There is a great deal of research supporting the idea that ‘instructor presence’ in a course improves student engagement in online courses. Indeed, ‘instructor presence’ is a central concern when designing an online course. But what does that mean in a practical sense?
There is often a gulf between what the research is saying and measuring, and the application of this research in an actual course. This has created some misunderstanding by many instructors that I work with. “I show my face during the videos, that will create instructor presence in the course.” The thing is, these same instructors are doing much more than that to build their presence in the course – they simply may not be aware of how. This blog post is a response to this statement.
In order to design an intentional, and supportive learning environment, it is important to understand what presence means in terms of the research. I think the confusion here lies with the word ‘presence’. From my reading and research, it seems clear that a more active kind of presence is meant. Perhaps it would be more helpful to consider the concept of ‘Instructor Engagement’ with students individually and socially within the course.
I have observed three main domains where instructor engagement is being academically examined; personal presence, social presence and course design. Each of these offers insight into practical application of what the literature is finding.
This is where the instructor’s teaching style and personality come into play. The above-mentioned statement regarding ‘video presence’ is a common understanding of instructor presence in the personal sense. The instructor is the content expert and guide for navigating the material. But there is another aspect to being a guide that you might consider. The instructor is framing an attitude on how to approach the content. Personality and style will go a long way towards setting this tone. This is also a great opportunity to build inclusivity into a course. Did you (the instructor) struggle with this material at one time? Did you face barriers to learning? How did you overcome these things? These kinds of personal revelations can humanize the content and model behavior that leads to success.
An Instructor video introduction and weekly overview videos will definitely help build instructor presence and set the tone for your teaching style. But video is only one means of building your personal presence. Consider how you write your text content, that is, think about how you phrase instructions for activities and assignments. What context are you setting your activity within? Is it possible to put it into a context students can relate to? Can you put a personal twist on these things that will make them more accessible to your students?
Social presence is important because it does more than provide a ‘sense’ of instructor presence. Social presence provides evidence of instructor presence and engagement. This is how the instructor connects with individual students, groups of students and the class as a whole. This is how the instructor reacts to what is happening in the course.
At a basic level, this would include your feedback to students on activities and assignments. It would also include office hours and other ways you might connect with students individually. The depth and tone of your feedback to students will have a strong impact on student engagement with the material. These are also a way to reach out to students who may be struggling and provide them a path forward.
Do you participate in the class discussion forum? Discussions are a great opportunity to engage with students on a larger social level and encourage participation. Discussions are an opportunity to facilitate critical thinking and analysis. They are also a way to step in on larger road-blocks and provide necessary guidance.
Consider posting weekly announcements or reviews. More than simply revealing your presence, use these as an opportunity to show that you are responding to students who are currently in the course. This is a way to show that you are aware of the roadblocks students are facing in this run of the course and are showing the way forward. You can use these postings to course-correct and re-frame student thinking on a topic.
Weekly postings of any sort can be a way for you to draw connections between course activities and content, connect the content with real world current events, or even connect the content with your own life experiences. What about connecting the content with one or more of your students currently enrolled in the course? Can you draw attention to something one of your students said that was particularly insightful? This can be done anonymously to avoid putting anyone ‘on the spot’. Can you put some of the content into the words that your students use?
Put most simply, build a course structure that will allow you to do the things discussed here. The design of the course itself should reflect the instructor’s teaching style and tone. Intentionality of design will greatly benefit an instructor’s ability to improve engagement with students in a course, at the very least by providing the means, but also by demonstrating the instructor’s style and expectations. It is much more challenging to add the above-mentioned elements after the fact. When we consider the broader course design, we discover a less visible form of instructor engagement, the intentionality of the instructor.
Effective teaching and learning strategies provide elements that can be used to build supportive learning. But the instructor’s engagement with these strategies is the key to their success. Each of these strategies provides an opportunity for an instructor to engage with students individually or socially. How an instructor uses these to engage with students will determine the efficacy of instructor presence.