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Cultivating Instructor Presence in an Online Environment

One of the toughest parts about leading online instruction is the missed opportunity for face-to-face contact time with students, which some course leaders believe can establish authority, strengthen the instructor-learner relationship, and set the tone for learning. And research shows that a strong instructor presence leads to better student learning, cognition, and motivation. But how can you do this in the online environment?

First, let’s define instructor presence.

“Establishing presence is the process of demonstration to others who we are in the online environment, as well as making social connections with others who share that environment with us,”

explain Palloff & Pratt in their book The Excellent Online Instructor.

It includes being visible in the learning environment, responding to conversations and questions, and making an active effort to facilitate connections between learners as well.

While much of this can be done naturally in the classroom—simply by being a talking body in the room—it takes a more conscious effort online. But there are many ways to establish a strong presence as an instructor, even when you never meet your learners. Here are a few tips:

Good instructors “monitor the discussion, asking probing questions to extend it, post announcements, and provide prompt feedback to students,” say Palloff & Pratt. In other words, your role is not simply to pose questions and ask students to respond; as the online instructor, you stay as active in the conversation as you would in a classroom, where you respond to student comments and reframe questions as needed.

Telemarketers and political campaign supporters have long known a trick for making you feel comfortable and at ease with them on the phone—saying your name. It also works well when trying to get students to feel at ease quickly in your course. Make sure you use personal salutations in your correspondence, and where appropriate, use the learner’s name when making a direct comment. “Great point” is a far less effective motivator than “Great point, Bryan.”

The best way to connect with learners is to offer up a bit of info that makes you a real person, rather than an anonymous voice behind the screen. Mention your affinity for poodles in your introduction, or throw in a reference to a television show you watch during an online lecture. (It probably goes without saying, but keep political and religious preferences out of the LMS—you want to make learners feel comfortable, not alienated.)

For some learners, seeing your face and hearing your voice is an effective way to establish a connection. If you upload a weekly PowerPoint, consider adding a voice narration one week, or chuck the whole thing and make a 3-minute video of you explaining the concepts directly to the camera. Learners are then able to connect your physical presence to your written comments, which makes you feel much more real to them.

Learners describe online instructors as more present when synchronous activities are incorporated into the course. Many just have an easier time connecting to the instructor and content when real conversation is involved. Most LMS platforms have a variety of built-in chat or web conferencing features in order to facilitate these activities, but there are plenty of external tools freely available as well—Skype, Google Hangouts, and Second Life, to name a few. And it doesn’t have to be embedded in every lesson: in a 4-week training course that brings together corporate leaders from satellite locations across the country, just one synchronous session that allows for live group conversation can do an enormous amount of work for learner motivation and engagement.

What are your tips for improving instructor presence in the online environment?