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Education Technology in Higher Education: Teaching Presence is Still Important

Jim Pounder, Pro Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching), Fiji National University

The advent of the COVID pandemic heralded a shift to online education delivery by higher education institutions worldwide. Many institutions, including my own, Fiji National University, had to make this shift before the groundwork had been fully laid. Nevertheless, generally, universities have successfully made this transition and are now considering just what the ‘new normal’ will be in terms of classroom delivery. The common response is that when the global pandemic has worked its way through, universities will capitalize on what they have learned about online learning and combine this mode of delivery with traditional face-to-face teaching. The term used for this combination mode is blended learning.

From a technological standpoint, central to blended learning are learning management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle. These provide a platform for learning that enable professors to upload PowerPoint presentations and lecture notes, create discussion forums around specific classroom topics, develop and upload assignments and quizzes and privately message individual students. Use of these learning management systems also facilitates what is called learning analytics which focuses on, for example, the relationship between student time spent working online within the learning management system and academic results. Analytics of this type enable universities to provide interventions to help students who may be having difficulty in their studies before these difficulties materialize as programme or course failure.

There is little doubt that learning management systems have much to offer university learning and teaching but there is one significant downside; their use is predicated on the absence of face to face contact between students and their professors. Over the years, much of my own research in the learning and teaching area has been aimed at enhancing the face to face classroom experience and I am one of the originators of the notion of transformational classroom leadership. Transformational classroom leadership modifies the general transformational leadership concept developed for the business world, for a higher education classroom context. Research on transformational classroom leadership has demonstrated that when university professors display these leadership characteristics in the classroom, the results are highly engaged students who participate well in class, students who make extra effort in their studies such as spending time studying outside of the class and students who also rate their professors very highly. Transformational classroom leadership, therefore, indicates a powerful teaching presence, which, in face-to face delivery, has proven to be central to effective student learning.

It might seem that this notion of teaching presence, based as it is on face to face delivery, has little relevance for the on-line mode, but nothing could be further from the truth. Recent research studies focusing on blended and on-line learning continually reinforce the need for teaching presence to be felt and experienced by students who, certainly in the case of fully on-line learning, may never actually meet their professors ‘in the flesh’ so to speak. What’s more, a number of studies of virtual learning indicate that this teaching presence should be transformational in nature. The notion of the professor being a ‘guide on the side’ is not born out in the relevant research. On the contrary, teaching presence is at the core of student learning in an online environment.

The challenge now for universities and researchers on the subject such as myself, is to modify the notion of transformational classroom leadership to an online environment. This would then mean that transformational teaching presence could be measured and, as a result, form the basis of professional development programmes for professors engaged in online and blended learning.

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