Maintaining Presence in an Online Classroom

Jeremy Pilarsky, Kaplan University Composition Professor

The term presence sometimes appears in teacher observations and evaluations when assessing a classroom environment. Presence, in pedagogy, means the instructor projects an aura conducive to learning in the classroom.  Truthfully, an evaluator noticing strong instructor presence can be one of the most complimentary attributes adorning the comments section.  Whether the instructor injects singular wit in a lecture or silences a room with penetrating insight, students feel more invested in a class triggering a positive emotional response even if the material departs from their own philosophies.   Yet, presently, online instructors, unlike their face-to-face, student-to-student colleagues, have a harder time creating and maintaining the same presence. Still, despite the tactile limitations imposed on cyber-educators, they can create a comparable atmosphere promoting interactive learning by attending professional development activities, sharing ideas with colleagues, and using outside computer programs to personalize their classrooms.

E-instructors should take advantage of professional development activities offered both in and outside their institutions.  At Kaplan University, instructors practice pedagogical concepts in CTL trainings.  Also, the university offers a strong community of educators willing to share ideas with other faculty.  Active participation in professional development helps faculty hone their online teaching abilities.  According to Jason Neben (2014), “Since faculty are the direct connection to students, it is crucial to understand their perceptions when considering any major change to teaching and learning processes” (p.43). Complying with the professional development requirements from faculty expectations help instructors transition from a moderator role into an active educator, implementing new ideas from external scholarship and their colleagues’ presentations.

Insight from other faculty inspires new approaches to the online classroom.  For example, two recent, notable presentations discussed peer reviews and digital technology in the classroom.  The peer review group provided tips on easing stress students’ experience when sharing drafts.  Students at Kaplan, many who are first-generation college students, feel unaccustomed to issuing critical feedback on each others’ essays.   The responses often amount to praise, and any criticism issued involves APA formatting or grammatical errors.  Although APA and grammar represent important parts in many other courses, for composition instructors the goal is for students to attempt holistic feedback, focusing on the issues students write about rather than the diction and punctuation of the prose.  The instructors in this presentation suggested adding to the expectations by communicating to students specific examples of peer- reviewed comments and posting them in Doc Sharing or in the discussion board.

Kaplan courses make available examples students can view in the Unit Overviews; however, having a personalized example from their professor makes an impression on students, signifying to them that their instructor takes an interest in helping students expand their conceptions, so they can get a better understanding of the assignment.  This gesture resembles the instructor providing extra help in a real class, projecting a presence just as authentic as one found in a traditional ground course.  In addition to peer review or handout examples, faculty can upload videos highlighting key takeaways from each lesson.

A second presentation from Kaplan’s Educators’ Exchange proposed using videos created using Jing, Prezi, PowerDirector, Audacity, or Camstudio as lesson supplements.  Faculty have the ability to upload video from their hard drives or embed code from their own websites.  Videos combine sound with images, allowing students to see and hear their professors in digitized action.  Students who can actually see and hear their professors have a better chance of bridging the asynchronous gap.  Using these technologies, professors may be able to promote an environment of discovery, inspiring critical thinking in the discussions and chats.  Like online professor Frederick A. Ricci (2013) writes, “The ideal online classes provide challenging experiences through assignments and exercises, which should create new visions.  Assisting students to develop critical thinking skills presents them with the desire to go beyond the content knowledge of their online courses” (p.1).   Considering Ricci’s philosophy, the online professor’s presence can affect the success students have transitioning through the lessons, mastering the material, and retaining skills used in other classes and in real life.

Surely, the ideas discussed here overlook other methods instructors can attempt emanating an aura relevant to the academic ambiance expected in a college course.  Other ideas can be found through the various professional development activities offered at Kaplan University.   Educator Exchanges and e-conferences represent some of the most helpful.  With online education expanding in attendance, it is important that instructors inject their own personalities, creativity, and insight into their courses.  By sharing ideas and attending conferences, faculty can expand upon their courses, enriching them with compelling lessons and encouraging critical thinking among their students.   The extra effort faculty put in their courses goes a long way in creating presence.


Online Education



Neben, J. (2014). Attributes and barriers impacting diffusion of online courses at the institutional level: Considering faculty perceptions.  Distance Learning, 11(1), 41-50.  Retrieved from

Ricci, F.A. (2013).  Encouraging critical thinking in distance learning: Ensuring challenging intellectual programs.  Distance Learning, 10 (1), 1-15.  Available from




Capstone—Celebrating Creative Kaplan University Alter Egos

Barbara c.g. Green, MA & MS, Kaplan University Assistant Chair of Composition

For most academics, writing usually focuses on grading papers and working to get academically published.  Clearly, tasks that are both noble and key towards excelling professionally, but sometimes academic folks long to step out of the routine and assume an exciting creative alter ego as writer, poet, or photographer to blow off some steam or infuse the day-to-day with a little pizzazz.  For Kaplan faculty and staff, one such opportunity to wax creative lies just a few clicks of the mouse and keyboard away with Capstone, Kaplan’s literary journal.

The Origin Story

No, no one was bitten by a radioactive spider, nor is there a tale of woe involving an avenging billionaire who lost his parents as a child.  Instead, Capstone came to fruition after a few members from the Composition Department sat around chatting casually with a former dean between meetings and workshops back in late 2010.  From there, interest grew in creating a journal, folks started wanting to get involved, and the idea grew like a creative symbiote that took on a life of its own.   Soon, a naming contest yielded the moniker “Capstone.”  Not long after, the Capstone insignia was designed, and the first call for submissions followed.

In the fall of 2012, the first e-dition of Capstone made its debut to a small but exceedingly excited group of Kaplan eyes.  As Capstone gained contributors and confidence, it gained more momentum and followers.

Literary journals

Capstone Now

 Having just wrapped its eighth call for submissions, Capstone’s 2016 Summer Issue will be out at the beginning of August.  Capstone has grown from its humble beginnings and now accepts fiction, flash fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and photography.  It also boasts a creative league of academics from various departments in the School of Gen Ed who work tirelessly as a well-oiled machine to manage submissions from Kaplan departments and areas far and wide in order to put each issue together.  Its 2016 Winter Issue, a poetry and photography special issue, received many adoring fans for its interactive viewing gallery (which should be downloaded for optimal viewing).

A Creative Alliance

And, getting published in Capstone isn’t the end for KU creatives.  This year marks the fifth year of the Virtual Literary Festival (August 23-24) in which the super spotlight is placed on those published in 2016’s winter and summer issues via readings and discussions of their fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and photography chosen to grace the pages of the Capstone. In addition to featuring Capstone talent, the Festival will also offer mini workshops on various topics as well as mini literature-themed presentations on the topic of “monsters and madmen” from literature. Kaplan University Literary Festival

For more information on Capstone or the Literary Festival, please email Barbara Green ( for Capstone and Barbara Green or David Healey ( for the 2016 Virtual Literary Festival.

Teaching Students to Learn

Nicole A. Bertke, MS, Kaplan University CTL Faculty Developer

The intent of higher education is no doubt for students to learn. Yet in an informal poll during a recent faculty presentation, two-thirds of faculty respondents acknowledged that most students come into college without the skills in place to learn successfully. And, most of these same faculty indicated that they spend less than one hour per term teaching their students how to learn (Personal communication, April 28, 2016). If student learning is the goal, how do faculty teach students how to learn rather than just what to learn? Teaching self-regulation is the key.

Inherent to students’ success is self-awareness of their learning differences, including their strengths and limitations, such that they observe when corrective action is needed. Self-regulation is the process by which learners acquire academic knowledge and skills while proactively monitoring  and reflecting on their progress, and changing behavior as needed.  This process enhances self-satisfaction and motivation.  As such, students who employ self-regulation are more likely to succeed academically and to view their futures optimistically (Zimmerman, 2002).

“At the core of self-regulation are strategies to manage cognition, but motivation to use those strategies is also key, says Pintrich. ‘You need the “will” as well as the “skill,”” he says” (as cited in Murray, 2002).  Consider two students; the first student, Tommy, has dyslexia. He recognizes the difficulties this can pose for his learning and accommodates by using a particular reading strategy to comprehend text.  He also works ahead to give himself plenty of time to get through course readings.  The second student, Jeff, is not aware of any difficulties with reading and often waits until the last minute to skim through his course readings.  Based on this information alone, which student would be most likely to perform well on a pop quiz of course material?  Tommy.  Understand, if Tommy was not aware of his limitations, and did not take corrective action, the outcome would likely be very different.

Cycle of Self-Regulation are three cyclical phases of self-regulation – forethought, performance, and self-reflection.   “The forethought phase refers to processes and beliefs that occur before efforts to learn; the performance phase refers to processes that occur during behavioral implementation, and self-reflection refers to processes that occur after each learning effort” (Zimmerman, 2002, p.67).  As each of the phases is covered in more detail, consider how you can facilitate your students’ development.

The forethought phase is comprised of task analysis and self-motivation.  Learners who thrive at task analysis will plan strategically and set goals. These same learners have increased academic success.  They are also self-motivated and believe in their ability to learn, recognize the personal consequences of learning, and/or value the process of learning for its own merits (Zimmerman, 2002).

Self-control and self-observation support the performance phase of self-regulation. During this phase, strategic plans, including selection of specific methods or strategies, are made.  In the performance phase, learners who exert self-control will maintain the strategies they committed to during the forethought phase (Zimmerman, 2002).  Also in the performance phase, learners will self-monitor and observe their performance with attempts to identify their deficits (Zimmerman, 2002).

In the self-reflection phase, learners employ self-judgment and self-reaction to determine the effectiveness of their learning strategies and make adjustments as needed.  They may compare their performance against their own prior performances, the performances of others, or some other standard of performance.  They will also make assumptions about the causes of their errors or successes.  If learners react with satisfaction and positive affect regarding their performances, their motivation is further enhanced.  If not, they can lose motivation and/or take a defensive position to protect their image such as withdrawing from similar future performance opportunities.  Learners may also adapt by making adjustments to increase the effectiveness of learning (Zimmerman, 2002).

It should be clear that faculty can have a significant impact on student learning and success by teaching self-regulation.  Research supports that self-regulatory processes are teachable (Zimmerman, 2002), and this should hold true teaching face-to-face or virtually. As you read about the phases of self-regulation, hopefully you generated ideas for helping students progress in each area.  Zimmerman (as cited in Murray, 2000) suggested the following strategies for fostering the development of self-regulation:

  • Offer choices in academic tasks and methods for complex assignments
  • Encourage study partners
  • Have students set goals for their work (timelines, performance outcomes) and help them define the tasks before them
  • Explicitly teach study strategies and learning devices such as mnemonic aides, knowledge trees, outlines, graphic organizers, note taking and organization, etc.
  • Have students assess their own work and/or assess their competencies
  • Assess and intervene in regards to students’ beliefs about themselves as learners (example, when students perform poorly, what do they attribute this to?)
  • Model self-regulatory learning. For example, to model self-reflection, think out loud when analyzing a theory or a problem so students follow along
  • Quiz frequently
  • Identify and review course objectives up front and ask students to monitor their progress
  • Emphasize concept relevance (scaffold this with other concepts) to improve motivation
  • Tie feedback to key concepts and course outcomes

Again, the process of self-regulation is cyclical.  For example, self-reflections from prior learning experiences will impact subsequent forethought phases.  Reflect on your own learning; can you think of evidence to this point?  And, the phases are strongly correlated. Meaning, students who use strategic planning in the forethought phase are also more likely to employ specific strategies during the performance phase to maintain attention.  Studies have also found that experts display higher levels of self-regulatory processes through all phases than novices.  Experts also spend more time in self-directed studying/practice and find it highly motivating (Zimmerman, 2002).  Because beginners will rarely experience self-motivational benefits (think of a student new to playing the piano), they can lose interest easily, especially in the absence of self-regulation strategies.  With self-regulation strategies, self-monitoring for example, they can observe even incremental improvements (again, think of the piano student).  Research has shown a connection between the quantity and quality of self-regulation skills and academic achievement and standardized test scores (Zimmerman, 2002).

The aim of higher education is to educate its students and support their success.  While faculty are hired to teach within their disciplines based on their experience and degrees, it is important to student success that they focus not only on teaching students what to learn but also how to learn by fostering the development of self-regulation.


Murray, B. (2000). Teaching students how to learn. Monitor on Psychology, 31(6). Retrieved from

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory Into Practice, (2). 64.

Cybersecurity for the Non-Technical Person

Dr. Lynne Williams, Kaplan University Faculty, MSIT and MSCM Programs

Target, Home Depot, even the U.S. Internal Revenue service have all suffered high-profile security breaches in recent years.   They’re all large organizations, so they make more attractive targets for the hackers; isn’t that true?   Well, no, it might have been true ten years ago, but the fact is that hackers have now (in 2016) automated their activities to such an extent that they no longer bother to discriminate between the big targets and individuals.  Using conduits through the dark web, even the least talented hacker can pick up easy-to-use development kits for creating a variety of professional-grade weaponry for attacking computerized systems on a mass scale.

We’re living in the age of the Advanced Persistent Threat [APT] which means that the bad guys are throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at any type of internet-connected device. Your Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone is just as desirable as a bank’s database so far as the black hats are concerned.

There’s a range of advice for protecting yourself and your data that could be given here, but all of it really boils down to one thing:  be very cautious and use your common sense.  One of the key elements to almost any successful hack is social engineering, which is the ability to trick you into thinking that something you see on your device is genuine when it is not. Phishing emails purporting to be from Nigerian princes or the IRS are a good example.  If you visit the IRS web site before you click the link in the email, you’ll see that the IRS never ever sends taxpayers official information via email:

There are a variety of websites that can help you determine whether information you’ve received is a scam or is genuine, such as  Never click anything you’ve received in an email, even if the email is purporting to be from your bank or the government. Instead, go to the organization’s website and contact it directly to see if anyone has sent you something.

Most internet users are aware that they should be using anti-malware applications on any internet-connected device, and there are also other technical safeguards, such as using a firewall on your home network, that are useful.  But the bottom line for keeping yourself and your data safe is to use your common sense, and don’t let yourself be fooled.


Summer Reading Review: The White Queen

Angela Roberts, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor White Queen is a historical fiction novel by Philippa Gregory. It provides a fascinating account of the life of Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner who marries the Yorkist King of England Edward the IV, in 1464. Gregory weaves the historical facts of the wars of the Plantagenets in with a mystical fiction surrounding the couple.

Elizabeth is a beautiful young widow whose first husband died fighting for the Lancastrian side in one of the early Cousins’ Wars (aka Wars of the Roses). She falls in love with King Edward, the Lancastrian enemy, and they secretly marry. Edward’s advisors and family never accept Elizabeth and when he dies unexpectedly, her family is in danger. Edward’s oldest son with Elizabeth becomes king; however, Edward V is only 12 years old. So Edward’s brother Richard becomes protector of England until Edward V comes of age. This never happens because Edward and his brother are taken away from Elizabeth to the Tower of London. They are never seen again. Edward’s brother Richard becomes king, so Elizabeth believes he had her sons killed.

Elizabeth is descended from Melusina, who was a river goddess in European folklore. Gregory uses this myth to add a mystical element to the novel that helps to give Elizabeth some power in her male-dominated world. Elizabeth’s mother was caught with some lead figures for charming (or using magical powers), and some people believed that her daughter used this enchantment to become the queen. Many people believed in the power of witchcraft during this time in English history. This is another reason  Edward’s family and advisors disliked Elizabeth and wanted power taken away from her family.

I wanted to read this novel because I love the historical fiction genre and have always wondered what happened to the two lost princes. It is a longer novel that contains many historical facts about the people and battles of the wars; however, I would highly recommend it.

Creative Limits: Placing Barriers on Topic Selection

Eric Holmes, Kaplan University Composition Instructor


Scott Adams (2004) once stated that, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes,” (p. 232) and our classrooms are places for students to be creative and to learn from their mistakes. However, we must steer our students toward success and thus balance their creativity with their responsibilities in the course.

As a composition instructor, I have seen students struggle due to a seemingly simple task: topic selection. While innocuous, choosing the wrong topics to write about can cause students stress and lead to poor coursework and a lack of enthusiasm for the course, which leads to poorer grades.  Ideally, students choose topics that play to their strengths, pique their interests, are not needlessly difficult, and add value to their educations.

As instructors, we assign coursework to give students the best chance of success while teaching them the most valuable information about composition. With this in mind, placing limitations on student creativity in regard to topic selection not only makes it easier for students to decide on a topic but also leads to better coursework. In my career, I have seen students choose topics to write about that do not play to their strengths and/or makes researching and drafting needlessly difficult. From this, I have found that there are five factors that make a topic a hindrance:

  • Lack of knowledge
  • Lack of interest
  • Emotional pain
  • Lack of available data
  • The topic needlessly adds to existing workload

These factors make the student experience being uncomfortable, and to remedy it, I teach students to follow five metrics in regard to choosing a topic to write about. These five metrics address the aforementioned factors that lead to student angst. Here are the metrics that students need to consider when selecting a topic:

  • The topic should be something that students know about.
  • The topic should be something that students care about.
  • The topic should be something that is comfortable.
  • The topic should be something that is available.
  • The topic should be something that is value-added.

To some, the idea that students must choose a topic that they already know about is counter-intuitive. After all, students are in your course to learn.  However, the focus must be upon the certain skill that students are there to learn.  With this in mind, I advocate that students choose as familiar of a topic as possible. In doing this, they are streamlining the writing process by avoiding a task that will involve considerable time and energy better spent elsewhere, as learning even basic information about a new subject is labor intensive, and that labor is better spent working on writing. The point is that when developing a new skill, it is best to play to your existing strengths. That strength also extends to how much students care about a topic.

If students choose topics that they have no interest in, the entire process, from finding evidence to drafting and finally revising/editing, will be laborious. Enthusiasm goes a long way toward success, and it is important to tell students that they will be spending considerable time with their topics, so choosing ones that they care about is vital. Any task is easier when it is enjoyed and students will, as a result, write better and earn a higher grade.

At the same time, it is important that students avoid discomforting topics. Many students attempt to write about topics in a cathartic effort to come to terms with trauma, such as the loss of a loved one. However, the self-inflicted misery that comes with choosing such a topic comes with another cost: poorer work. This is a result of students avoiding the work needed to do well, as the writing process serves as a painful reminder. To drive this point home, I ask students to recall a painful moment and then ask them if they like to think about it. When they respond no, I connect that answer to the decision to avoid such a topic for their paper.

Given the ubiquity of the Internet and the false belief that all information is online, many students are tempted to choose a topic that is too Avant-garde. This is not to say that the topic is inappropriate but rather too new for there to be any substantive knowledge about it. For the sake of student sanity, I urge them to choose topics that have available data, as it is frustrating to be unable to find information on important topics in a world where a Google search for “Charlie Sheen tiger blood” yields more than 100,000 hits.

Finally, I urge students to choose topics that are value-added. While a seemingly empty buzzword, value-added in the context of topic selection means that the topic itself serves another purpose outside of the course. For example, if students are taking another course that requires a paper, they can use the same topic for both. While this statement may raise a plagiarism accusation, writing two different papers using the same topic and body of data is not plagiarism, as the papers contain different content that meets different criteria for different courses. By using the same topic and research data for two different assignments, students can use the time and energy saved to focus more on the act of writing.

As educators, our role is to give students every tool needed to be successful and these metrics are effective for helping students narrow down potential topics without diminishing their creativity. By using these five metrics, students will choose topics that play to their strengths, pique their interests, are not needlessly difficult, and add value to their educations.

Composition and Topic Selection


Adams, S. (2004).  1001 smartest things ever said. In S.D. Price (Ed.). Guilford,

CT:  Lyons Press.

Weighing the Books

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

My home office-by-day/studio-at-heart is one of my favorite places for many reasons, and about 200 of them are books.

My Bookcase Before

My Bookcase Before

Some have literally saved my life; others have just stuck to my bones.  Each shelf holds a genre, and each genre holds a part of my story.  On my shelf of children’s classics, for instance, I have The Little Prince.  It was my mom’s when she was a girl, and folded inside is the book report I wrote on it in 7th grade; I can still remember crumpling up the rough drafts of lined paper, and there was a dozen.  Back then good writing had a lot to do with good hand writing, I thought, and I wanted mine to be good.

The Little Prince Book Report

The Little Prince Book Report

Another special shelf holds my reference books including Simon and Schuster’s International Dictionary: English/Spanish, Spanish/English, a 1,597-page hardcover that weighs a ton and a half.  I majored in Spanish in college, studied for a semester at the Universidad Veritas in Costa Rica, and for a year at the University of Puerto Rico—I still have my Antología de Textos Literarios from UPR and a soulful collection of postcolonial literature by Caribbean authors.  I bought the big dictionary when I was waist deep in Spanish classes.  I needed it for survival.  And in the eight times I’ve moved since finishing college, I’ve had to decide if I would again pack it up and take it with me, even though the only times I’ve cracked it open have been almost exactly those same eight times I moved, just to weigh my need for it.

I also have a paperback English/Spanish dictionary, a thick book as well but with the same words and not big and heavy.  And when I opened that one to weigh its importance, my initial thought was I don’t need this one if I keep the big one, but then I saw my mom’s name printed inside the cover and remembered how she kept up with her Spanish all those years I was studying it.  So my decision was made: The mammoth dictionary would go to Goodwill, and my mom’s paperback would stick with me.

In a blogging course I took a few years ago, a woman in my breakout group said she gave all of her books away, all of them.  She could no longer look at the stack looming on her nightstand.  She said she reads e-books now—no clutter, no guilt.  And she loves books.  She was finishing her now published novel at the time, which I read, reviewed, and gifted to my mother.  I loved it.  My shelves may be full and my nightstand too, but I have a living library.  Books come and go.  I don’t keep all I read or even read all I keep.  But there’s no way I could let go of my copy of Running with Scissors that Augusten Burroughs signed for me after his talk at the Florida Suncoast Writers’ Conference in 05.  That book was powerful.

Running With Scissors, Signed Copy

Running With Scissors, Signed Copy

Yet I read e-books too, and when Burroughs’s memoir Lust and Wonder came out earlier this year, I decided I would download it from Amazon.  His books have been filling up my memoir shelf for years, and that’s my favorite shelf! When it came to weighing their worth to me, they were heavy with great love, but also, just heavy, and for about a day, or at least an hour as I pulled those and about 40 more from my shelves to lighten my load, I considered donating every single one of my books to Goodwill or the local library.  I don’t “need” them, after all.  I could get most (but not all) as e-books; I could take pictures of the inscriptions.  Books are heavy to move and expensive to transport across multiple states as I will be doing very soon.

Good Will Books

Goodwill Books

But here’s the thing: I do need them.  I need them in the way a musician needs music and a painter needs paintings and a lover needs love.  Books are my reason for writing and loving language; they are my reward, my inspiration, and they have shaped the life I live, and in my work as a writing tutor and a writer, I use them all the time.  I’ve reopened a box a day it seems looking for one and then another.  It’s terribly inconvenient having them in boxes, but I must pack to move.  And where I’m going, I’ll make a new studio-office, and I’ll shelve my books on a new bookcase (since mine was too heavy to keep), and I will be home again.

Books Worth the Weight

Books Worth the Weight