December 15, 2015

HumanMOOC Week 1: Instructor Presence

* Combined post for Week 1, Activity 1 (create intro presence) and Activity 2 (reflect), plus Activity 3 (learn a new tool) *

I just created something fun for my "Instructor Presence" activity; instead of doing an animated gif from a video (which was one of the options I saw in the Assignment Bank), I made an animated gif from some images, spelling out a message letter by letter. I've set it to just run once here so it doesn't drive people crazy; you can see the infinite looping version at the bottom of the page.

And no, that cat is not "me" and no, I have not created an instructor video. I take a different approach to the idea of "instructor presence" in my classes: my goal is not so much for the students to try to get to know me, the person, as a person; instead, my goal is to convey to them in every way how I can be their guide and helper on their learning adventure ... which might include making an animated GIF. :-)

I hope that the journey can be both fun and challenging, and as a result I hope that the students will like what they are doing and, therefore, like me too. But you know, it's actually okay if they don't like me as a person; the only thing that really matters is that they should like what they are doing in the class. So, if my admittedly weird and quirky personality is not what a student is looking for in an instructor, that's okay: I want to show the student at every step that I can still be a good helper in their learning journey even if I am not the instructor they expected.

And the same is true for me as a teacher in relation to the students: as a general rule, I have lots of positive affection for my students; I like them a lot. But if there are students who, for whatever reason, I do not really click with personally, that's okay too. I have to believe that I can still be a good teacher for every student. In fact, we would probably be in serious trouble if we all had to like each other personally for a class to succeed!

So, my goal is not so much about me-the-person and, even more precarious, about the students liking me. Instead, my focus is on what we can DO together as a class, and how we can help each other to learn new things and share them with each other to increase the learning. That's why, for my "instructor presence" activity here, I wanted to make a "hi there" cat animated GIF. It's fun and friendly, and it's also practical: when I made the GIF, I wrote out the step by step instructions for how I did that so that any student who wants to make something similar can do that: Animated Letter/Word GIFs. I am guessing quite a few of them will take me up on this challenge! (And there are lots of others to choose from too; this is just the newest one.)

Plus, I enjoyed this myself because I learned something new! Normally I use the GIMP to make animations, but for this purpose I found a super-simple browser-based tool that I could recommend to students. After trying a few, I decided that was the most clean and simple while still offering good configuration options.

Further thoughts about Introductions and "making" in general:

If you take a look at how the Introduction activity happens in my classes,
it doesn't come first in the Orientation week; instead, it comes near the end. First, the students DO things: they start a blog, they learn how to create blog posts with images and links, they tell a story and post it in their blog. And then... after all that doing and making, they write up an Introduction blog post, and I write up an Introduction post too in exactly the same way, using the same instructions as the students do.

Personally, I think that makes for a better Introduction than a talking head in a video. By sharing something like this with the students, it lets them know that I have an interest in words and images, and that I like to use digital tools to work with words and images. Most importantly of all: it shows the students that I really enjoy teaching other people how to use those tools! So, I could tell them those things... but why not show them instead?

It's a good writer's maxim: show, don't tell. :-)

And here again is my show-and-tell, this time on an infinite loop: HI THERE!


  1. Love the cat image... and I'm not that into cats! You catch attention and trigger action with cats - either a positive or negative, but they work!

    Your process reminds me of the 'third thing' - shifting the focus from me or them to something else. In F2F spaces, I have students bring something to class that represents or identifies a part of themselves. They can then share these 'third things' as a way to get to know each other. I had forgotten about this and your reflection here reminded me of this way of 'breaking the ice'.

    I've watched several 'instructor videos' in the past few days and realized they mostly sound like talking heads. Your ideas present a different perspective to this 'sit and git' version of introductions. Thanks!

    1. Thanks so much for leaving a comment, Helen! And yes, ha ha, it's so true about the cats not being everybody's thing. I had sort of worried about that when I did the Growth Mindset memes (all cats) last semester... but I found that there were a lot of people in the class who were seriously into cats (which was good), and for the people who weren't, it was a way to prompt them to make their own memes. So students made dog memes, memes with their own pets, and it was great. Some people like the cats more than others, but it was not exactly a negative for anybody, thank goodness — just not as much of a positive.

      And I really like this idea of the THIRD THING... that's a great way to put it! For the first blog post, students do something on their favorite place(s) and, to be honest, I usually enjoy reading those posts more than the traditional Introductions. We can connect through the place more easily than through the personal stuff which is often about families, very personal, very important, but just harder to connect with through a shared experience.

      I was also thinking yesterday about the whole process of getting to know people online. I have lots of friends online I have never met in person, and many of whom I have never seen in video form, never heard their voices. That Hangout the other day was first time I had heard/seen Vanessa, who is someone I interact with weekly or even daily and have done so for years. And it was fun to see/hear of course... but not exactly important if you see what I mean. When I meet someone online, the first thing I ask myself is not "Do they have a video I can watch?" ... no, the first question I ask is: Do they have a blog I can subscribe to? That's how it works for me and even if that is not my students' first inclination, I want to at least introduce them to an online world that really does work that way, where people have presence online that is not a face to face imitation in video form.

  2. I completely agree with your points about the talking head, Laura. I incorporate talking head with slides for my weekly 'mini-lectures' so that students can develop some sort of sense of *me*, but I prefer to leave building my teaching presence using my weekly Collaborate tutorials and posting on the class G+ Community. I would much prefer that my students get a sense of their colleagues in the class rather than *me* as such.

    Also, I've been thinking about the term 'instructor'. In Australian higher education we don't use that term, we use 'teacher', 'lecturer' or 'tutor'. For me 'instructor' is a loaded term (as is 'lecturer'), as for me it implies an 'instructivist approach rather than the social constructivist and connectivist approach that I use.

  3. Oh, Mandy, that is so interesting about titles! For me, the term "instructor" is really great because it is not so much part of the awful tenure hierarchy. I'm not a tenure-track faculty member at my school, just an adjunct, but almost all my students want to call me professor... even though I tell them (repeatedly) that I am not a professor, ask them to call me by my first name, etc. I try to enlighten them about just how the university titles work (they deserve to know!), but it's almost like they don't want to hear it since it goes against the pretend egalitarianism that is such a big part of American higher ed. So I embrace the term instructor because I see that as a professional alternative to professor!

    For us, "teacher" is almost exclusively for K-12. No tutors in higher ed. And lecturer is more a bureaucratic job title; that's technically my title in fact, but since I never ever EVER lecture, I never use that title to describe myself. :-)

    1. Ah, Laura, thanks for explaining, I can see why you prefer 'instructor'! In Australia, 'Professor' is the highest academic rank, so it is rarely used or understood by students. They tend to call all academics 'lecturers' or 'tutors'. 'Tutors' in Australian are usually what in the US you term as 'adjunct' , i.e. casual academics. They are so called because they are employed to take tutorials.

      I don't generally 'lecture' either, (apart from my mini-lectures), and I dislike the title (my academic rank is 'Senior Lecturer' LOL). As I was originally a high school teacher, I feel comfortable identifying as a university teacher, but most of my colleagues would not see themselves as 'teachers', as such.

    2. Oh, I started out as a high school teacher also! I left because I was so frustrated at the lack of autonomy... but in some ways I think I would have enjoyed that even more: if I could have the freedom of a college teacher while working with high school students, that would be pretty ideal I think! :-)

  4. Laura, I like your ideas, especially about the "talking head." However, I find that I really do like some image of the prof in an online course at the beginning - maybe just something to focus on besides text. So it may help just to post a still image of yourself. I think the video can be kind of like a Facetime session as opposed to an email. Not always appropriate, but can add a lot to the experience.

    1. I actually never use images of myself; I use a fox as my avatar (different foxes, but always some kind of fox - it's the main character in Aesop's fables, and I've just always used foxes). I want students to feel like it is perfectly fine not to use any image of themselves online if they prefer. If I use image or do video it implies that I want them to do the same. It's fine if they do, of course, and some students do use personal photo as avatar at their blog. But some students use a cartoon or other avatar image, and it's actually fine with me if students want to use pseudonyms too, esp. since we are blogging in the open. Whatever makes people feel most comfortable is fine with me. Because I already have a pretty overwhelming online presence in my classes anyway (they see the fox a lot!), I have never felt a need to use a personal photo of myself, just as I don't feel a need for your personal photo or your name to write this reply to you! It's online: we make our identities in many ways, and we probably have many identities online. That's part of the adventure IMO.

    2. Yep, I agree that it's really important to allow students to use an avatar or other image, and also to allow them to use a pseudonym. However, something that unsettles me about online learning is that I could walk past one of my students in the street or at a conference and not recognise them, in fact I have done just that! :-( For me that removes some of the humanness not to recognise people.

      And sorry, but I can't resist:

    3. Isn't that video fabulous? I remember when it first came out: I was bombarded, really, BOMBARDED, with people sending me the video, so it was a great excuse to listen to it over and over again.
      It's fun being the fox online!
      And now I think I will have to watch the video again. Oh my gosh, over 500 million views now. Wow!

  5. What I found most interesting about your blog post, Laura, was that I am quite different from you in viewpoint. I always enjoy that. If I were taking your course, I would want a face to go with the name, so I can connect in my brain. It's interesting that you move along teaching with an opposite view and it works. Love learning about different styles.

    1. Hi Kathy! Here's a question I would ask just out of curiosity: do you feel a need to see an author's face before you read a book by them, or the need to see the face of the author of an article you read in a magazine or newspaper? Sometimes of course you will find the author's face on the back cover of a book (even more rarely on the front), and sometimes there might be a picture of a writer with a magazine article or a newspaper article... but often there is no picture of the author, and you read on without wanting/needing a picture of the author's face. I know we're used to the idea in the classroom that a teacher is someone we direct our attention at, seeing their face... but in the online classes I teach (which are writing classes), I like the idea that it's not so much that I am the teacher in front of a room of students but that we are all writers/creators together.

    2. P.S. Kathy, I just clicked through to your webpage and saw that you are an author! There was a cover for your book Waiting for Sparks there (congratulations!!!), and now I am curious if you put a picture of yourself on the back cover as some authors do.


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