February 14

On Teaching Online, Part III: How to Haunt

GOA’s Director of Teaching and Learning, Eric Hudson, is teaching “Advocacy” this semester. Every week, he will blog about his experience designing and facilitating this online course for high school students. You can learn more about the course here. Read Part I and Part II. Follow Eric on Twitter @ericgoa.

I met with another GOA teacher on Skype earlier this week, and he asked me a question I am asked often, but he phrased it in a really interesting way: “Sometimes I feel like a ghost in my class. Should I be worried about how often my students see me?”

Teacher presence is a pressing concern for online teachers, especially those who have more experience in the brick and mortar classroom, where they can count on a certain amount of face-to-face time with their students every week. In an online course, especially a global one, it is impossible to log the same amount of synchronous time with students. Yet, it remains critically important to feel connected to our students, and vice versa.

As I made my way through Week Three of Advocacy, a week without any planned synchronous meetings, I thought about my own ghostly presence in my course. How was I making my presence known to my students even though we weren’t face to face? How was I haunting?


Frequent and meaningful feedback is at the core of an effective online course (or any kind of course, really). Students need to know that their work is being seen and is valued, that they are not just submitting it into the ether, never to be seen again. In brick and mortar environments, we give feedback in innumerable ways beyond just grading tests and papers: we smile when a student hands something to us, we hold pre or post assignment conferences, we praise or chide during in class discussions. We engage in ongoing feedback with students in large and small ways, and that must happen online, too.


The Canvas SpeedGrader tool allows not just for me to give feedback, but also for me to engage my students in a conversation around their assignments. Last week, I shared an example of the Heartbreak Maps my students were making. Above, I was able to use the map as a catalyst for conversation about another student’s personal project. She has to narrow her interests, and we were able to look at the map together and identify the most fruitful paths.

For me, it is essential that this is a conversation where I show my students that I am engaged and responsive. This might mean delivering feedback in smaller but more frequent bites; it might mean using video as way to show my face. What is important is that I acknowledge as quickly as possible that I can see my students’ work and I value it.

“Dropping in” on a discussion

Discussion forums can very easily become abandoned rooms; these are not fun to haunt. If the prompt isn’t engaging, or the students are focused on other assignments, or they are late in contributing, forums can feel lonely, especially to the few students who took the time to submit.

This week I had to kickstart a student discussion by fleshing out my prompt with another resource, a terrific, funny advocacy video called “Mr. Toilet”:


Just as we must fill silences and encourage participation in brick and mortar class discussions, so must we be prepared with a few tricks to kickstart conversation in an asynchronous forum.

Try to build a class community

Social interactions are a part of every successful class. In a brick and mortar environment, that might be five minutes of casual conversation before class begins, or a joke cracked during a discussion, or a brief interaction in the hallway or in the library about classwork. These sorts of spontaneous interactions are harder to come by in the online space, but they are not impossible to encourage. I created a discussion forum asking students to submit links to their favorite songs, and I loved how much they engaged each other.


“Present” is not the same as “Visible”

Designing Advocacy has taught me a lot about different ways I infuse my voice, my expectations, and my presence into my teaching. I don’t need to make videos every day or send emails every day or Skype every day. Rather, the way I design the class, the frequency with which I give feedback, and the strategic ways I show up in the class establish a presence that may look very different from standing at the front of a room five days a week, but I think it sends as clear a message to my students that I am engaged with the work they are doing. I may be a ghost, but I’m a friendly one.