Being There: Instructor Presence in Online Courses
Before personal computers and internet access became nearly ubiquitous, Chickering and Gamson (1987) outlined the significance of student-instructor interaction in student learning. While the online environment creates different challenges for instructors and instructional designers than face-to-face interactions, instructor presence in the online learning environment is just as essential – potentially even more so – because of the real and perceived distance between students and instructor(s). Because the online environment initially separates the instructor from students, instructors have to make an extra effort to create a strong presence in their courses; otherwise, students are likely to feel isolated (Creasman, 2015), which is likely to lower learning achievement and increase attrition. Innovative course design supports increased engagement, participation, satisfaction, and learning (Rose, 2009). Effective implementation requires substantial planning and dedication, balancing student and instructor expectations against pragmatic strategies.
Students’ perceptions of how much an instructor cares about them, and their success in the course, relates to their satisfaction with and performance in the course (Community College Research Center [CCRC] and Teachers College, Columbia University, 2013). The feeling of a “human touch,” or a sense of community, is a significant factor in the success of online education, and instructor presence has a substantial role in reducing attrition from individual courses as well as online programs (Kolowich, 2010). “When students are able to see the face of the instructor who is guiding them through a course, they are more likely to trust that professor, and they feel more invested in the course” (Kolowich, 2010).
Increased student engagement, for some, means increased audio-visual communication, particularly on the part of the instructor: “The more that exchanges occurring within an online learning environment resemble those that occur in classrooms… the more that students will feel connected to their professors and classmates, and the more likely they will be to stay in a program” (Kolowich, 2010). But mimicking face-to-face interactions is not realistic for most online courses, particularly those that run asynchronously. More realistic is to remember that students feel more connected when the instructor exhibits an active teaching presence, which can occur in many forms and various times throughout the course.
It is important to be pragmatic in designing instructor presence. How comfortable are the instructors in front of a camera? How comfortable are they with using text to communicate in less formal settings? How much time are the instructors willing to dedicate to creating presence? Managing student expectations is also important; since the online “classroom” is always open, students may expect instant replies, particularly from instructors who make an effort at creating a substantial presence. Instructors should communicate anticipated response times and expectations at the beginning of every course.
Ideas (Creasman, 2015; Kolowich, 2010; Morrison, 2012):
- Basic videos, including welcome videos, lectures, and experiments
- Advanced videos, including location shoots and interviews
- Provide substantive feedback on assignments
- Engage students in conversations outside of formal class contexts, such as specific discussion boards for additional discussions
- Send regular announcements or messages with course updates and reminders
- Share news stories, internet resources, or anecdotes that relate to course content and learning goals
- Create an instructor home page with additional information
- Grade and return assignments promptly, ideally within one week
- Return email and phone messages promptly
- Plan synchronous activities, even if these are optional
- Schedule regular office hours
- Participate in discussion boards
Several of these methods have additional pedagogical benefits. Participating in discussion boards, for instance, allows instructors to model the behavior and language sought in student discussion board posts, and provides an opportunity for instructors to shape the discussion or prompt responses to unanswered questions. Designing online courses to include a substantial instructor presence also reinforces that there are humans behind the electronic profiles within the learning management system, which fosters a sense of community and belonging and increases student engagement (Morrison, 2012).
At the University of Florida, instructors and instructional designers reference UF’s Standards and Markers of Excellence (UFSME) in online course production. The UFSME outline basic benchmarks for creating instructor presence, including a welcome video, clear outline of methods and frequency of instructor feedback to students, and opportunities for students and instructors to engage in dialogue.
For more information on instructor presence the Community of Inquiry framework is often referenced and outlines opportunities to create presence in cognitive, social, and teaching realms.
Chickering, A.W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7): 3-7.
Community College Research Center (CCRC) and Teachers College, Columbia University. (2013). Creating an Effective Online Instructor Presence. Retrieved November 4, 2015, from http://www.achievingthedream.org/sites/default/files/resources/Online-Learning-Practitioner-Packet.pdf
Creasman, Paul A. (2012). Considerations in Online Course Design. IDEA Paper No. 52. Retrieved July 17, 2015, from http://ideaedu.org/research-and-papers/idea-papers/
Kolowich, Steve. (2010). The Human Element. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved October 8, 2015, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/03/29/lms
Morrison, Debbie. (2012). Are Video Lectures effective in Online Courses? Online Learning Insights: A place for learning about online education. Retrieved October 8, 2015, from https://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/are-video-lectures-effective-in-online-courses/
Rose, Katherine Kensinger. (2009). Student Perceptions of the Use of Instructor-Made Videos in Online and Face-to-Face Classes. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 5(3).
York, Cindy S. and Jennifer C. Richardson. (2012). Interpersonal Interaction in Online Learning: Experienced Online Instructors’ Perceptions of Influencing Factors. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Volume 16: Issue 4: 83-98.