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Teacher agency in building social presence: Time-suck or time-hack?

In my department, many of the researchers engage in design research. As a result, when we are designing something new, we often start with some design constraints, or "design rules, relations, conventions, and natural laws to be maintained" in creating the product (Gross, 1985). In the early days of my teaching, my design constraints mostly focused on maximising student learning through various pedagogical strategies. Then, as I became a more experienced teacher, I was expected to be more time-efficient in my teaching. I came to resent the need for efficiency both because I felt it compromised the quality of my teaching, and also because it represented a wider trend in higher education in England (towards a fast-paced, metric-oriented neoliberal university) which I was uncomfortable with.


When I started teaching in Sweden, I was heartened by the difference in teaching environment. There seemed to be a much slower pace, with an emphasis on quality over efficiency. This might just be the culture of my department, or it might be a wider trend - or perhaps a mix of the two. In any case, I came to find that, although the drive for efficiency wasn't as overpowering as in England, it was still ever-present.


At the same time, I started experiencing a confusing kind of curiosity. Without the strong external pressure to be more efficient, I started wondering, what actually is the relationship between time invested by teachers and student learning? More specifically, I began to wonder about whether certain time-consuming activities genuinely enhanced student learning. For example, what value do team-teaching and detailed feedback on summative assessments have on student learning? If only one teacher is present, how does that affect student learning? If less detailed feedback is given on summative assessments, do students learn less?


Of course, the answers to these are dependent on context, including on the material being taught, student demographics, and the learning environment. Nonetheless, they are important to reflect upon, because if time can be saved (without compromising student learning), then that time can be spent on research, further course development, professional development, and recovery (because teaching can be draining!).


When I started reflecting on these questions independently, I began thinking about my design constraints differently. Instead of only maximising student learning, I want to maximise student learning in more time-efficient ways. I never want to compromise student learning if I can avoid it. However, if there are two pedagogical strategies that result in the same learning, but one requires considerably more time than the other, it makes sense to choose the more time-efficient one.

Garrison et al.'s (2000) community of inquiry framework.

However, there has been another fundamental shift that has affected my teaching practice. Like many of my colleagues around the world, all of my teaching is currently delivered online. As such, my new design constraints are being tested out under new conditions.


In their work on communities of inquiry in online learning, Garrison et al. (2000) proposed that there are three essential elements in online learning: social presence, cognitive presence , and teaching presence. Social presence is manifested through affective expression and open communication which helps generate group cohesion. Cognitive presence refers to "the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse in a critical community of inquiry” (Garrison et al., 2001). Teaching presence refers to the curation and facilitation of processes to support learning. The model highlights what Vaughan et al. (2013) call a "seemingly paradoxical but essential connection between cognitive independence and social interdependence."


When I learned about this model, it felt immediately intuitive because it reflected my experiences delivering online courses. Most online courses I have taught on have had a strong cognitive presence (through in-built reflective activities and assignments), and a strong teaching presence (through considered curricular design and facilitation). However, I have taught in online courses in which social presence was considered only in the most superficial way, and I have taught in courses where social presence was a key consideration in its design. The difference in the learning culture between these was palpable.


In Garrison et al.'s (2000) model, the place in which teachers play a role in creating social presence is through setting the climate. When considering my new design constraints in this context, my reaction to this was twofold. First, climate setting can be a time-consuming activity. When I think of climate setting, I immediately think of sending one-to-one emails and offering personalised feedback (Lowenthal & Dunlap, 2018), modelling verbal immediacy behaviours (such as using students' names, using humour) (Richardson et al., 2009), having low student-to-teacher ratios (Rovai, 2000), and so on.


Second, climate setting is also draining emotionally. Emotional labour in university lecturers has been found to be significantly higher than in other occupations, even ones that might be thought to be especially taxing, like mental health nursing (Berry & Cassidy, 2013). Emotional labour can come in the form of demonstrating "emotions such as empathy, concern and friendliness; suppressing their emotions during text-based interpersonal communication; and expressing [...] emotions through word tone and vocal cues" (Nyanjom & Naylor, 2020). In my area of work, sustainability science, the burden of emotional labour on teachers can be especially high given that eco-anxiety is rife among teachers and students alike (Pihkala, 2020).


This reflection caused me to revisit my earlier reservations about the drive for time efficiency in teaching. Perhaps the relationship between student learning and time efficiency isn't as complex as I was hoping. Perhaps it is just a simple inverse relationship.


However, this rather bleak conclusion I arrived at was swiftly upended as I read more about Garrison et al.'s (2000) model. In particular, when reading Flock's (2020) article about designing communities of inquiry in online courses, I was struck by the number of instructional activities suggested for increasing social presence that did not require substantial time or emotional labour. For example, Flock (2020) suggests that instructors should explicitly introduce students to the importance of student-to-student interaction (Stewart, 2017), make participation in discussion a significant part of course grades, require students to respond to other students' discussion posts, and create areas where students can communicate with each other (Richardson et al., 2009).


Furthermore, some of the suggestions for increasing social presence that Flock (2020) highlighted might actually reduce the amount of teacher time required. For example, she suggests that teachers "refrain from from being overly 'present' in online discussions" (Richardson et al., 2009), and notes that teachers should "be aware that posting instructor ideas too soon can stop student discussion" (Watson et al., 2017).


I now realise that my reservations about the drive for time efficiency in teaching was rooted in my preconceptions about teacher agency. Much of what happens in a classroom (in-person or virtual) is out of the control of the teacher. I find this an uncomfortable fact. As a classic black-and-white thinker, I would prefer to assume total control, or put the onus for learning squarely on students. However, the reality is that both students and teachers have agency and a role to play in student learning, and it is the interplay between independent exploration and competent guidance that enable it.

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© 2019 by REBECCA LAYCOCK PEDERSEN.