understanding and adapt his teaching to their responses. Being able to see student responses indicating they are confused means being able to address that during the session with more explanation or a recap, making the most of time spent together online. Likewise, seeing when students indicate they have understood allows the session to progress. While Dave finds that not all students choose to interact, there are enough reactions to gauge understanding and to create a sense of connection, in the same way that not all students may choose to engage directly in an equivalent session on-campus.
One of the key aspects of his approach is that it is adjusted throughout the year based on the students’ feedback. Dave frequently seeks their opinion on the way he is teaching, making it clear to the students that they can positively impact the learning of the entire group through their participation, which empowers them as learners. Perhaps this is why Dave is seeing signs of a supportive learning community forming in his sessions – for example, when students post a comment or question in the meeting chat, they receive an instant positive reaction in the form of a heart or thumbs up from others, a direct and visible response that they are seen, and heard (without microphones or cameras). It is also very possible it could have an impact on the students’ confidence, wellbeing, and resilience in asking a question again. Dave noted that this seemed to also create a “snowball effect”, in that it gave the students asking questions confidence to ask more.
The feedback Dave sees from students whenever he polls them on his approach demonstrates that they really appreciate the effort he makes to interact with them individually. They also positively comment on the opportunities he creates for interaction, and the different avenues to give their feedback, in the knowledge that their contributions are valued.
If you are member of Arts and Humanities staff at NTU and have been inspired by Dave Mann’s approach, please feel free to contact the LTSU on firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss more about any of the tools or ideas mentioned in this blog post.