The Importance of Instructor Presence Online

In online courses, we don’t have the benefit of non-verbal and in-person communication to help us connect with our students. Instead, much of this communication comes through in actions we might otherwise pay little attention to, and has a much greater effect than you might believe!

Your virtual presence in your course through direct contact with students (via email, discussion boards, and assignment feedback) helps students engage with both the content in the course as well as with your class and the College. While there is certainly a balance to strike, particularly with discussion board and other collaborative activities, the participation of the instructor really makes a difference. This could be steering a discussion thread back on topic or further into analysis, or suggesting other theories or approaches. Even simple encouragement makes a big difference to a student who cannot see your facial expression as you see their response.

The indirect contact we have with our students sets the tone of the course and models behavior. By indirect contact, I mean the announcements, item titles and descriptions, colors and themes used in the course, and even the capitalization of text! At the most straightforward level, the tone of your communications to the students makes a big different. Let’s look at an example:

Announcement text "Readings: Read pages 130-155 for Tuesday."

This announcement, while it conveys the necessary information to the students, is very short and impersonal.

Annoucement text: "Reading Assignment Correction: Hello class! A quick correction for Tuesday's assignment - please read pages 130-155 in Le Morte d'Arthur. For class discussion, pay careful attention to the relationship between Merlin and Arthur. Why does Merlin always appear in disguise? I look forward to hearing what you've found in your readings. Best, Lily"

This announcement gives both the required information as well as some additional things to think about, and is friendly and approachable.

These two announcements convey the same information to students, but they do it in very different ways. In the first, the information is brusquely presented, and while very straightforward, students may interpret it as distant or unfriendly. In the second, the same information is given to the students, but with both a more friendly delivery and additional information.

As a related point, when posting files, assignments and links in Blackboard, keep in mind that the title and description fields are very important. When you initially create a file in Blackboard, the system makes their title a file name. These are are often difficult to decipher, as we all have our own naming conventions for files and abbreviations. When they are unclear, it makes it difficult for students to locate the appropriate content or what to do with it once they locate it.

Assignment text: "Assignment 1"

This assignment link provides no additional information about the requirements or deadline.

Assignment text: "Assignment #1 Attached Files: File Assignment 1 instructions.docx Assignment #1 is due on October 1st at 11:59pm. Please take care to review the assignment instructions again (if you've misplaced them, they are also attached to this assignment here in Blackboard)."

This assignment link provides information on the due date as well as providing the assignment requirements in an attached Word document.

These two assignments present the same assignment in different ways. The first simply provides a link to the assignment submission location. If the students have any questions or uncertainty about the assignment, they will need to reach out to the instructor directly, or simply proceed forward with the questions unanswered.  The second example provides a reminder about the due date as well as the instructions for the assignment so that the students can easily access them.

While these may seem like minor details in the scheme of an online course, this indirect contact can make a student feel welcomed or distant from the course and the College, which can impact everything from their grades and whether they remain in your course to whether they remain at Saint Rose for the rest of their education.


Adding Multimedia Interaction

As another way to set the tone of the course, a quick “talking head” video can put a face to your name, so to speak, and give the students valuable connection with you and their work. You may choose to do this at the beginning of a module to introduce the content, or at the end, to recap the module. If you’re not comfortable on camera yet, you can also do a short, friendly written intro or recap. Some instructors, at the end of a full class discussion, will write feedback for the whole class on how the discussion went, what interesting points were raised, what could be improved next time, allowing all participants to step back and see the experience from the instructor’s side.

Try some of these suggestions in your Blackboard shell, and see how your students respond! Just like in a classroom, each class is different. You’ll find that some students respond better to different methods of instructor presence, so it’s good to include a variety of ways to engage with them.