January 7th, 2014

Creating a Sense of Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom


Online instructors need to be intentional about creating a sense of presence in their courses so that students know that somebody is leading their educational experience. According to Larry Ragan, director of instructional design and development for Penn State’s World Campus, this sense of presence consists of three dimensions:

  • Persona—This consists of the instructor’s personality, teaching style, and interests—all the characteristics that go into the students’ impression of the instructor.
  • Social—This refers to the connections instructors make with the students and those that students make with each other to build a learning community.
  • Instructional—This is the role the instructor plays in guiding students through the learning process.

The need for instructor presence
“In the face-to-face classroom, we don’t actually have to think too much about being present because we’re there—it’s a physical thing. In the online space there is no physicality. I’m not there physically. I don’t see people eye to eye. We may not even be in the same time zone. So how do I convey to the students that there is somebody who is participating, who is a leader in this educational experience?” Ragan says.

A lack of presence can have negative consequences for the learner. As an online learner, Kim Eke, director of Teaching and Learning Interactive at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, experienced a lack of instructor presence. “When professors didn’t seem present, it had a big effect on my satisfaction. I thought, well, they don’t care,” says Eke.

This sense of presence is particularly important for students enrolled solely in online programs, as opposed to on-campus students who take occasional online courses. “For those individuals who are pursuing a degree or certificate in a wholly online environment, the faculty member becomes the connection to that institution. The faculty member is the glue that holds this system together, and so for a student it’s really important to get to know the faculty member at some level. I say at some level because it may vary,” Ragan says. “Maybe the 18-to-22-year-olds aren’t really interested in this idea of learning community. They might say ‘I’ve got that covered. I’ve got my friends. I don’t need my instructional experience to also contain that dimension.’ Whereas the [solely, often adult] online learner may feel isolated from the experience, from the physical dimension of your university.”

Designing for presence
The sense of instructor presence is created through a combination of instructional design and delivery. Videos, photos, narratives—depending on one’s comfort level with the medium—can help create this sense of presence in advance of course delivery. “You can invest a little bit of time and energy in the design phase, say, in the summer prior to putting your course online, developing a nice introduction—this is who I am. Maybe it’s a video. Maybe it’s just a narrative. Whatever vehicle you are most comfortable using. You can invest the time and energy to get the photos right or get a video clip done right and so forth so that when you’re in teaching mode you’re not saying, ‘Shoot, I’d better create something that establishes my persona,’” Ragan says.

Eke cautions against getting enamored of too much technology. “Keep things simple. I would never advocate using all the technologies… The idea is to identify the gaps in your course. Is there something I can do to add a little bit to the community? You don’t have to go whole hog and overboard. Just figure out what makes sense for you and your course.”

Ragan says that faculty members can make technology decisions on their own, but it helps to get input from others, preferably an IT professional or an instructional designer, on what is appropriate for the course and how it might contribute to the learning experience.

Evidence of engagement
When a course is in session, students need to see “evidence of engagement” such as announcements, discussion board posts, and uploads of photos or videos on the part of the instructor, Ragan says. It’s not enough to log in and monitor a course. Instructors need to show that they are active in the course.

Learning management systems can provide some useful data an instructor can use to gauge his or her presence, such as frequency and duration of logging in to a course. Ragan envisions an LMS dashboard that provides instructors (and perhaps a mentor or supervisor) with this data on a regular basis to help the instructor manage his or her presence. “It’s a little Big Brotherish, but I think the capabilities are there for us to begin doing that. I think we’re called as good teachers to be more aware of establishing that teaching presence and making sure that we’re [serving] the need of the students to have us visible,” Ragan says.

Using data analytics in this manner can provide some useful quantitative feedback, but it’s also important to look at qualitative data as well. An indirect way of gauging instructors’ presence is the type of questions coming from students.

More directly, instructors can ask students for feedback throughout the course. “I think in the online environment we have to be more intentional about reaching out and asking those questions, such as ‘How’s it going?’ or ‘How am I doing?’” Ragan says.

You can build in low-stakes evaluation feedback and higher-stakes elements as well. Feedback can be anonymous. For example, at the end of a unit you might ask, “Was this information clear, or were there any points you didn’t understand?”

You also can ask questions specifically about your role as instructor, such as:

  • Is the timeliness of my responses helpful?
  • Are the types of responses you’re getting helpful?
  • Is there anything else I could be doing to help you?

“The students so much appreciate just being asked,” Ragan says.

Excerpted from Creating a Sense of Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom, Online Classroom, 12.10 (2012): 1,3,5.

  • David

    I teach math courses online and I struggle with my "presence." I have put a lot of work in on the front end by making videos, writing projects and content explanations/summaries. I definitely feel that my persona and presence comes through in this work but it is not interactive, other than the grading remarks I give on the projects. Homework is done through an online computer system (MyMathLab) and the system gives them good feedback.

    I have tried doing more interactive content such as journals and discussion boards, but the response and participation I get from the students is so trivial–two to three sentence boilerplate responses–it makes feel as if it is not valuable. I try to express how that is not thoughtful enough but they don't seem to care. As if they are thinking, "Hey, I got 3 out of 5 on that response, meh." Or some who get a low score chastise me saying it is a discussion and opinion assignment how can I dock points for their personal opinion. Any thoughts?

    • Michelle

      I would create a rubric for discussion boards. What are your expectations for a response? Is there a minimum word limit the students need to meet? Should they have a reference for their work? Should opinions be backed by a journal article? Is there a minimum for responses (ie your answer, plus respond to 2 peers). By providing a rubric you are not docking anyone for their opinion, but for not meeting the standards set forth.

  • Mike

    I have found that one way you engage students is if you give them feedback on homework problems that several of them struggled with. I also use MyMathLab and encourage the use of the Ask My Instructor button. When I get three or four people asking the same question, I will write up a detailed solution to that problem and send it out to everyone in the class (I'm assuming the few who ask are just the tip of the iceberg). I also often write up oversimplified explanations to difficult concepts and send those before the questions come up, and I occacionally send links to YouTube math parody videos that are related to the part of the course we're studying. I have recently been experimenting with a discussion forum called "Sticky Problems" that students use to get peer feedback on how to solve problems. I monitor that forum but only make a comment if there's a common misconception or if someone is abusing the etiquette of the forum. My two cents…

    • Hope

      I like your idea about a "Sticky Problems" forum! It would not only help with timely feedback (alleviating some of your stress when students post at inconvenient times of the day), but students can learn by trying to explain a solution. I would suggest that, at the end of the term or end of the chapter, you thank the students who participated in the forum as a form of feedback and presence.

  • shaghablog

    I can relate to this article and appreciate the tips given. Last semester was the first time I taught an online calculus course and I realized the importance of communication and giving the sense of instructor's presence to students. The retention rate was very low for that course and when I asked my colleagues who taught the course before, they all told me that it's been the same semester after semester. I want to make a change in this course, it is not enough to address the issue. I have started posting announcement more frequently, and have encouraged students to email me their questions and I make short videos using Educreations (free App) to help students with their assignments. Comparing the first week of this semester with the one from last, I can see more engagement, and more completed assignments.

  • Mario Estrada

    I believe that instructor presence is essential for online teaching. I try to design my classes as simple as possible. Now simple does not mean easy. I try to set-up the class so that the student will only have to click a couple times to get to the assignment. The first week is difficult because that is when the students go through the registration process, but once the student is registered the assignments are easy to follow. In addition, one of my goals is to try to respond to students’ questions as soon as possible, usually within the same day. I believe that in an online class students are likely to get frustrated quicker than in a face-to-face class and therefore, replying to their questions quickly is critical. Furthermore, one thing that I am guilty of is not sending reminders to students about the upcoming material. I have been reluctant to send reminders because the syllabus has the dates of all assignments, but some students have mentioned the lack of reminders; therefore, reminders will be one strategy that I will improve on in this and future semesters. Another strategy that I believe might enhance instructor presence will be web conferencing, just like in this class EDTC 8371.

    • Fred Whittinghill

      I see a broad educational problem here. Many students are just not willing to make an effort. The short return comments, the high dropout rate are indicative of that problem. We certainly have it in Accounting. Given an effort all students can make it through successfully and be much better prepared for the business world.

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  • Linda Chamberlain

    This is one of the biggest challenges for me – how to feel engaged in an on-line environment with students. I haven't yet tried video clips, but that is my next step. Thanks !