While distance education is new for most of Baylor, Dr. Nicholas Werse has been a distance educator for several years. Werse is the Graduate Writing Coordinator for Baylor School of Education’s EdD in Learning and Organizational Change, the university’s largest online doctoral program, housed in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction. Werse runs a fully online writing center to coach the doctoral students with their academic writing. He meets with students one-on-one and also conducts webinars.
Werse holds an MDiv from Truett Seminary and a Baylor PhD in religion. He previously coached writing in Baylor’s Graduate School, often interacting with students from a distance after they had finished on-campus coursework. He has four years of experience teaching undergraduate college courses and spent two years teaching in an online format.
So we asked Dr. Werse for some advice about online interactions in academia.
Q: How do you typically interact with students in the EdD program?
A: We usually interact via email, and we meet via video conference. Students email documents for me to review. I provide written feedback and then meet with the students for a 30-minute one-on-one writing consultation. During that, we talk through the feedback and discuss strategies to help them grow as writers. In many ways, it reminds me of holding office hours for students when I taught in the classroom.
Using only these two mediums limits how I can show a student that I hear their voice and take their concerns seriously. When I taught in the classroom, I could show students that I valued their questions, comments, and concerns through the way I engaged them in class discussion or by spending time before or after class answering questions for individual students. But I do not get that opportunity in an online environment. When teaching online, a prompt response time (within 24 hours) to student emails goes a long way in showing concern. Imagine sitting in class with your hand raised and the teacher not responding all class. That is what it can feel like when you ask a question in an online class and wait multiple days for a professor to respond. Even when I taught online classes with no synchronous meeting times, being regularly present and engaged with my students was just as important as it was when I taught them in a face-to-face class. I just had to show it in different ways.
Q: Does someone have to be tech savvy to interact online?
A: I don’t think so, but being comfortable with technology definitely helps. There are many great tools out there that make it easier to construct a fantastic online educational experience. Of course, it takes time to learn how to use each tool effectively. It is better to focus on a few online educational tools, rather than trying to saturate classes with tons of fantastic resources that we are still struggling to learn.
In the world of online education, many times less is more. It always takes us longer to set up the course than we expect, and it will often take students longer to go through the course than they expect. Keeping things simple allows both students and faculty to focus on the course content rather than navigating a sea of new technology.
A: For live session meetings and one-on-one meetings, I am a big fan of Zoom, a video conferencing system that is really conducive to teaching online classes and holding meetings. An entire class can log in, and you can share your screen, run a PowerPoint, break the class into small groups for discussion, and so much more. I have also done tutoring using Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, and a good old-fashioned telephone.
At Baylor, we also have access to a great video capturing tool through Canvas called Kaltura. This tool allows you to record lecture videos using a PowerPoint and a WebCam. The program will use the WebCam to film you talking and record the PowerPoint slides on your screen simultaneously. This way, the student sees you speaking on one part of the screen and your slides on another side of the screen. It is pretty user-friendly and integrates really well into Canvas.
There are also many great educational video repositories out there on the Internet. If someone has already made a great video on a topic, then there is no need to re-create the wheel. I often link videos from a wide range of educational websites into my online courses to create a multifaceted educational experience for my students. Just remember to cite the source.
Q: Can you share some key “to do” items for online interactions?
A: Sure! First of all, be excited and let your students see your excitement. Online education is a fantastic opportunity to bring new forms of creativity into the educational experience.
Secondly, be intentional about showing your excitement and interest to students. Many of the nonverbal cues we use to communicate don’t function the same in an online world. So, we may have to find ways to make our intentions and goals more explicit. In a face-to-face classroom, I could use all kinds of non-verbal cues to communicate with my students—whether I needed to ask them to settle down so we could begin class or invite a student into the class conversation. In the same way, I could see when a student had something to say, even if they didn’t raise their hand. We don’t always see these non-verbal cues in an online setting, so we have to be intentional to communicate in other ways.
Q: Do you have any logistical tips — some things to do and not to do — about being on camera?
A: One of the most difficult things I have had to learn is how to be natural in front of the camera. I become self-conscious as soon as someone points a camera at me and says “act natural.” I have to remind myself before I record a video to just be myself. I visualize myself in front of a class and sometimes even rehearse how I would present something to a class.
Here are some helpful hints about being on camera:
- Look at the camera when talking. We have a tendency to look at the video screens or at the PowerPoint we are using when we are giving an online presentation. But we have to remember that making eye contact online involves looking directly into the camera.
- Try to position the camera at eye level. Having a camera too low or too high can seem odd.
- Be aware of ambient sounds in your environment, which can be distracting.
- Check the lighting. Try to have a good light source on the other side of the camera instead of back-lighting your face.
- This may sound strange, but avoid clothes with busy or high-contrast patterns. Web cams do not always pick up patterns well. I remember watching an online lecture one time and having to pause the video multiple times because of how disorienting the professor’s shirt was. It was like watching a strobe light every time he moved on the screen as the camera tried to recapture the colors. And, yes, it was a training video for doing online education.
- Be aware of the physical environment and the message it sends. If working from home, remember that the setting can convey a message. Filming from a couch or easy chair can come across very informal. You may want that for some interactions, but not all. Pick a space that represents the tone you wish to communicate.
- I have found that keeping a presentation short really helps. It’s a lot easier for me to feel natural recording something short, and it’s also easier for students to digest.
Q: Can you pinpoint the biggest upside — and the biggest downside — to online education?
A: On the positive side, online education gives students far more flexibility to engage in the educational experience. I can meet with students when they are on their lunch break in a different city, and we can have a meeting that is just as effective as if they were sitting in my office.
The one problem that I see is that it is a lot harder to maintain a healthy work-life balance when you can work from anywhere.
Q: Any final encouragements?
A: Most of us communicate most effectively in person. I have definitely misinterpreted the tone of emails before, and I am sure that my students have done this with my emails. This is one of the reasons why I am such a big fan of video conferencing; I can see someone face-to-face. At first, it did not feel quite the same, but the more I did it, the more comfortable I became. And the more comfortable I became, then the more effective I became at communicating through it.
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