Developing Online Instructor Presence

adult student - online classes

What is instructor presence? It’s the way that instructors present themselves to the students in the online classroom. It also involves simply being present to students through the regular posting of course materials, discussion posts, and announcements.

Instructor presence increases student retention because students are more likely to stay in class if they feel their instructor cares about them. By being present, the instructor can pull students together, encouraging cooperation and collaboration. Additionally, if things start to go off the rails and a student begins to have problems, an instructor who is present can address those problems immediately.

How does one establish instructor presence in an online class? First, determine your teaching persona. Next, determine which elements to share with the class. Last, create a strategy for regularly expressing those aspects of your persona to your class.

Determine your teaching persona
When thinking about a teaching persona, an instructor might wonder, “How do people describe my teaching?” For answers, go to the audience. Talk to your students. Ask them, “What do you think about my teaching?” Read evaluations from former students, too. Those are always full of information that can help define your teaching style. You might also ask peers who have observed you teaching for their feedback about your teaching persona in face-to-face classes.

People often describe my teaching style as welcoming, as I tend to create a comfortable and open environment for learning. And since that word “welcoming” comes up a lot, it’s one of the things that I try to project to my students.

I like to convey to my students that I care about them as people, and that I want their learning to be successful. One way that I convey this is through my late policy. I allow students to submit up to three assignments up to four days late. This allows students ultimate flexibility in when they choose to be late and when they choose to be on time. This policy illustrates that I understand students have busy lives with many things going on, and that sometimes, getting classwork done on time is not the most important item on their to-do list. I explain to students that the reason that I have this policy is because I understand what they’re going through in life, I care about them, and I want them to be successful. This, in turn, conveys my teaching persona to my students.

Sharing your teaching persona with an online class
First, I recommend that instructors include a photograph of themselves in the online classroom. It doesn’t need to be a personal photograph; in fact, a picture that represents the instructor’s teaching persona—any sort of graphical representation of the instructor—would work. In the online classroom, students can’t see their instructor, which might create mental distance. And it helps students to have an image in their heads when they’re working through the course.

Audio and video are also great ways to communicate your teaching persona. Images, fonts, sharing and contextualizing news from a certain discipline, syllabus policies: all of these are ways to express your teaching persona in the online classroom.

A video is a great way to welcome students into a course. In an asynchronous class, students don’t get an opportunity to see the instructor, so a welcome video sets the tone of the class, lets students know what’s coming up, and shows students how things will progress through the course. I like to create two welcome videos. I send one out to students two weeks before class begins. In this welcome video I start off with a letter, then finish it up with a little video that just tells the students, “Here’s how to log into our online class; here’s what some expectations are.” Mixing text and video like this allows me to convey a lot of information in a friendly and accessible way.

I send a second welcome video on the first day of class in order to welcome students, introduce them to our online classroom space and the syllabus, and give them all the information they might need to be successful in the course. Through this second welcome video, I talk with my students and express through the inflections in my voice, expressions on my face, and the words I use that I care for them.

Some instructors feel a little hesitant about video. They don’t want students to see them, or are uncomfortable with being videotaped, so they will nix that idea at the beginning. But I encourage you to give it a shot just the same. If that trial video works well, perhaps you might consider adding more; the concept would translate easily to brief welcome videos for each course module, rather than just at the beginning of class. Giving students an overview of what’s coming up and what to expect in the grand scheme of the class is immensely helpful—and video is a great way to create that context. Other ideas for using audio and video in class are weekly audio updates, which tend to be a lot less stressful than video for some people. Podcasting could be effective as well.

Images and fonts are another way to express your teaching persona. Photos of plants or animals or anything that’s relevant to the course would work. A historian might take pictures of historical places near the college, for instance. By posting pictures that are personally important to you, students get a good idea of your teaching persona. When designing an online class, explaining the choices behind particular photos can help students grasp what might otherwise be a very subtle expression of your teaching persona.

Another part of conveying the online persona: fonts. Fonts convey an unspoken style, which I liken to clothing choices, or even handwriting. Although you might automatically use the typical font that comes with a learning management system, you may want to consider a different kind of font that better expresses your personal style.

Yet another way to convey your teaching persona is by sharing current news from the relevant discipline. This helps students understand the enthusiasm you for your discipline and gives them context, as well as conveying up-to-date information about the subject matter of the class. Sharing disciplinary journal articles or discipline-specific features of popular culture articles would work as well, as long as you are deliberate about showing students how the content relates to the course.

Just being cognizant of the daily tasks that a student must go through to be a member of class can show compassion. Discuss textbook options: Can students rent them or do they need to buy books? Provide variety in assignments: allow students to express their own personalities by having various assignments that give them some choice. These can all illustrate perspectives on teaching and make students aware of instructor presence.

I’ve offered three ways to get started: first, the welcome letter or video. Welcoming students to your class is the absolute best way to begin setting the tone and communicating a teaching persona. Second, course design elements like font, color, and language can make students comfortable in class. Third, communicating discipline-specific news allows students to see the subject matter’s relevance and your enthusiasm for it. All of these can lead to a more authentic persona in the online class, with happier and more successful students as the outcome.

Stephanie Delaney is the dean of academic programs at South Seattle College.

Adapted from the Magna 20-Minute Mentor, How Can I Develop Online Instructor Presence?

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