Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Instructor Immediacy is at The Heart of Online Instruction

There should be no doubt that students are attracted to teachers that demonstrate a warm and inviting communication demeanor as they strive to create an environment that is conducive to learning.  In fact, there is a mounting body of evidence that supports the premise that affirmative communication behaviors exhibited by instructors are central to successful learning outcomes.  Previous studies widely document how enhanced communication between instructors and students can serve to promote affective and cognitive learning in a variety of instructional environments.  A key instructional competency that has gained increasing attention over the past five decades is that of immediacy.  Immediacy, as it was first examined by Albert Mehrabian (1968) through his work in the field of communication theory, comprises those “behaviors which reduce physical and psychological distance between interactants” (p. 43).  While the face-to-face experience of a conventional on-ground classroom might very well provide increased opportunities to exhibit immediacy through direct presence with students, dedicated teachers in online learning environment can also employ tactics to cause immediacy within the virtual classroom.  The purpose of this paper will be to connect some of the findings from previous investigations pertaining to instructor immediacy with practical techniques and strategies intended to yield more immediate behavior within the online learning experience. 
Distance Learning Communication
This review begins with the assumption that educators universally recognize that a deeper level of knowledge can be constructed through learner inquiry (as compared to rote memorization), and that effective communication can have a significant impact on the success of any learning experience.  When communication between students and their teacher is negligible, the potential for gain realized from a meaningful exchange is therefore compromised.  To further facilitate learning inquiry, instructors need to be widely available to answer questions and also to orchestrate greater discourse between participants within the learning community.  While the importance of communication in the classroom might be clearly apparent, despite the mode of delivery (face to face, online or hybrid), the regularly alleged confines of communication indicative of geographically separated participants has been a primary concern since the earlier generations of distance education. 
Correspondence courses dating back to the 1800’s did allow for interaction between learners and instructors, albeit with a significant delay in the exchange of messages.  Many years later, the succeeding generation of videoconferencing clearly made it possible for learners and instructors to intermingle in real-time, while also facilitating increased learner to learner interaction between multiple sites.  Regretfully, the expense of the required equipment very well might have made this means of distance education too costly for mainstream use.  Fortunately, the emergence of the Internet made it possible for an even higher degree of interaction within a more cost-effective learning environment.
The advent of online learning provided an avenue that ultimately diminished previous concerns of the timeliness of contact, and served to establish opportunities for greater interaction and collaboration.  In terms of the newly emerging interaction via Internet, teachers could now interface with the individual student (or the class as a whole) more effectively compared to the past endeavors, when distance learning technologies mainly consisted of correspondence, radio, or television.  This evolution has not only been advanced by the innumerable opportunities made available through the developing online environment, but also by the belief that high levels of interaction (in particular those which promote social engagement) can have positive effects on the overall learning experience.

The Instructional Immediacy Construct
The construct of immediacy was defined by Mehrabian (1967) as an affective expression of emotional attachment, feelings of liking and the degree of perceived physical and/or psychological closeness between people.  Immediacy refers to communication behaviors based on the principle that individuals tend to approach people or situations that they like, and avoid people or situations they dislike.  In a subsequent writing, Mehrabian (1971) expanded on this premise by adding:
In response to a remark that appeals to us, we may 'approach' by asking questions or leaning forward.  In response to discussion we find uninteresting or objectionable, we may 'avoid' by remaining silent and leaning back, farther away from the speaker...Immediacy behaviors involve an increase in the sensory stimulation between two persons.  When we stand close to someone or talk to him [sic] a great deal more stimulation and information are exchanged than if we were to stand farther away or remain silent (pp. 2-4).

Ensuing studies in the academic field determined that instructors can convey immediacy verbally, or non-verbally.  Verbal components of the construct include addressing students by name, offering personal examples, interjecting humor, asking questions, initiating conversations with students, praising student work, encouraging student opinions, and inclusiveness suggested by word choice such as the use of “we” instead of “I’ or “you” (Gorham, 1988).  Grammatical and lexical measures that indicate affection, inclusion, and involvement also reflect verbal immediacy (Wiener & Mehrabian, 1968).  

Nonverbal components include physical cues such as eye contact, gestures, vocal and facial expressiveness, body positioning, movement, and proximity (Andersen, 1979).   Needless to say, in the online classroom environment where nonverbal cues might be relatively absent, the construct is not as forthright or necessarily easy to exhibit.

Generally viewed as a faculty member’s affability with their students, behaviors of immediacy are those that enhance closeness to, and interaction with, others because they reduce psychological and or physical distance between communicators, therefore increasing the overall sensory stimulation and arousal, and also promoting liking (Mehrabian, 1971).  Mehrabian’s immediacy theory runs parallel to that of Moore’s (1989) theory of transactional distance, as well as Holmberg’s (1986) theory of guided didactic conversation in that all three speak to the significance of communication and interaction when learning at a distance.  Moore’s (1989) theory examined the concept of how transactional distance can result in a sense of psychological separation due to a lack of communication between a geographically separated instructor and student.  Holmberg’s (1986) theory of guided didactic conversation focused on the role of interaction between the teacher and students in distance learning, emphasizing the need for dialogue between the participants to bring about strong rapport, a feeling of belonging, and a sense of empathy.  But what practical means do online teachers have at their disposal to create relationships based on behaviors of immediacy which, in turn, will heighten learning outcomes?

         Since immediacy in online delivery infers the presence of a dynamic communication process between remotely located participants, shouldn’t a planned and concerted effort for making the communication process within the online classroom even more affective result in elevated learning and teaching effectiveness and satisfaction?  In response, the task of understanding the various means by which verbal and non-verbal expression can successfully leverage the feeling of diminished distances between online participants presents both challenges and prospects for the online practitioner.

Instructional Immediacy in the Online Classroom
Interaction is at the heart of the learning experience and is widely cited as a defining characteristic of successful learning in both traditional and the online learning environments (Picciano, 2002; Swan, 2002; Wanstreet, 2006).  However, as Eastmond (1995) asserted, computer-mediated communication is not inherently interactive.  Rather, it is dependent on factors including the frequency, timeliness, and nature of the messages that are posted.  With this in mind, instructional immediacy within the online classroom was described by Baker and Woods (2004) to be the “pedagogical and administrative actions an instructor takes throughout an online course to increase the students’ sense of human interaction, instructor presence, caring, and connectedness” (p.135).  Such a focus requires online instructors to distinguish between the mere presence of communication to a more genuine interpersonal and contextual interaction as they seek to improve the online educational experience.  

There are a variety of practical approaches for doing so, and the list of such opportunities will only expand as technology in the online classroom continues to advance.  With the aforementioned caveats noted, a list of practical immediacy-producing instructional strategies can be advanced toward what has been found to influence the online learning process, inclusive of the experiences of this author. 

 Initiate and maintain on-going contact – be proactive in communication with students through weekly group announcements, personal emails, and individual contact (as warranted) as well as demonstrating a high presence in the online classroom.  Establish contact with each enrolled student during the first days of the term, whether it be via in-course email or external personal email.  Highlight a sincere personal interest in the learner’s success and emphasize an unfettered availability for student contact. 
·      Promptly respond to student needs throughout the term – set a personal goal for achieving a communication response time of not less than 8 hours.  Keep track of student progress, redirect off-task students, and gently remind students of missed tasks.
·      Facilitate live sessions - extend opportunities for direct communication with students through synchronous meetings using seminars, instant messaging, Web meeting applications, or phone.
·      Adapt communication to various learning styles - Create technology-enhanced snippets that guide students through the learning process, detailing what is expected, and using available media to provide the feeling of direct instruction and a collective ownership of the course.
o   Personalized weekly announcements prior to the beginning of the week
o   Media clips to engage student attention
o   Individualized assignment feedback
o   Optional voice over IP meetings
·      Create channels for personalization - Provide social-emotional cues by extending routine messages that represent personality and self-image. Provide individualized feedback on all student work.
·      Generate impetus through communication -  Demonstrate a high presence through continuous and regular opportunities for interaction (such as in discussion activity)
o   Always address students by name
o   Demonstrate a personal interest in each student
o   Ask a lot of questions
o   Use personal examples and encourage learners to share their own experiences
o   Praise student work
o   Offer constructive criticism
o   Inspire students to express their own relevant opinions

In short, the more that an instructor can do to lend a caring and supportive approach to the online classroom, the more that learner will profit from an online learning experience.  Such interactions are not all that challenging to construct, but faculty must take the initiative for doing so. While it may seem that the strides for creating a relationally rich learning environment might fall on the instructor, one would be remiss to overlook the investment from the entire course-level learning community, or as Arbaugh (2001) noted,

The online learning environment can in fact reduce the traditional social distance between instructor and student…because the online environment may be more dependent upon the collective effort of all class participants rather than primarily the instructor to assure a successful course… (p. 48).

A significant body of evidence has documented that positive communication behaviors exhibited by faculty at all levels of instruction are fundamental to the learning process, and serves to encourage affective and cognitive development in a variety of instructional settings.  Previous investigations into the area of instructional communication have supported the long-held premise that verbal and nonverbal messages conveyed by instructors have the potential to influence student learning outcomes.  Links between teacher immediacy, student motivation, and affective learning have been well documented.  Instructional immediacy in the online classroom is the extent to which teachers are able to project affability and congeniality through their communication.  But doing so requires a planned and concerted effort, a little empathy, and a sincere desire to make online learning the fruitful experience that we ourselves would desire it to be.  

Andersen, J. F. (1979). Teacher immediacy as a predictor of teaching effectiveness. Communication Yearbook, 3, 543-559.
Arbaugh, J.B. (2001). How Instructor Immediacy Behaviors Affect Student Satisfaction and Learning in Web-Based Courses. Business Communication Quarterly, 64(4): 42-54. doi:10.1177/108056990106400405.
Baker, J., & Woods, R. H. (2004). Immediacy, cohesiveness, and the online classroom. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(2), 133-151.
Eastmond, D.V. (1995). Alone but together: Adult distance study through computer conferencing. Hampton Press:New Jersey.
Gorham, J. (1988). The relationship between verbal teacher immediacy behavior and student learning. Communication Education. 37, 40-53.
Holmberg, B. (1986). Growth and structure of distance education. London: Croom Helm.
Mehrabian, A. (1967). Attitudes inferred from non-immediacy of verbal communications. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 6, 294-295.
Mehrabian, A. (1968). Inference of attitudes from the posture, orientation, and distance of a communicator. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 32, 296-308.
Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Moore, M.G. (1989). Editorial: Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.
Picciano, A. G. (2002). Beyond student perceptions: Issues of interaction, presence, and performance in an online course. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 6(1), 21- 40.
Swan, K. (2002). Building learning communities in online courses: The importance of interaction. Education, Communications, & Information, 2(1), 23-49.
Wanstreet, C. E. (2006). Interactions in online learning environments. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 7(4), 399-411.
Wiener, M., & Mehrabian, A. (1968). Language within language: Immediacy, a channel in verbal communication. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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