Principle 1 - Good Practice Encourages Student-Faculty Contact
Chickering and Gamson noted that "frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement.” Professor Jane Algood is teaching online for the first time, and is looking for ways to build a sense of community with her class, made up of graduate students scattered across several states. She is worried that her students will not get to know her, nor she them. So as an initial activity during the first week of the class, she has her students build homepages in their learning management system, and she models this in her own online profile.
In her profile, she not only provides the typical biographical information, but also a picture, a link to her departmental web page, and a short description of her current research (and why this research is important).
She also in the first week uses an audio program to allow her and her students to record and post short audio clips describing why her course is of interest to each of them.
She comments on each student’s homepage, drawing connections between her work and life and those of her students. She also records replies to the student audio posts. During text-based discussions in the first weeks, she is able to draw back on these comments to personalize and individualize remarks made to specific students.
Over the course of the semester, she continues to look for opportunities that allow her and her students to have a voice in a totally online environment. She uses a synchronous web conferencing application for “office hours”, and short video screencasts to answer student questions. In these ways, she becomes very real to her students, and finds that likewise, she is getting to know them at a deeper level than she originally suspected. The students – having heard Jane “speak” – see her as a warm and approachable faculty member, even though they never physically meet her. Her use of web based communication tools has allowed her to bridge the distance between her and her students.
The first of the seven principles is 'encouraging faculty-student contact.' Chickering and Gamson studied decades of educational research and noted that "faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances students' intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans" (p. 1).
In the past decade, the internet has evolved from a destination where one went searching to a social medium where two-way interaction is common. Therefore, faculty and students in online classes now have multiple means for establishing, maintaining, and reinforcing contact and communication. Learning management systems such as Blackboard, Angel, or Moodle provide multiple connection and communication opportunities such as announcements, email, discussion forums, and synchronous voice or text chat. In addition to these applications in the various learning management systems, there are also numerous web applications that provide faculty and students with convenient and easy access to the means by which each can connect and communicate with the other. Examples would include Google applications, wikis, blogs, and Skype.
Arbaugh (2001) noted that the online teaching environment "can in fact reduce the traditional social distance between instructor and student" and that instructor immediacy behaviors did enhance student satisfaction. Arbaugh listed such instructor behaviors as providing personal examples, demonstrating a sense of humor, showing comfort with the online experience, and encouraging expression of ideas and discussion. This is consistent with the need for a "social presence" reported by Stacey and Fountain (2001).
As we have noted before, several studies have reinforced the importance of the faculty’s social presence in an online learning environment (Tu, 2000; Richardson and Swan, 2003; Rovai and Barnum, 2003; Palloff and Pratt, 2007). Whereas face-to-face communication has the most social presence and text on a page has the least, online courses fall in between. It takes conscious thought and action for students to see the faculty (and each other) as “real” people in their online class. Palloff and Pratt note:
There is one important element, however, that sets online distance learning apart from the traditional classroom setting: Key to the learning processes are the interactions among students themselves, the interactions between faculty and students, and the collaboration in learning that results from these interactions (p. 4).
Student-faculty contact does not just occur but instead is the result of active participation and interaction by the faculty with her or his online students. Mupinga, Nora and Yaw (2006) noted that frequent communication with the instructor puts the online students at ease to know they are not missing anything or that they are not alone in cyberspace. Interaction with online instructors has been correlated with increased learning. Students with the highest levels of interaction with the instructor also had the highest levels of learning, according to Frederickson et al. (2000). The perceived presence of faculty in online classes is therefore critical.