September 7, 2020

Creating a sense of presence in synchronous online courses

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

This article is a translation of a text published in Profweb’s French edition.

In an online course, many students may experience a sense of anonymity. How do you encourage them to participate, to interact?

In February and March 2019, I attended 2 online activities on the same theme:

  • Stratégies pour accroître l’interactivité des cours en ligne—design et mise en oeuvre), (Strategies for increasing the interactivity of online courses—design and implementation), a discussion table organized by the Réseau francophone d’enseignement à distance (REFAD) on March 7, 2019

  • Stratégies pédagogiques favorisant l’interactivité en formation à distance en mode synchrone (Pedagogical strategies favouring interactivity in synchronous distance education), a testimonial by Corinne Marois, continuing education teacher at Cégep de La Pocatière, and Mireille Laflamme, educational advisor in continuing education at the same college, presented on February 21, 2019 as part of the 2019 Distance Education Week organized by FADIO (Formation à distance interordre – Bas-Saint-Laurent-Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine).

Here I discuss what I learned from these activities in terms of creating a positive classroom climate that encourages student participation.

I also suggest some other pages available on Profweb :

  • a text on virtual icebreaker activities to help students in the virtual classroom get to know each other better.
  • a text on big ideas that help empower students in an online environment.

Seeing students and getting them to see each other

Asking all students to turn on their cameras all the time? The speakers for both activities were almost unanimous in saying that this was preferable:

  • It allows you to measure the presence of the students: see who is in front of the screen, who has stepped out.

  • It allows you to see the students’ reactions to the content you present: their non-verbal language. Who seems to understand, who seems to be interested? Who seems confused, distracted?
  • It reduces the students’ isolation, it increases the feeling of proximity or belonging to the group. It may then be less intimidating for students to speak.

But seeing all the students is not always possible:

  • In large groups, bandwidth problems may be more important.

  • Even in small groups, some students may have a less robust connection that forces them to turn off their camera.

I wish to point out, however, that Marie-Josée Tondreau, an educational advisor at the Cégep de l’Abitibi-Témiscamingue who has experimented with both the Zoom and Via platforms, mentioned during the FADIO Distance Learning Week that Zoom was much less demanding in terms of bandwidth. To compare other aspects of the different videoconferencing platforms on the market, I recommend a document prepared by FADIO [in French] and a Profweb article comparing the functionalities of Teams and Zoom.

Several participants in both activities also mentioned the value of devoting the beginning of classes (or at least the beginning of the first class) to an opportunity for all students to introduce themselves in turn. This allows both getting to know others and ensuring that everyone has mastered the technological tools necessary for online communication (and that everyone’s microphone and camera are functional).

Fighting shyness

The strategy of getting all students to briefly speak at the beginning of the course has the advantage of breaking the ice. What other strategies can be used to “unblock” students?

In both activities, we talked about having students work in sub-groups, among other things, to get to know classmates (Via, Adobe Connect and Zoom all allow you to divide participants into sub-groups; Teams offers channels).

Corinne Marois meets individually with each of her students early in the semester. The purpose of this meeting is to follow the students’ progress in their semester project, but it also allows Corinne to create a stronger bond with her students, which she feels makes a marked difference in the course. In addition, during this one-on-one meeting, Corinne gives the students the role of “host” on the videoconferencing platform (Via). This allows them to use functionalities they don’t have access to during class, but which they will need during the oral presentation they will have to give during the semester. The one-on-one meeting is therefore an opportunity for students to get to grips with these technological tools: one less concern for them when they give their presentation!

When students have questions

Even when not all cameras can be switched on all the time, it remains ideal to ask students to use their cameras and microphones when they have a question or need to speak in front of the group.

However, at the Strategies for Increasing the Interactivity of Online Courses — Design and Implementation (Stratégies pour accroître l’interactivité des cours en ligne — design et mise en oeuvre) discussion table, participants were divided between respecting shyer students who may want to remain anonymous, off-camera, and use the chat room for questions, and taking advantage of the positive classroom climate (trust, emotional connection) created by switching on the cameras. This reminded me that the alternative of chatting/oral interventions had been discussed from another angle in a previous text following an activity organized by REFAD [in French].

To find out more…

If the subject interests you, I recommend a text I wrote [in French] after attending an activity organized as part of FADIO’s 2018 Distance Learning Week, an exchange table on dynamic practices in synchronous and asynchronous distance learning.

About the author

Catherine Rhéaume

Catherine Rhéaume is an editor and writer for Eductive (previously Profweb) since 2013. She also teaches physics at Cégep Limoilou. Her work for Eductive fosters her interest for technopedagogy and encourages her to try innovative teaching practices.

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