Life is based on relationships & communication, (even Henry David Thoreau had relationships with others) so why do some act as if educational instruction should be any different? I have never understood professors/teachers who feel they cannot reveal themselves or socially interact with students. While there are boundary lines, especially the younger the student, there is no denying the line that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Cheesy, yes, but a key to interacting with others in school, sports, religion, politics, or to sum it up this thing we call life.
Think back into our own educational experiences. There are always the exceptions, but for the most part those professors or teachers we remember and learned from the most are probably those who got to know us and allowed us to get to know them a little. They were the instructors who were able to tear down walls and build relationships, who made it okay to share thoughts & ideas, who made everyone feel more comfortable because everyone was comfortable with them. I state all this because the strength of the course community starts with the instructor. An instructor has the ability to develop a sense of course community by providing opportunities for team building and getting to know one another in the design of their course. When students feel community they are more apt to share, probe, and discuss ideas which leads to authentic engagement and deeper learning.
Community in any course starts with student-instructor interaction. It is a building block that is essential to the development of any online learning community. The instructor sets the tone early on for what they find to be acceptable amounts of interaction by how they themselves interact with students. If a student begins a course and doesn't hear from the instructor till the last week of the course (we have all heard the horror stories) they are more than likely not going to interact with fellow students except to perhaps complain about the instructor. The instructor, in this type of situation, has obviously made it clear that they are only providing information and have no vested interest in the student learning or engaging with the material and/or others. These are the type of solitary online courses that give online learning the often dubious distinction of being sub-standard and in adequate.
From the Faculty Focus Article, "Balancing Act" I thought the section on "Encouraging student-to-student interaction in online courses" hits this right on the head. Both student-student & student-content interaction stems from student-instructor interaction. Yes, there are always exceptions with truly motivated students, but even they need the guidance of an involved instructor to get the most out of a given experience. This notion that an online instructor can have a laissez faire attitude is antiquated. Early on in online learning the tools and existing platforms did not always allow for in-depth engagement equivalent to a face to face classroom. Today, this is no longer the case as the tools & platforms available allow for interaction & personalization of online instruction. If we want to teach effectively we must put the same effort in to teaching online as we do in the classroom and the technology today allows us to do just that.
At the end of the day (course) the educational experience (good or bad) truly comes from the combination of social, cognitive, & teaching presence as shown in the "Community of Inquiry". The purpose of an instructor in the 21st century learning environment is to solicit & direct the how's & why's of learning. If students just want the facts they can Google it, as demeaning as it sounds, it is true. As educators we cannot just give the answers, we have to support the journey, whether that is in the arts, the sciences, theology, business, or in technology. This is true in both face to face, and online, as we can no longer acknowledge or accept that there is a difference. We may, as do learners, have a preference based on our learning and/or teaching style, but accepting differences as a standard is not acceptable.
The learning community in your course IS your course. As the instructors we must embrace, foster, focus, encourage, and inspire it. This starts from the very first welcome we send out and is directly related to the presence we put forth through the life of the course. If we do it right, the life of that course will extend far beyond the end of the semester. W.B. Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” While admittedly Utopian, those words should be the premise of every course we design and support the passion with which we teach. Will this course simply fill the pail or will we light a fire? I would suggest that our presence in the course goes a long way towards answering that question.