“Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Bloopers” was the title of a video lecture I produced one week for an online writing and rhetoric course I was teaching. My air conditioner had gone out in the middle of a heatwave, and I took it upon myself to construct a swamp cooler out of duct tape, a fan, some PVC pipe, and a polystyrene cooler. I’d cut myself in the process and had a colorful children’s bandage on my hand, the contraption barely worked and rattled in the background, and the heat led to a less-than-articulate delivery style. Exhausted, I posted my video unedited and asked students to share their own “blood, sweat, and tears” story about an academic endeavor.
In doing this, I had unintentionally accomplished a number of things. I humanized myself to my students, I created a space for them to connect socially as well as academically, and I made the instructional material memorable. My students’ responses to the discussion board prompt were particularly lively, and a few told me they appreciated my willingness to put myself on camera in the first place, as many instructors in their other online classes did not.
—Shari Beck, Lecturer
At its core, instructor presence means being there for your students. You may not think much about it when you teach in person—the lectures are clearly delivered by you, you readily engage in class discussion, and you can easily answer student questions before and after class.
When teaching online, however, you must be intentional about your presence. Online learners can feel disconnected or isolated if they cannot see and easily interact with their instructor. Taking simple steps to show students that you are a real person who is available to answer questions, provide feedback, and participate in discussion can go a long way toward supporting their motivation, engagement, and success.
Though effective instructor presence in an online course requires consideration and planning, the benefits are many. Strong instructor presence has been shown to increase participation, facilitate knowledge acquisition, and foster a healthy learning community.
The research consistently supports the importance of instructor presence in achieving learning outcomes as well as student satisfaction and engagement. Student responses to a survey conducted in 2006 indicated better achievement of learning when an instructor was present and available in the online classroom (Shea et al., 2006). A 2013 study of 23 online courses found that interpersonal interaction was the most significant predictor of student grades (CCRC), and another study that same year illustrated the importance of instructor presence in student satisfaction (Ladyshewsky).
Course design, facilitation of discourse, and direct instruction are conceptualized as the three primary components of instructor presence (Garrison et al., 2000), and all are crucial to developing a healthy learning community.
Like a web developer considers the user experience of an app or website, you should consciously consider your online course design. When planning and organizing content, think about how students will experience it. How will they navigate and interact with the materials, assessments, and learning activities, as well as with the learning management system itself? Design an experience that aligns to your goals and outcomes, fosters student-peer interaction, and promotes cognitive engagement.
Facilitation of Discourse
Facilitation refers to the way you guide students through the learning experience. It encompasses responsiveness to student queries, feedback on assessments, and, in particular, facilitation of discourse among the class. Discourse is integral to both the development of a community of inquiry and the construction of knowledge. Online educators should model appropriate discourse, acknowledge and encourage student contributions, identify areas of agreement and disagreement, and generally guide the cognitive and social processes of learning.
Students perceive your presence in large part through direct instruction. Direct instruction is how you share your knowledge and expertise in interactions with students; for example: lecture videos and presentations, explanations that frame, contextualize or clarify readings and activities, instructive feedback, and referrals to other resources and information. Just as you wouldn’t rely on a guest lecturer for every session of a face-to-face class, your online course shouldn’t rely solely on material authored and delivered by others. It’s crucial that students feel you are helping them navigate the course content.
We’ve established that instructor presence hinges on a combination of thoughtful course design, the creation and presentation of instructional materials, facilitation of discourse, and regular and planned communication with students. Review the following simple but effective avenues for establishing and maintaining your presence in online courses.
Establish your presence at the start of term with an instructor introduction. This is a great place to share your experience, why the course excites you, and even a bit about your personal life or interests so that students feel more comfortable with you. Recording a brief video to share in the first week is a powerful way to let students get to know your personality, expertise, and communication style. But even posting a photo on your course homepage, alongside a friendly welcome and bio, can help students put a face to your name.
Share regular weekly announcements or emails to alert students to important updates, provide supplemental material of academic interest such as conferences or university events, clarify misconceptions made apparent by assignments or exams, and answer commonly asked questions. Learn how to set up Announcements in Carmen.
Include a page at the outset of each course module to introduce and contextualize the new material. A brief module summary can guide students to see how the new material will build upon what they’ve already learned. Module overviews can also explain how the content connects to course outcomes and direct students’ attention to upcoming activities and assignments. A short video, even one recorded from your phone, is an easy and personal way to accomplish these tasks. Learn about setting up your course content using modules and pages in Carmen.
Be sure to include instructional content authored or presented by you in the course so students connect you to the material they’re learning. Screencast or video lectures, podcasts, expert interviews conducted by you, and interactive lessons can be great ways to impart didactic information in a personable and relatable manner.
While text and screencast lectures are both helpful means to incorporate your presence, studies have shown that students appreciate seeing as well as hearing their instructor. Enabling your camera during a video lecture or posting pictures of yourself in the course helps students feel more connected to you. To learn more about recording effective video lectures, you can watch the recorded workshop, Recording Lecture Videos: Best Practices and Tools.
Whenever possible, provide individualized feedback on assignments and activities. Personalized feedback will strengthen your connection with students.
In Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2013), L. Dee Fink notes that high-quality feedback is critical to creating a positive human presence and student-instructor connection in online courses. High-quality feedback is:
Frequent: To maintain instructor presence and keep students connected, give them some sort of meaningful feedback at least once a week, whether it's feedback on an assignment or simply a thoughtful response to a discussion post.
Immediate: Deliver feedback as soon as possible after a student submits work. For the purposes of maintaining ongoing connection, most best practices for online teaching recommend turning around assignment feedback within a week.
Discriminating (based on criteria and standards): Provide specific feedback about a student's performance based on predefined criteria, such as by using a rubric. Offer corrective advice instead of identifying strengths and weaknesses.
Delivered Warmly (supportively, personally): Use feedback as an opportunity to encourage students, even if the feedback isn't all positive. Write personalized feedback whenever possible.
Instructor presence is your insertion of yourself into your course through course design, facilitation of discourse, and direct instruction.
Strong instructor presence has been shown to increase student engagement and academic achievement by helping students feel as though they are part of a learning community with shared goals and values.
Keeping students up to date with weekly announcements, contextualizing learning materials through module overviews, authoring educational materials, and providing personalized, substantive feedback are all ways of creating and maintaining a clear presence in your course.
- Community College Research Center. (2013). Creating an effective online instructor presence.https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/effective-online-instructor-presence.pdf
- Easton, S.S. (2003). Clarifying the instructor’s role in online distance learning. Communication Education, 52(2), 87-105. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634520302470
- Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences. Jossey-Bass.
- Garrison, D. R., Archer, W., & Anderson, T. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6
- Ladyhewski, Richard K. (2013). Instructor presence in online courses and student satisfaction. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(1), article 13. https://doi.org/10.20429/ijsotl.2013.070113
- Shea, P., Li, C. S., & Pickett, A. (2006). A study of teaching presence and student sense of learning community in fully online and web-enhanced college courses. Internet and Higher Education, 9, 175-90.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2006.06.005