An Online Field Course: Establishing an Asynchronous ‘Presence’

Because my upcoming course will be almost exclusively asynchronous (due to a 15-hour time difference), I’ve been exploring how to establish my presence in the course. After the COVID-19 pivot in my spring courses, I posted weekly announcements in which I gave course info but also wrote frankly about the challenges we were facing. That seemed okay, but it was really just maintaining my existing relationship with students that had been established in the face-to-face portion of the semester.

There are many ways to create an asynchronous course presence, but one approach has jumped out at me for its simplicity: making short and simple video recordings to communicate with students. This idea was introduced to me in a UBC CTLT online teaching workshop. The great revelation is that in UBC’s LMS (Canvas), you can simply click the Kaltura button and record a webcam video that is immediately uploaded and embedded on your course page.

Flower Darby wrote a great piece on online teaching in the Chronicle of Higher Education where she suggested:

Recording yourself whenever possible is another great way to bring your whole self to class. Whether by audio or video, capture your expertise, your empathy, your teacher persona in a way that comes across with much more impact than in writing (again, I don’t mean videos of you lecturing). These recordings don’t have to be professionally produced, and you don’t have to have a video in every module. Instead, start small.

I don’t know why this idea hadn’t occurred to me before.

Test 1: A high-quality video

Test 2: A quick-and-dirty webcam video

Along with posting short videos for weekly announcements (or other communications like going over a homework assignment or exam), I was intrigued by the idea of a course introduction video. Because the course I’m developing right now is a field course, I’m deliberately not filming anything in my office. This course would normally be all outdoors, so I want to maintain that feeling for the students. I packed up my camera and tripod and headed to the forest. After about an hour of setting up and filming and another hour of editing, this is what I produced. (Remember that my students will all be in China, hence my awkward attempts at a little Mandarin.)

An introduction video for an online field course

I’m happy with how this turned out, and I think it was worth recording in the field for this particular course. However, a course introduction video can be just as effective even if it’s recorded on a crummy webcam in your office (or kitchen).

The gameplan

The main portion of my online field course will be a week long, with different (asychronous) activities for students to do each day. I’m going to set the activities to post at 8am China time, and I will pre-record each day’s announcements as a video. If we were in the field, I’d start each day by addressing the group and giving an overview of the day’s plan. I hope doing this via video will help the students feel more connected to the forest and to me, even if I’m asleep while they’re working.

Addendum: But what about lectures?

Given that this is a field course, all of the “lecturing” will be videos recorded in the field; no PowerPoint! I do use PowerPoint heavily in my classroom courses though. After the pivot, I used Camtasia to record lecture videos with my PowerPoint slides and my voice. I wasn’t inclined to include video of myself though, in part because the research that I had seen on the topic found no learning gain from including the instructor’s face (Mayer 2009). But we are now in a situation where our students, who signed up for face-to-face courses, are forced to take courses online. Even if including my image in a recorded lecture doesn’t improve students’ learning directly, maybe it will help them feel more connected to me and/or the course. [Note: subsequent research has found more support for including the instructor’s image, with some nuance. See Fiorella et al. (2019) and Mayer et al. (2020).]

Test 3: My floating head in PowerPoint

In a test run, I used Camtasia’s built-in functionality to record my webcam video (instead of just audio as I normally would have). I then used a few tricks to crop my video to a circle, and I ended up with a reasonable final product. I have a little concern that the image might be distracting, but, based on a highly unscientific Twitter poll, most folks appreciated it.


  • Fiorella, L., Stull, A. T., Kuhlmann, S., & Mayer, R. E. (2019). Instructor presence in video lectures: The role of dynamic drawings, eye contact, and instructor visibility. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(7), 1162–1171.
  • Mayer. (2009). Multimedia Learning (2nd edition). Cambridge University Press.
  • Mayer, R. E., Fiorella, L., & Stull, A. (2020). Five ways to increase the effectiveness of instructional video. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68(3), 837–852.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for sharing these updates on building an online presence in this new age of digital teaching. As a forestry student with a background in visual arts and design, I was delighted to see the use of a DSLR camera for recording your videos. I know that not all faculty will have access to the same quality of filming equipment when it comes to producing online courses, but for pre-recorded content, having a polished video (as seen with the DSLR recording) removes any distractions that come about from the video or audio quality found in most (even the best) web cameras. Using a DSLR as a webcam is also a well recorded tip-of-the-trade for online content creators, which allows the content being shared in real-time to be close to the same level of professionalism as edited videos.

    I look forward to seeing the creative and innovative solution you come up as you continue to come up against challenges in this very distant medium.

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