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Presence and Integrity in Online Learning

A Q&A with Gardner Campbell

At their best, synchronous online courses are shared experiences, and students are fully present to boost each other's learning. But in the virtual world it takes more than webcams to get us there. Here, Gardner Campbell, an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and a career-long expert and researcher in learning science, explains his concept of integrity in online learning and how it can make your students true learning colleagues.

Gardner Campbell video still

Mary Grush: Can you tell me why the idea of integrity is so pervasive now, in all your interactions with students and in your online teaching practice?

Gardner Campbell: Sure. I'll start with the story of how I first realized that integrity might be something that is more basic, more elemental, more foundational than I had ever quite understood — then I'll show you how I try to apply this larger understanding of integrity now in my practice as a teacher of fully online classes.

I came to VCU as a vice provost for learning innovation and student success back in 2013. As it happened, we were right in the middle of preparation for our regional accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools-Commission on Colleges to consider reaffirmation of our accreditation. This is a 10-year cycle for us as it is for most colleges and universities in the U.S. It's a process in which colleges and universities self-organize to do a kind of peer review for each other that will have credibility.

As I parachuted into VCU in the midst of all of this, for the first time in my career I had to look very carefully at accrediting documents, in areas including curriculum, student life, graduation, retention, and more. I was now a key member of VCU's team preparing for a SACS-COC site visit during which committees from peer institutions would gather information and conduct interviews at every level of our administration, faculty, and students.

As I began to study the principles of accreditation in the SACS-COC handbook, I was intrigued and rather delighted to note that the very first principle of accreditation — section one, paragraph one — was integrity.

And I thought, well, isn't that interesting? That's the bedrock. That's the foundation. It's integrity.

That's the bedrock. That's the foundation. It's integrity.

Mary Grush: What did SACS-COC have to say about integrity?

Campbell: It's not a terribly long description, but it's very powerful. I was working from the SACS-COC 2012 version, which defines integrity as "a relationship in which all parties agree to deal honestly and openly with their constituencies and with one another." The definition is similar in the most recent documents. Honestly and openly are great adverbs. No lies and no hiding. For me, it's the basic question of: Are you what you say you are?

When you put it that way, you can see that for people at all levels of the institution, integrity is foundational in every aspect of our interactions with each other.

It is also foundational when an institution is saying that it serves a greater good and is doing everything in its power to represent itself honestly, fairly, and effectively — not just in terms of the brand or of the bottom line (even though those things are important in other ways), but in terms of whether you are what you say you are.

That principle of integrity and the way it was articulated in the accreditation process stuck with me, even long after I had left senior leadership.

That principle of integrity and the way it was articulated in the accreditation process stuck with me, even long after I had left senior leadership.

Grush: Later, did you bring that idea of integrity to the teaching and learning process as well?

Campbell: Yes, I soon began thinking about it in terms of teaching and learning.

There was one aspect of this that I was familiar with, which is the aspect of integrity that says don't cheat. Make sure that the work you hand in is your own. Learn how to cite others properly. That all comes under the broad heading of academic integrity.

And, of course, we've heard a lot about issues surrounding academic integrity in the age of generative artificial intelligence and all the other things you read about in the headlines.

Grush: Please tell me your thinking goes well beyond those headlines, into the bedrock of effective teaching and learning!

Campbell: Of course. But it's important to acknowledge that those issues involving cheating and various forms of academic dishonesty are still with us, and as some would say, are being fostered in certain cases by companies advertising "study help" and the like.

But I also know there is already a lot of press coverage of those issues. So, okay, Mary, I'll talk a bit more here about the differences the idea of integrity can make in how we interact with students and design our classes for the best learning experience.

When I began teaching fully online consistently, which was during the pandemic lockdown in the spring of 2020, it was clear to me from what I was reading and even just from the situation around us, that there were aspects of fully online learning that brought out this idea of integrity in very basic ways.

As a simple example, if a you are a student logged on to Zoom to be in class, are you really there? Or are you distracted by things in your environment or simply mentally tuned out? Perhaps worse yet, did somebody else log in to the Zoom meeting on your behalf so that you are giving the class the illusion of your attendance?

Or, could being quiet on the call otherwise mean that you are really immersed in the meeting, but simply shy?

So I considered: How can students be truly present with peers in the Zoom? How do they become learning colleagues? It takes more than technology.

Grush: Getting back to what you were referring to early in our conversation, what are some of the ways you are trying to incorporate the idea of integrity in your classes and in interactions with students, to promote a better learning experience? It sounds like supporting the students to become present, or to learn to become present is part of this…

Campbell: Yes, it is. I should say that my online teaching is synchronous. I think that's very important. There are other ways to do it, but this is important to me because I want us to be present with each other in the moment. And I want that moment to have integrity as a learning experience.

Grush: How can a learning moment have integrity?

Campbell: It comes down to a developmental aspect of learning that is often neglected: Learning is not simply information delivery. It's not just a transaction. It shouldn't be "Okay, I'm here; load me up." Instead, as a student and class member, you are building your own capacity to learn and engaging with others so they also build their capacities to learn. We used to call this "learning how to learn," but I think it's even bigger than that. And the integrity of the learning moment is how, through the presence of the class — all present with each other — every student may build on their own capacity to learn.

The integrity of the learning moment is how, through the presence of the class — all present with each other — every student may build on their own capacity to learn.

So, again, I think that all students being in the meeting at the same time is very important. And together we work toward true presence, and maybe share the integrity of the moment.

Grush: Can you tell us more about your personal experience trying to integrate the idea of integrity into your own teaching practice?

Campbell: There's a lot of experimentation these days in learning space design that is focused on getting more information-rich technologies into a particular space.

But for me, the learning space design that's always been the most compelling is the one that imagines this as a kind of a theatrical space.

You're in a classroom, but it's as if you're making a movie together, or you're in a play or a drama of some kind together. Since online learning is in a virtual space (at least, in a synchronous meeting), you can make the entire experience theatrical, like a play or movie or radio drama.

Ask: How can you structure a learning space, physical or virtual, to bring an invitation to presence, to make the class an experience that students want to try to remember — reminding themselves of not only the information presented, but of aspects of the experience? Again, it's part of how they grow their capacity to learn.

Ask: How can you structure a learning space, physical or virtual, to bring an invitation to presence, to make the class an experience that students want to try to remember?

Grush: It seems like for teachers, there could be a ton of techniques and familiar cues to create that theatrical environment for a class.

Campbell: That's the case. There should be something that starts off the action. And something that leaves students wanting more at the end.

To make it more of a theatrical experience, I do things like having music at the beginning of the class.

I'll play some kind of thematically relevant song for whatever we are doing that day, and start it maybe a couple minutes before the class is actually scheduled to begin. Onscreen is a title slide designed to evoke the day's learning. I think hard about that slide.

I begin clicking on the little Admit button, letting people enter the virtual space, and then within the next three or four minutes, depending on the length of the song, everybody's in, hopefully. And at that point we've kind of set the tone.

Grush: It sounds like you are almost literally setting the stage; drawing the students in — without overtly saying so, you are telling them it is alright to lose their self-consciousness and forget, for a time, the problems of their everyday lives… to focus and be more fully connected to the learning process and to experience that "integrity of the moment" you talk about.

Campbell: Exactly! There are probably hundreds of small details I could cite that contribute to that theater. I try to remain mindful of these possibilities in my preparation as well as during the class session when new possibilities may emerge.

I try to get students to think of the chat in a Zoom online meeting as not just a kind of a back channel, which it is, but a place where they can be present to each other, with everything aimed at the integrity of the experience. And so, after the music has ended and we're gathered and ready, I ask them to go to the chat and wish each other a good morning or a good afternoon, depending on the time. It's a subtle way of saying, "We're here and we're in this together." And it means that they are wishing each other well in a way that begins to amplify and make visible their presence in this meeting. Soon, we are all engaging in the class the way we say we are. It's the idea of integrity in the teaching and learning process.

And then off we go into the day's content… The idea is to try to build an arc into the experience of the meeting so that there is some shape to it, and it's not just one thing after another.

Grush: Then what about the end of the class? There must be ways you incorporate the theatrical idea in closing… not only for the day, but for the entire semester.

Campbell: Yes, of course. This does extend all the way from the integrity of the moment to the integrity of the whole course.

I will always end a class meeting by recapping a little bit of what we've learned that day, and then telling them that I hope the rest of their day goes well and I look forward to seeing them again on whatever the next meeting day is going to be. And I ask them to take care of themselves.

All these little rituals give the experience integrity. We are there. We are who we say we are.

All these little rituals give the experience integrity. We are there. We are who we say we are.

Grush: Then what about the actual end of the semester?

Campbell: Ah! The digital gift day! I originally came to this particular ritual at the end of the classes when were fully online because of the lockdown, in the spring of 2020.

We were all living in a lot of uncertainty. It was a frightening time. It was a time when we had seen a major disruption in the ordinary course of things in our classroom meetings.

I thought that there had to be a way for us to celebrate and mark the conclusion of our time together as a class. I thought about the course of study we'd completed as having its own kind of integrity as an experience. We all went on this journey together. And we made it to this moment, this time when we disembark from the good ship Zoom and go forward in our lives.

So to try to make the moment as memorable as possible, I put together a kind of a highlights reel, as we used to call them, a little video that I would be able to share with the class that would trace the whole experience that we had over the past 15 weeks.

I wanted this farewell to include more than just my gift to them. I wanted the students to be involved as well. So I kind of rolled it all together into this idea of a digital gift day. The last day of class, we would all come together for our last meeting, and during that meeting, we would have a kind of online party. And we would all bring presents. What would the presents be? Each of the students would bring what I called a digital gift that would be a way of saying "Thank you, and fare thee well." Not to me, though they could do that if they liked. But the primary focus was for them to say thank you to their classmates. They have been there, truly present, for you. This again gets back to the idea of integrity.

The students responded in amazing ways. Many of them would bring their pets, lots of cats, and so there were many comments in the chat that started off with "Aww." A few dogs, the occasional guinea pig, stuffed animals, posters, action figures… Sometimes people would write little poems. Then at the end of it all, I would play the highlights reel, the little digital gift video I had made — the movie of our time together that says, "Look how far we've come." I want them to know that I may have been the director, but I'm not the play, and they're not simply the audience. We created this semester-long experience by being together, present to each other.

These are just a few of the ways I've tried to amplify a sense of presence, to be where and who we say we are, and make integrity central to what I try to do in my work online in teaching and learning.

[Editor's note: Images courtesy Gardner Campbell. You can view a recent end-of-semester movie posted at Dr. Campbell's blog site.]

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