A rendering of a classroom with students participating in various activities. A teacher presents at a whiteboard while three students look on from a nearby table. The table has another student joining via video conferencing from a tablet. Two other students use a TV to watch a video and take notes on a laptop. The classroom is filled with alternative seating and various activities.

Sustainable Mixed Presence Instruction is Possible

Author: Michael C. Ralph; michael.ralph@multi.studio

The summer is drawing to a close, and many educators are looking ahead to their fall courses. You may be planning how to make your syllabus more approachable or how to help students learn to ask for help. Be proactive about leading with flexibility! One need many will likely continue to encounter will be requests for students to participate remotely. Whether or not your class is scheduled to be in person, we can expect the need for students to be away. These class settings, with on-site and online students learning together synchronously, are called “mixed presence” settings. My research on emergency remote teaching has led me to identify some key ways to make mixed presence more productive for students and more sustainable for instructors.

Learning is a Human Endeavor

Unplanned shifts to online or mixed presence contexts are tough! Teaching in the spring of 2020 was no picnic for anyone, and the uncertainty meant our tools and approaches were underdeveloped. While that is understandable for a once-in-a-generation crisis, it meant many instructors focused on getting the academic content translated to the new setting… and we lost the community-building. However, it IS possible to cultivate a shared sense of community in mixed setting environments. I learned from my conversations with educators that changes in how people interact online (compared to on-site) require a shift in how we think about flexible engagement.

The good news is we can plan for mixed presence classes now. We may not know what will come up this semester, but the wise prediction is that something will come up. Setup the mechanisms for remote participation now so students can have the best experience possible while they are remote. Here are a few things to consider while prepping for a mixed presence class meeting that facilitates social connections alongside educational material:

  • Build ways for remote students to signal their desire to contribute.
    • Text contributions are common online – how will you see them/share them?
    • Avoid requiring video feeds from students or “othering” students who do not enable them.
    • Create a physical space for remote students in the classroom.
      • “Fly on the wall” views that try to see everything are usually not very helpful.
      • How can students see and hear you, the instructor?
        • Is live captioning available?
        • Are slides/handouts shared digitally?
      • How can students see and hear peers during collaboration?
        • If most students are on-site, can one or two groups have “seats” for remote students?
        • If more students are also online, could you host one or more fully digital collaboration groups?
      • Think about ALL the ways we communicate while teaching.
        • Non-verbal communication (like a smile) communicates essential social cues.
          • Could online students see your non-verbal communication (like a nod)?
          • Could you use unique digital non-verbal communication, like emoji reactions (ex: thumbs up 👍 or heart❤️)?

Build Structure, Offer Flexibility, and Be Intentional

A fundamental component of UDL in teaching is the attention devoted to helping students develop as empowered, expert learners. When students learn in a mixed presence environment, they will need clearly communicated structures for where and how they have agency throughout the learning. Even practices we may have stopped consciously thinking about long ago merit revisiting. For example, the act of small group sharing after a discussion will require explicit structure. How will remote students share? Building these structures reduces ambiguity, lowers cognitive load devoted to processing, and increases every student’s sense of place.

The best versions of class structure are closely followed by flexibility. Proactively share your willingness to problem-solve, and have solutions ready to try for common problems:

  • If a remote student wants to share via text instead of voice, could you offer to narrate their entries for the class?
  • If an on-site group is sharing in a place where online students can’t hear, could you have a secondary mic ready to activate closer to the speaker?
  • If a group chose to draw in their response, could you use a phone camera to share video of their work with online students?

In each case, there may be reasons why an option will or will not work. Great online instructors are transparent about their choices and why they make them (paper, podcast). That transparency reduces barriers for students from historically marginalized groups. Link your decision back to your class goals. Be open to feedback. Humanizing pedagogy is about working together to empower  students (paper, podcast), so it’s okay to respond to their needs as they arise.

Keep the Conversation Going

Building learning experiences for mixed presence settings has been a new challenge for many, but we can improve together. What have you learned about teaching students online? What are researchers sharing that you have found valuable? Join the CIDDL community and keep the conversation going!