It’s the beginning of the semester and, as usual, your instructor asks you to introduce yourself to the class and perhaps even read and respond to your fellow online students’ posts. It may be tempting to rush through this rather routine task, but resist that urge! Taking the time to get to know your classmates and instructor can truly transform your online learning experience.
How so? Well-thought-out introductions are the key to establishing a sense of presence in your online classroom. Doing that, it turns out, can lead to all kinds of benefits, like the amount of communication you have with your peers1, your satisfaction with the course, and even how much you feel you are learning2.
Let’s first more closely explore what this really means. Simply put, presence is your sense of “being there”3 and your sense of awareness of others with whom you are interacting.
Obviously, you know that you’re participating in the course…but when you’re in an online setting, your peers and instructors don’t necessarily know you’re there, and you don’t necessarily know who else is there with you. You have to indicate that you’re available and open to interaction.
Social presence theory4 argues that different forms of communication—like talking face to face, instant messaging, emails, and so on—can be classified according to the degree to which they allow people to feel aware of others in the conversation. Based on these classifications, people select the certain modes of communication that best fit their needs.
For instance, some online students may decide to enroll in a course with “synchronous” (real-time) lectures and discussions, because they feel like they benefit more from direct, immediate interaction with their instructors and peers. Others, meanwhile, may select an asynchronous course (a course that can be completed at any time) out of a desire to reduce the amount of interactions they have with others. So the degree to which people feel and choose to be immediate—or available—with one another when communicating is important to consider.
Another aspect to consider is level of intimacy. Conversation partners can decide between themselves their level of comfort in how closely they interact5. For instance, one student may decide to contact another student in the classroom by sending a personal email out of a desire to get to know that individual better. Another student, meanwhile, may post the same information on a discussion board—available for the entire class to see—based upon the assumption that a public forum reduces intimacy.
As we think about it, then, we can see that this concept has at least two parts. How present you feel in the online classroom depends upon how immediate you and your classmates are to communication. Do you seem approachable? Do you let others know that you are available? What about your classmates and even your instructor? Do they seem available to communicate?
In addition, your experience also depends upon how you use different communication media to create (or not create) intimacy with others. Do you choose to select modes of communication (like email) that tend to be more intimate in nature? Or, do you decide to communicate in more public forums in order to reduce intimacy? Together, these two dimensions—immediacy and intimacy—influence what kind of experience you have in your online course. Keep these in mind when you’re choosing how to communicate.
Most likely, your instructor is aware of the importance of sense of presence for online students. Indeed, many instructors purposefully ask their students to introduce themselves in order to increase that sense. That being said, you as a learner must also take some measures to ensure that sense as well. Here are some tactics:
1. Practice, practice, practice using the technology.
Schools usually provide tutorials to help us become more competent using online learning platforms. Take advantage of these and other resources! You first need to understand the capabilities of the technology you are using. Remember that we all experience presence subjectively. This means that the degree of it that we perceive as available to us depends on our competency with the technology. If we don’t know how to use technology, we likely won’t take advantage of it! Believe it or not, online course platforms allow us to introduce ourselves beyond writing one or two sentences. But, in order to use these capabilities, we first must know that they exist.
2. Upload a picture, audio recording, or even a video introduction.
Now that you know the technological capabilities of the distance delivery system, be creative and use them (read more and get some tips here)! Many platforms enable users to upload pictures, audio recordings, and even short videos. By using media that allow others to get to know you better, your instructor and classmates will likely get a clearer, more interesting image of you. You, as a result, will appear more immediate to your classmates and instructor—and you may even feel more physically “there” in the classroom.
Even uploading a simple image of yourself seated in front of your computer helps. And, if you are uncomfortable including images of yourself, simply include pictures and links that represent other aspects of your identity. For example, if you enjoy quilting, consider uploading an image of a quilt you recently completed. Or, if you enjoy hiking, include one of your favorite pictures from the trail. So, no excuses!
A word of warning here: unlike in face-to-face contexts, online introductions are often permanent posts, available for your classmates and instructor to go back and see throughout the semester. So spend time on it!
3. Engage with your classmates’ and instructor’s introductions.
Creating an interesting introduction is just the first step. Reading, listening, and/or watching your classmates’ and instructor’s introductions is just as, if not more, important. Make sure to indicate that you saw your classmates’ introduction, though. Unlike in face-to-face contexts where one can tell if people are listening (or not listening), it’s not so easy to tell in distance formats. In other words, while you may nod your head to indicate listening in a face-to-face conversation, you must verbally respond to your classmates’ posts. Saying something like “It’s nice to meet you,” can indicate that you read and “listened” to their post. Through interacting with your instructor and peers, you play an important role in increasing the social presence of your course.
As you go forward n your class, keep in mind the level of intimacy you’re fostering. Think about the face-to-face conversational skills that you cultivate when developing relationships and try to mimic them, as close as possible, in your responses. If you value facial expressions, for example, include emoticons in your responses. Even further, try to integrate vocal variety into your response by including pictures and hyperlinks. Your goal is to get to know your classmates and your instructor, so spend time getting to know them and finding points of commonality.
4. Be a trendsetter—with your instructor’s support, of course.
Increase your presence in the classroom by being an active member throughout the course. If you have ideas for improving the introduction process, contact your instructor with your ideas. Beyond the introductions, be active throughout the semester in guiding the course. As an adult learner, you bring many valuable experiences to the classroom, and you would be doing your instructor and classmates a disservice if you failed to be involved. In particular, suggest processes, media channels, and other resources to your instructor that may improve the class. Of course, make sure to run by your ideas with your instructor first before implementing them!
Introductions really do matter. Beyond simply presenting yourself to the class, the introduction process indicates your technological competencies, your goals and interests, your social skills, and your commitment to the course’s success. Introductions are just one way to increase your presence in the course—and, as we have discussed, presence matters. You, as an adult learner, need to be aware of its power in the classroom so that you can play a more active role in your own education. This is your education—make it work for you.
If you’re taking an online course now, or thinking of taking one in the future, be sure to share this article with your instructor and peers. These ideas could improve the course experience for everyone involved.
1Tu, C. H., & McIsaac, M. (2002). The relationship of social presence and interaction in online classes. The American journal of distance education, 16(3), 131-150.
2Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction.
3Lehman, R. (2006). The role of emotion in creating instructor and learner presence in the distance education experience. Journal of Cognitive Affective Learning, 2(2), 12-26.
4Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications.
5Argyle, M., & Dean, J. (1965). Eye-contact, distance and affiliation. Sociometry, 28(3), 289-304.