Step 2: Instructor Presence
Student perceptions of instructor presence play an important role in student engagement, motivation, perceptions of course quality, and learning (Garrison and Shale, 1991; Bernard et. al, 2009; Protopsaltis and Baum, 2019, Eyler, 2018, Darby and Lang, 2019). This is especially true in online classes in which the instructor is not visibly present in the classroom.
There are many ways in which instructor presence can be maintained:
- A welcome announcement or an introductory video.
- Regular use of announcements in Blackboard (or other communication tools such as Remind or Slack).
- Reply promptly to student email and course messages.
- Responding to student posts in discussion board, using their names in the responses.
- Providing frequent personalized formative feedback.
- Online office hours.
Welcome announcement or introductory video
A welcome announcement or an introductory video can be used at the beginning of the term to provide students with a sense of you are as a person, regardless of the course modality. This introduction can provide some sense of your own educational journey and can demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm for the subject. As noted by Cavanagh (2016) and Eyler (2018), instructor enthusiasm is contagious and can help to stimulate student motivation and engagement.
As discussed by Costa (2020), videos that convey a sense of instructor presence can be easily created using mobile devices. These videos do not require high production values, and small imperfections (such as cats or dogs appearing in the video, or sneezing, or similar occurrences) can further create more of a sense of human presence and help to reduce the hierarchical structure of the class. (A similar effect occurs in the case of synchronous remote meetings over Zoom, or other platforms, when the instructor is connecting to students from home.)
Regular announcements to students of upcoming deadlines for tasks can help students stay up-to-date with their work. We all procrastinate, and reminders can help overcome this procrastination and result in higher quality student work.
Some instructors choose to use the Remind app or a Slack channel either as a replacement for or a complement to the communication tools in the LMS (LMS = Learning Management System – in our case, Blackboard). Before using an alternative communication platform, it is helpful to get buy-in from your students since maintaining a standard of communication across classes reduces student cognitive load – avoid piling too many apps and tools on your students.
Respond promptly to student email and course messages
Students can feel isolated when they are working alone and experience difficulty with a course task or don’t fully understand a course policy. It is important to let students know how often you will be checking course messages and email so they know when they can expect a response. Provide feedback as promptly as possible.
Responding to student discussion posts
Personal replies to students can help maintain a positive sense of instructor presence. Many remote or online instructors keep a checklist on paper, or in a spreadsheet, in which they check off the names of the students they have replied to each week so they can ensure that they respond to all students equally. You don’t have to reply to each student every week, but you should reply at least once to each student over the course of the semester. Your public responses to students should be positive in tone. More critical feedback can be handled by e-mail or in feedback provided in the gradebook.
Provide frequent personalized feedback
As discussed by Miller (2014), Brown et. al (2014), Lang (2016), Eyler (2018) Darby and Lang (2019) (and many others), prompt feedback to students increases student learning. While some of this feedback can be automated using the assessment tools in the LMS, giving students personalized feedback can also create a greater sense of instructor presence. Providing students with supportive feedback that facilitates a growth mindset can be especially helpful (Dweck, 2008).
Online office hours
Remote, online office hours, using Zoom or a similar platform, directly enhance instructor presence. Using such a tool makes it possible for students to share their screen to show the problems they are experiencing, making it much easier to address any issues they may be having.
In many face-to-face classes, you are the content expert, imparting knowledge primarily through lectures. In the remote environment, however, many instructors move away from being the “sage on the stage” and become the “guide on the side.”
While remote and online instructors are still the content experts, they often focus more on designing activities, interactions, and resources that facilitate the learning process. In fact, the term facilitation is often used interchangeably with teaching in the remote or online environment.
Facilitation includes the following:
- Creating an environment that promotes learning.
- Managing and supporting students.
- Initiating and moderating communication.
- Helping students overcome challenges to learning.
- Moving to learner-centered approaches that actively engage students.
Clearly, effective remote instruction goes beyond pedagogical aspects of the course. You must wear several “hats” simultaneously when facilitating remote learning.
Below, we will look at these distinct roles.
Your Pedagogical Role
Your most important duties support students’ acquisition of knowledge. In the remote environment, these may be new and different tasks.
- Use discussions, journals, blogs, wikis, group work, and activities to guide students toward constructing their own knowledge and connecting it with what they already know.
- Identify unifying themes and weave together discussions, assignments, and course content.
- Provide resources and correct misconceptions if they occur.
- Motivate all students to participate.
- Measure learning outcomes.
- Not dominating conversations and stepping back to allow students to lead learning.
- Achieving the right mix of activities.
- Adopting student-centered approaches.
- Maintaining momentum in discussions.
- Providing constructive feedback. When in print, anything can appear more harsh.
Your Social Role
Promoting personal interaction and group cohesiveness through mentoring and coaching helps students to feel more relaxed in the remote environment. When students are comfortable, they are more likely to contribute to discussions and be more reflective in their journal and blog writing. As students contribute more, their learning increases.
- Develop your “presence” so students remember there is a real, living, breathing instructor at the other end of the computer.
- Create and maintain an environment that promotes group cohesiveness.
- Provide reinforcement and constructive feedback to prevent feelings of isolation.
- Add group work that improves critical thinking, problem solving, adaptability, interaction, and communication through clarification and evaluation of others’ ideas, all of which are valuable job skills.
- Misunderstanding questions and comments due to the lack of nonverbal signals in the remote environment.
- Helping students feel comfortable sharing their experiences, knowledge, and questions online.
- Ensuring a non-threatening environment where students respect all opinions, whether they agree with them or not.
- Dealing with students who “lurk”—that is read, but do not post messages.
- Some students prefer only an individual effort and they have no desire to help others or ask for help. They object to the responsibility that comes with collaborative learning.
- Some students feel they spend too much time on group projects when they could be working through more course material and gaining more useful knowledge.
Your Managerial Role
Leading and directing remote activities without completely dominating the learning experience takes a certain amount of finesse. However, if you provide clear structure for activities, discussions, and reflective writing assignments, you can minimize confusion and students can focus on the task at hand.
- Set expectations, requirements, and timelines.
- State objectives clearly and link to activities.
- Provide feedback and return assignments in a timely manner.
- Tracking student progress.
- Accommodating a wide variety of skills and needs.
- Managing your time and helping your students do the same.
- Helping students accept the increased responsibility in the remote classroom.
- Being overwhelmed with messages.
- Maintaining a positive attitude in the midst of challenges.
Your Technical Role
This may be the least favorite “hat” of some instructors, but it is necessary in the online classroom. It is important to be able to help students through the button-pushing so the technology ultimately becomes transparent.
- Become comfortable with any technology or tool prior to having your students use it.
- Provide technical resources such as the college help desk links.
- Provide a low-pressure, ungraded activity for students’ first experience with a tool.
- Troubleshooting at a distance when you cannot see a student’s screen.
- Dealing with the many variables that can affect course access such as Windows and Mac issues and browser settings.
- Knowing the available resources to direct students to when the issue is beyond the scope of your duties.
Reflection: Engaging Your Students
Before moving onto the next section, think about:
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being very visible –
- How visible are you to your students?
- How visible do you think your students perceive you to be?
- What are your areas of opportunity?
- What are your strengths?
Activity: Engaging Your Students
Using an online concept mapping tool, review your course and brainstorm any changes needed to make help create a feeling of community and presence within your course.
Mind mapping tools:
https://www.mindmup.com (allows for map and vertical brainstorming)
Educator’s Technology has a list of other tools.
Remember, you can create presence by:
Bernard, Robert M., Philip C. Abrami, Eugene Borokhovski, et al. (2009). “A meta-analysis of three interaction treatments in distance education.” Review of Educational Research, 79(3), 1243-1289.
Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
Costa, K. (2020). 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos: A Guide for Online Teachers and Flipped Classes. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. John Wiley & Sons.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
Eyler, J. R. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching. West Virginia University Press.
Garrison, D. Randy and Doug Shale (1991) Education at a Distance, Malabar FL: Krieger Publishing.
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online. Harvard University Press.
Protopsaltis, S., & Baum, S. (2019). Does Online Education Live Up to its Promise? A Look at the Evidence and Implications for Federal Policy.