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Ten Strategies for Fostering Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom

By Sarah Robertson, John Steele, Jean Mandernach / January 2024

TYPE: OPINION
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The lack of physical proximity between the instructor and learners in an online course creates unique challenges for instructors to connect with their learners. While the nature of online education precludes the reduction of physical distance, it simultaneously intensifies the need to intentionally address transactional distance to reduce learners’ sense of isolation in the learning process. While multiple factors influence transactional distance in online education (i.e., the structure of the learning environment, student satisfaction, communication and understanding between peers and between peers and instructor, and prior student attitude toward online collaboration [1, 2], a key component is instructor presence. Instructor presence (a component of both teaching and social presence) focuses on how the instructor establishes their embodied self, leadership style, and means of rapport with their learners [3]. “Specifically, research indicates that how an instructor establishes his or her presence in an online environment can have important implications for students’ overall learning experience” [4]. Improving student learning experiences raises the likelihood they will be more engaged in class, better understand expectations, feel supported, and more. All of which are known to improve student learning outcomes. The following are 10 strategies that can help instructors foster their instructor presence in the online classroom for both traditional-age and adult learners.

1. Create one-on-one space. Create a forum, virtual meeting room, or other online space where students can reach out and have one-on-one interactions with you in the classroom. Initiate conversations directly designed to foster rapport. Let learners know the space is not just for questions, but to engage in “hallway conversation” about course content, professional goals, or academic challenges/successes.

2. Establish a reasonable response timeline. Respond to one-on-one messages, emails, or phone calls within a reasonable time that ensures meaningful, relevant communication. Establish a general timeline in which students can expect a response from you and stick to it. For example, inform learners that you will check messages once a day, within 24 hours, or each morning before noon, etcetera. The exact response timeline will vary depending on your schedule and teaching rhythm; the key is to be consistent and clear in your response timeline.

3. Lead the class as a collective. Introduce yourself to the whole class. You may find this redundant if you utilize the strategy above, but it can help foster that sense of “instructor” when a whole class and individual introduction is made. Other instances of leading the whole class are through announcements and follow-up communication in the public discussion forum. Follow-up replies within the public discussion forum can help guide the general collective conversation and provide concept clarification. When your presence is then felt/visible in both the public and private spaces in the classroom it reinforces you as the guide through the mountainous course terrain. From a constructivist teaching perspective, this can also help to show students that those expectations, learning potholes, and/or netiquette reminders are not just for them, but for everyone. The class is a moving unit (team) working toward learning goals, and you are their leader [5]. 

4. Use a consistent “voice.” Be consistent in your written “voice” across all parts/places of the classroom. If you share teaching resources from others, edit any written parts of the material into your written voice. Personalization of shared content ensures students feel like it is “you” who is posting in the classroom and not a teacher stand-in (sub), instructional assistant, or automated response.

5. Show your face. While not every post or interaction needs to utilize multimedia, include regular videos that show your face. Learners want to see you as a real person and will connect more when they can connect your message, voice, and face which could even lead to better outcomes [6]. Humanizing yourself helps students to connect on a personalized, social level that increases their willingness to seek assistance or ask questions.

6. Be authentic. Teach in a manner that reflects your personality. This may include your writing style, the tone and nature of videos you create, the format of announcements, or simply the choices you make in relation to the content you share (memes, jokes, videos, examples, etc.). Interact and present yourself in a manner that gives students a sense of who you are as an individual.

7. Communicate expectations. Learners want to know what to expect. Even in pre-designed online classes, there is room for variation in instructor interpretation of the assignment and thus what they are expecting students to do. When you clearly communicate and follow through with those expectations you are saving students from confusion (which, in turn, saves both time and frustration). To make it even more powerful, create a video of yourself reviewing expectations [5].

8. Share personal examples. Beyond connecting with you as an individual, students want to connect with you as a professional. As such, provide examples, stories, and experiences from your professional life. Be concrete in helping students see the connection between course content to your role as an expert in the field. For example, provide responses to the discussion that give students personal examples in your professional practice or life that would tie into the topic concepts for the week.

9. Update course links and resources. Keep curated web links/resources up to date. Part of instructional presence is showing students that you are actively engaged in the course (in contrast to stale online course content that can be navigated without an instructor). Nothing feels more like an “absent” instructor than a classroom full of broken and outdated links; as such, it is important to create a course maintenance schedule that ensures you are not only checking current links and content, but actively curating (or creating) new content to keep the course current, fresh, and relevant.

10. Check-in on a consistent, regular basis. Do not just introduce yourself and post your expectations at the start of the course. Learners only know that the instructor is present if they leave a digital footprint in the class, so it is important to ensure that your activity is established and visible each week of the course. Strategies to ensure ongoing instructional presence include:

    • A weekly “check-in” announcement to provide encouragement, reinforce expectations, and remind learners that they are available for questions.
    • A weekly video lecture and/or assignment overview with the instructor’s face.
    • Weekly Zoom or other web conference program open office hours.
    • Checking in on each student individually in the private messages section of an LMS.
    • Scheduling one-on-one video or phone meetings with students.
    • Posting regularly in course discussion threads.
    • Providing timely, individualized feedback in the grade book.
    • Sharing resources or current events as they arise throughout the course.

Of course, there is more to instructing a class than the strategies mentioned above (i.e., selecting content, providing structural learning supports, assessing student learning progress, and more). As indicated by the Community of Inquiry Model, effective online teaching involves teaching presence, cognitive presence, and social presence [7]. Teaching presence includes design elements of the class, the lesson objectives, the lesson approach taken, the models and examples selected to help support the learner in understanding a concept, and more. Instructor presence on the other hand is, “The specific actions and behaviors taken by the instructor that projects him/herself as a real person... [and] is more likely to be manifested in the ‘live’ part of courses—as they are being implemented—as opposed to during the course design process” [8]. A focus on instructor presence addresses the intersection between social and teaching presences [8]. Establishing effective instructor presence is an important subcomponent of social presence as it differentiates the instructor from just another peer in the classroom. Your students may not meet with you synchronously, but by establishing a strong instructional presence you can meet learners’ needs for an active and approachable leader with whom they can respect and build rapport.

References

[1] Weidlich, J. and Bastiaens, T. J. Technology matters - The impact of transactional distance on satisfaction in online distance learning. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning 19, 3 (2018), 222–242.

[2]Wengrowicz, N. Teachers' pedagogical change mechanism – Pattern of structural relations between teachers' pedagogical characteristics and teachers' perceptions of transactional distance (TTD) in different teaching environments. Computers & Education 76, (2014), 190–198.

[3] Steele, J., Robertson, S., and Mandernach, B. J. Exploring value variations in instructor presence techniques for online students. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching 16 (Fall, 2021), 16-49.

[4] Richardson, J.C., Besser, E., Koehler, A., Lim, J., and Strait, M. Instructors’ perceptions of instructor presence in online learning environments. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 17, 4 (2016), 82–104.

[5] Chickering, A. W., and Gamson, Z. F. Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. The Wingspread Journal 9, (1987), 1-10.

[6] Ng, Y. Y. and Przybylek, A. Instructor presence in video lectures: Preliminary findings from an online experiment. IEEE Access 9 (2021), 36485–36499.

[7]Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., and Archer, W. Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 2, 2–3 (2000)., 87–105.

[8] Richardson, J. C., Koehler, A. A., Besser, E. D., Caskurlu, S., Lim, J., and Mueller, C. M. Conceptualizing and investigating instructor presence in online learning environments. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 16, 3 (2015), 256–297.

About the Authors

Sarah Robertson is an online instructor who teaches full time at Grand Canyon University for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Robertson has more than 15 years of experience in education. In addition to teaching at the higher education level she maintains her K-12 teaching certificates. She has a passion for working with learners of all ages. Her professional research pursuits include inquiry into improving student engagement, instructor presence, motivation, and information retention/application within both online and traditional courses.

John Steele, Ph.D. is a professor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University (GCU). Steele has been teaching first-year series and psychology students at GCU for 12 years. In addition, he serves as a faculty mentor and on several university committees.  Steele’s research focuses on several aspects of online learning including plagiarism, technology innovation, student learning, and psychology. He also has interests in social psychology and artificial intelligence.

Jean Mandernach, Ph.D. is executive director of the Center for Innovation in Research on Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on enhancing student learning experiences in the online classroom through innovative instructional and assessment strategies. She explores strategies for integrating efficient online instruction in a manner that maximizes student learning, satisfaction, and engagement. In addition, she has interests in innovative faculty development and evaluation models, teaching and learning analytics, emergent instructional technology, and faculty workload considerations. Mandernach is an active researcher, author, presenter, and consultant in the field of online education.

© Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/2024/01-3590958 $15.00 https://doi.org/10.1145/3590958


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