Enhancing Online Instructor Presence
Written and designed by Iwona Gniadek, Educational Developer
Edited by Mona Maxwell
Stemming from the principle that we teach learners, not content or courses, we believe that the instructor is the heart of an online course. A learner’s learning experience depends on the connections made and inspiration gleaned from the instructor and other learners. How can we, as instructors, make our presence known?
On September 22 and November 18, 2021, the Manitoba Flexible Learning HUB delivered a webinar, titled Strengthening Online Instructor Presence. Registration was open to instructors teaching at seven HUB partner institutions: Red River College, Assiniboine Community College, Brandon University, University of Winnipeg, Université de Saint-Boniface, University College of the North, and University of Manitoba.
The purpose of the webinar was to reflect on key aspects of instructor presence in online courses and their importance for learners. The webinar also provided a space to discuss strategies for enhancing instructor presence and challenges experienced by instructors.
Through a Mentimeter word-cloud poll, participants identified several aspects of instructor presence. The aspects included being approachable, accessible, and responsive, listening, caring, being active on UMLearn, engaging, authentic, and being physically present. One instructor explained physical presence as visibility to learners via photos and synchronous sessions, either office hours or group classes. These aspects demonstrated that instructor presence was being viewed from multiple angles from communication and ongoing facilitation to having personal connection with learners in an online course. Regardless of where the course happens, in a brick-and-mortar or in cyberspace, the teacher is the heart of the course.
An interesting lesson on presence was gleaned from our use of Mentimeter. According to Garrison (2017), instructor’s presence transpires through the use of technology in online courses. We implemented Mentimeter to increase engagement and collect anonymous feedback from the participants, and that worked very well. However, technically, Mentimeter proved to be a live-n-learn experience. To spare you the details, the primo bottom line is: create your slide deck, upload to Mentimeter, and present directly from Mentimeter. The secondo bottom line is: test, test, test, your technology. Being confident around the technology you use in your online teaching is one of the most effective ways to project your teacher presence in an online course.
Below are four groups of strategies with brief commentaries for enhancing instructor presence and demonstrating care for online learners.
Welcoming Stage of Course
A pre-course email to find about who your learners are. The information will help you tailor the materials and facilitation style to diverse needs. Read more about pedagogies of care here.
Day 1 opener – ‘Start Here’ announcement in the LMS to let learners know how to get started in the course. This helps to direct learners’ attention when they first access the course site. Learners will appreciate your guidance as each course is set up differently depending on instructor’s course design and teaching philosophy. View an example here.
Introductions on the forum from the instructor and participants, followed by a friendly exchange. Lively introductions build a foundation for a learning community, which is critical to alleviate the sense of isolation in online courses. Keep experimenting with the introduction prompts and encourage creative expression through a favourite quote, a video, an image, a poem, etc. How about an alternative CV? See ZSmith’s interactive example here.
Beyond Content Stage of Course
Personal pulse checks – friendly emails/messages to check how they are doing, to those who haven’t logged in a while, and to those who lag behind with their expected contributions/assignment submissions.
Weekly announcements (text, video, audio) – published on the course site at the beginning of the week/module. They can contain highlights of the previous week and some important reminders about what’s coming. A random message to say hello and add a few uplifting words will go a long way.
Mid-term anonymous surveys, e.g., stop-start-continue. They help identify what’s working and how to improve the learning experience. It works well to share the findings with learners and rationale for the items that can be implemented – transparency will be appreciated and help learners feel included and respected.
Virtual office hours – a good practice is to offer them weekly. They can be offered 1-on-1 (learners book times to meet with the instructor) or open to anyone to join a group conversation. Doodle can be used to find the best times, but additional flexible options should also be included to address diverse needs.
Performance tips – imagine what obstacles your learners might face in your course and post tips to help guide their attention and activity. They will appreciate your care.
Humour, emoticons, and memes – include those in your communications to keep the spirits high and humanize your course.
Direct Instruction Stage of Course
Pre-recorded mini lectures with personal stories and anecdotes. Not only will the learners be able to re/watch them at their convenience, but also get your personal commentary on the subject matter. Don’t forget to add the captions and transcripts to make your videos accessible to diverse learners.
Video/audio feedback – Sharing feedback through video or audio helps to humanize feedback and the online instructor. Read about Voice and Video Instructor Feedback to Enhance Instructor Presence here.
Discussion forum – Instructor’s presence in asynchronous discussions fosters community building and engagement. Sharing supplemental resources, posing questions to stimulate discussions, and commenting on learners’ contributions will inspire and draw learners’ attention and engagement. Read more on facilitating asynchronous discussion here.
Closing Stage of Course
Final week of the course = Celebration of learning growth! There should be no new content in the final week, just a wrap-up, reflections, and future plans. And maybe finalizing an assignment or preparing for an exam – giving learners extra time to do that will lower their anxiety: wellbeing and relationships should always be a priority, especially in the times we live in and the pandemic trauma we’re experiencing.
e.g., What did you learn? How are you going to use this knowledge in real-world? Share some samples of your achievements.
The above-mentioned strategies propose several ways in which presence can be made visible in online courses. Instructor’s presence that demonstrates care for learners’ wellbeing and success is vital for inspiring learners’ motivation, fueling engagement, and creating a safe and inclusive learning environment.
I would like to thank my wonderful colleagues Wendy Smiley, Sasha White, and Mona Maxwell for supporting this webinar and contributing their ideas. Huge thanks to all participants who learned with us in these sessions. Happy teaching and learning!
Garrison, D. R. (2017). E-learning in the 21st century: A community of inquiry framework for research and practice. Third Edition. New York: Routledge.