"More than Words"

Emily Brienza-Larsen


I realize my title is also the title of a 1990's pop song, in which the band “Extreme” explains that love needs to be shown, not explained; however, it is also relevant to the needs of the online learner. Online students need to be offered more than just words on a screen....


Why did we become English teachers?  Some would say call us gluttons for punishment; we teach courses that very few students want to take. Every once in a while, we are blessed with a student who is passionate about poetry or who yearns to write the next best-loved novel.  However, the majority of our teaching schedules are jam packed with freshman composition courses where we try desperately to encourage students to find their inner voices, to create unique and creative analytical papers after reading a classic novel written hundreds of years ago. It sounds like a daunting task, so why do we continue to do this year after year? Simple...we love it!

I remember being an 18 year old college freshman, and though I enjoyed all my classes, I really felt free to be me in my English courses, where I could openly discuss my opinions on a plethora of human issues: feminism, civil rights, sexuality, addictions, etc. Before I knew it, I had over 40 units in English Literature and I was changing my major to English. Years later, when I became an English teacher, I wondered how I could transfer my passion to my students.


In the live classroom, it was easy.  My enthusiasm for each novel and mode of writing was infectious.  I don't mind saying that I became a “favorite” among the English professors and had a great deal of students who followed me from course to course; they signed up for whatever I taught.  I loved my job and I craved those live course discussions, but things had to change once I became a mother.  In order to avoid childcare issues, I moved from the on-site to the online classroom.  My timing could not have been better; online courses were starting to be developed across the country.  Students needed the flexibility of the virtual classroom without the requirement of scheduled hours each week. 


Fortunately, composition is probably the best class to teach online because the content can easily be distributed without sitting in a live classroom.  Therefore, “online courses increasingly are a primary means of instruction for many first-year composition students” (A Position Statement). Most composition courses have been set up with written lectures, examples, and assignments.  When I first began teaching online, I followed the set course shells and my identity as an educator seemed to shift from teacher to assessor.  I found one thing that was difficult to bring to the virtual classroom: my personality. That same energetic and passionate personality that made me so successful in the live classroom was difficult to show in the virtual one.

Some educational institutions were set on unity, and wanted each course designed exactly the same.  One of the schools I taught at produced identical announcements for every class, in every subject matter.  This did not seem right to me.  After all, if a student walked the halls of a college, he or she would not see the same teacher or the same words on each white board. As one of my favorite authors has told us, “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color” (Angelou). Diversity must be present in a virtual classroom in order to showcase the instructor – to present him or her as a person instead of a machine.


The Conference on College Composition and Communication Committee presents a Position Statement that examines how an online or hybrid course differs from a face to face class; they prompt educators to consider “Which ideas, pedagogies, and practices from the traditional onsite setting can be migrated and adapted to the online environment?” (A Position Statement). The answer – all of them!  Best practices in a face-to-face course can easily be transferred to the virtual one as long as the instructor has a strong presence in his or her virtual classroom.  The traditional classroom offers an educated professor who is creative enough to encourage a love of learning. Each professor’s approach is different, and therefore, each educator should present his or her talents uniquely in the online classroom.

How is this uniqueness displayed in a virtual setting?

For me, it started when some of my employers allowed me to add graphics; I posted clipart images and comic strips where appropriate. For example, when I found a lull in a threaded discussion, I did a quick Google Image search for a graphic that would add to the discussion.


The best way to add an image is to switch to the HTML editing view, once there, I can enter the following code:

<img src=”hereisthewebaddress.com”>

The image needs to already be hosted online so it can insert the URL into the quotation marks.

This use of graphics helped make my virtual classroom more inviting and encouraging, but they did not necessarily help with comprehension.



To help students understand the need to analyze concepts in an academically structured essay, I found myself writing personal emails, class emails, course announcements, and lengthy feedback in each student's gradebook. What I learned is that the majority of students do not like to read; therefore, students do not always (or often) read all those well-intended messages.  I found myself answering the same questions over and over again because students did not take the time to read my written lectures and emails. This scenario continued to frustrate me for a few years: I'd write as passionately as possible, but students would not read my words. I knew that not everyone could be a visual learner, but surely if a student signed up for an online course, he or she would be willing to read! The truth is, even if every student reads my instructions, not every student will understand them.  This realization led me to the use of videos.



I began with a program called Jing; it is a free tool that allows the user (the teacher) to share his or her desktop and add a recorded message.  I recorded my voice, explaining assignments to my students while also showing them the instructions in our online classroom.  This process seemed to help, but I ran into a problem when I found that a handful of students in every class could not open these Jing videos.  I also found that students got some of my personality through the sound of my voice, but they still did not “know” me.


In order for students to be comfortable enough to reach out to their professors, they need to know us. I am not proposing we be friends with our students, but we need to be approachable. We need to be a real presence in our virtual classrooms, in more ways than just responding to emails and discussion posts.


I found the best way to achieve a strong presence in the classroom, that every student could access and learn from, was through videos posted on YouTube.  Each online student has access to the internet, and therefore, YouTube.  I am not incredibly tech savvy, but I found that my Smart-Phone could help me accomplish my goal of integrating myself in the virtual classroom. Recently, in an advanced composition course, I began asking students to submit their own YouTube videos as part of a research paper. I have received many positive reviews from students; they exclaimed that this was the first time they felt connected to their online classmates, proving that “student investment is thought to be fostered when OWCs [Online Writing Courses] create community among teachers and students. Developing community is driven both by the institution and faculty interaction with students” (A Position Statement).


Most of my videos show me sitting in front of my computer screen (it would be ideal if I could get a projector and show my screen enlarged behind me, but this lower-budget option works for now). I prop my phone up on a ladder, and use the delay button to start filming once I am in place.


My students see my face, which makes me more “real” to them, and I physically point out important things to read and understand on the computer screen; I verbally walk students through the assignment/activity. This practice might seem repetitive, since students are able to read the instructions; however, “In the online writing setting, teachers need to build informational redundancy into a Web-based, LMS format. In other words, they often need to provide a syllabus in more than one form or in more than one online space” (A Position Statement).  In a live classroom, a teacher can check student faces for comprehension, but in the virtual world, we don’t have a guarantee that students read, or understood material, so the more ways something is presented, the more likely it will be that we reach each student.


I will admit that sometimes this video process is time consuming.  There have been many days that I spent hours re-working a video because I stumbled over my words or realize I was having a bad hair day; however, the end results far outweigh the few hours I spent per video, and then I have the recording saved to be used in future courses.


Adding recordings to my written lessons, allows me to reach every student: the auditory learners hear my instructions, the visual learners read my posted communications, and the kinesthetic learners can work along with me.

Though most videos I make are course specific, I find that short instructional videos on concepts like the modes of writing, grammatical issues, or citation style can be a beneficial supplement to almost every class I teach; for example:


Transcript Available

As you can see here, I hand-wrote notes for students to read as I explained the citation process to them. I found that this format mirrored many videos being shared on social media sites – this was not a “Corporate America” type of presentation, but something simple made on my kitchen table.  Again, the goal being to make the lesson more personable and the instructor appearing more approachable.  Some might argue that more professionalism is needed, and some instructors might make similar videos while standing in front of a white board, wearing a full suit.  Those differences are what make the college experience so amazing; students learn to work with a multitude of personality types.  Therefore, you should not feel “boxed into” a specific video approach; the important thing is to make a video!

Adding images, color, and videos to your classroom can be beneficial to every learner.  It does not take a tech savvy professor to add this very important personalization to the classroom. 


Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. Rainbow in the Cloud: The Wisdom and Spirit of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 2014. Print.

Motivational Background in Blurred Style. 2015. FreePik. Web. 30 June 2015.

Student Illustration. FreePik. Web. 30 June 2015.

The Conference on College Composition and Communication Committee for Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction. “A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI).”  CCCC. March 2013. Web. 30 June 2015.