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Acting Out: Creating an Effective Teacher Persona for the Online Classroom

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Ask any experienced teacher and they will tell you that an important part of teaching is acting. You need to entertain and engage your students in order to be effective in the classroom because good classes are partially good theatre. But how much does this concept apply to online education, and if it does, what can you do to make your online courses more theatrical, and thus more engaging for your students?

The Fundamental Skills of the Theatre – and the Online Classroom?
Just like teaching, acting is a complex process that requires an understanding of many factors in order to be done successfully. This partial list of acting fundamentals from Delmare Arts outlines many of the considerations that an actor must process when on stage. Here is how the same principles apply to online education and some guidelines and tools that you can use to make theatrical magic happen virtually in your online classroom:

  • "TIMING – ability to move and speak in precise manner at right moment for particular impact; pacing of action" (Delamare Arts.com)
     

    In the Online Classroom – While the often asynchronous nature of the online classroom may seem counter intuitive to the notion of moving at the precise moment, it is not. Understanding when your students are ready to move on or when intervention is required are often difficult to gauge online, but possibly more important than in a F2F classroom. Establishing a culture of interdependence in the classroom and accountability, both on the part of the students and the instructor is critical. This can be accomplished by making your expectations clear and holding both yourself and your students to firm deadlines, particularly in regards to submission deadlines and feedback on those assignments. In addition, creating a classroom Facebook, Google + community, or Twitter group can help your students feel that you are “present” when they need you and allows you to make sure that your "timing" is impeccable.

  • "STYLE– ability to absorb and produce a particular way of presentation; unified form of any play dictated by director’s vision, company agreement; conventions of particular type of play, particular period of theatre" (Delamare Arts.com)
     

    In the Online Classroom – You certainly can teach without style in the virtual world, but teaching on the Web is no excuse for a lack of style. Social media and the versatility of the online medium present the perfect opportunity for you to inject your own style into the classroom. While working within the confines of an LMS may cramp your personal style, linking to a custom-designed course website or blog can allow you to personalize your course. In addition, personalizing a class Facebook page or adding a personal touch through your Tweets, informal Twitter conversations with the class, or media rich assignment feedback can also bring your personal style to your online teaching.

  • "INTERACTION – communication with, and reaction to other actors; identification with relationships within roles with other characters" (Delamare Arts.com)
     

    In the Online Classroom – No doubt that interaction is one of the keys to a successful online experience. It is one of the elements in the Sloan Consortium’s 5 Pillars of Quality Online Education. Fostering an interactive learning environment is no secret either. Some of the best ways to promote interaction in web-based environments are through promoting active learning, establishing a community of learners, assigning authentic tasks, connecting with real-world mentors and clients, and requiring collaboration among students (Marquis, 2011, Designing Interaction in an Online Curriculum).

  • "CHARACTERISATION – ability to create a believable character within a role – through analysis, understanding, discussion, improvisation, belief, faith, living the part" (Delamare Arts.com)
     

    In the Online Classroom – There are several roles that you can take as an online educator. The two most popular are the "Sage on the Stage," and the "Guide by the Side," both of which embody a particular education philosophy (teacher-centered vs. learner-centered), but there are also other roles that you can play as an online educator. One newly emerging possibility is the "Sage by the Side," which accounts for the expert knowledge of the instructor and their ability to facilitate a student-centered learning environment. Whatever model you subscribe to, you should remember that you do not need to hold fast to only that model. There are times when you can shift the focus of your position as instructor – sometimes being a more central figure, sometimes stepping back and allowing the students to run the show, or sometimes directing more firmly without being the center of attention. This also adds depth to your teaching persona in the same way a complex character becomes more interesting as you learn more about him/her. What is most important is that you understand the role that you are assuming and act consistently within that role.

  • "FOCUS – ability to hold attention of actors and audience, and to direct attention of audience to specific persons or areas of stage" (Delamare Arts.com)
     

    In the Online Classroom – Though the potential for digression by the instructor is less in an online environment, it is still a danger. However, what is more dangerous and distracting is the potential for online students to lose their focus and become distracted. As the instructor it is your job to help them maintain their focus on you and the class. Providing firm timelines for assignments and participation in online discussions can help with maintaining student focus. Presenting clear expectations, providing timely feedback, and engaging interactions will make your students more deeply engaged in the class. Using social media such as Twitter and Facebook can also help students develop a personal attachment to the class, you, and their classmates. We all know the feeling of checking our social media accounts to see if a valued contact has responded to us. Strive to reach that level of engagement through quality responses in social media with online learners and they will be well-focused on what you have to teach.

  • "PHYSICAL – versatility – able to adapt postures to different characterisations; move body in variety of ways" (Delamare Arts.com)
     

    In the Online Classroom – While the virtual environment lacks an actual physical presence, the concept of being versatile and utilizing a broad range of communication tools and strategies to adapt to changing student needs fits this characteristic of successful acting nicely. In the presentation of information to students, communication with them, and the acceptable methods for the demonstration of learning, flexibility is essential. Even over the course of a single semester,r new communication tools may emerge that captivate your students’ interest and focus or provide an exciting new way for them to share what they have learned. Be open to embracing these new technologies as they arise and adapt your instruction and course expectations accordingly. Both you and your students will be rewarded by new ways of communicating.

Acting Out
While it may seem at first glance that the acting metaphor would break down in the online classroom, it actually is quite apropos.  The tools and techniques are different from those used on a stage or in a traditional classroom, but the underlying principles are the same. To be successful teaching online you must have great timing, a show off your sense of style, interact with your audience, present a polished and consistent character, maintain the focus of the audience, and use the "physicality" of the virtual world to your fullest advantage. Incorporate these strategies and you will find that your success in the online classroom might earn you an Academy Award – well, maybe not, but don’t rule out a teaching award.

Share your own online classroom acting tips on Twitter @drjwmarquis.

Image: scottchan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net