Green Decorative Wheat

What is Instructor Presence?

Instructor presence means “being there” in your class. Whether you teach face-to-face, online, or both, your ability to remain present has a direct impact on your students’ satisfaction and performance. What does it mean to be there? It may seem obvious that face-to-face instructors are “there” every time they hold class. But everyone has had professors who seemed more present, more engaged, than the norm. What behaviors make for an excellent sense of presence? And does presence matter? According to Dr. Larry Ragan, Directory of Instructional Design and Development for Penn State’s World Campus, instructor presence consists of three components:

  1. Persona: the inclusion of the “real you” in your class.
  2. Social: the connections between you and your students.
  3. Instructional: the work you do to guide your students’ learning.

Taken together, these three components can create a complete sense of your full participation in your own class. This argument is rooted in the “Community of Inquiry” (COI) model, which argues the overall educational experience for students and their instructors can be broken down into the overlapping categories of social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. The COI model argues that knowledge is constructed and necessarily embedded in social interaction.

Presence in the face-to-face classroom

Does physical presence lead to social interaction? It can. But showing up, delivering a lecture, and leaving is rarely enough to create a sense of community in the physical classroom. Here are five ideas to consider as you work on establishing a clear sense of presence in your class:

  1. Be the Host: If possible, try to be the first person in your classroom and greet your students as they arrive to class. Greeting students is particularly important in the term’s early days when students are developing their attachment to the class community.
  2. Be the Authority: Know “where you are” in relationship to the syllabus, the term’s calendar, and your lecture/delivery from the last class. Do not rely on your students to remind you what they have and have not yet covered in your class.
  3. Be the Expert: Allow for questions and requests for additional information. Don’t fear getting off your “script” for the day. Becoming the expert takes practice and time to develop both your broader knowledge and your classroom leadership style.
  4. Be the liaison: If possible, learn and use your students’ names. The more you use names, the more your students will too, and a community will develop. Some schools have visual student rosters. If yours doesn’t, you might consider a seating chart or name “tents” for students to have in front of them to make learning names easier.
  5. Be the gateway: Show your content’s relevance to the larger world and your students’ lives by bringing in real-world and current event examples of your content in action.

The more engaged and present you are in your class, the more your students will be too. This engagement will make class more enjoyable for everyone, and your students are likely to learn and retain more.

Presence in the online classroom

Just like physical presence is not sufficient to establish a sense of instructor presence, it is also not necessary. But teaching online introduces some special challenges:

  1. Online courses are often asynchronous.
  2. Online courses are often heavy on publisher-created content, light on instructor-created material.
  3. Online courses often lack a sense of place.
  4. Online courses often have an age-diverse student population.

These are serious challenges to the online classroom environment. But don’t despair! If people can fall in love online without meeting face-to-face, you and your students surely can create a dynamic and satisfying learning community. But you must be intentional. First, it’s important to accept that you and your class are your online students’ primary connection to the university. You need to be a real person to them. “The online instructor must be able to compensate for the lack of physical presence by creating an environment in the online classroom that encourages students to be engaged, motivated, validated, and comfortable participating. Thus, the online instructor needs to convey there is an understanding, kind, empathetic, patient, and creative human being at the other end of the virtual classroom.“ (Sheridan, Kelly & Bentz, 78, 2013). How will you accomplish this goal? First, review the five considerations for the face-to-face instructor, and apply them to the online environment:

  1. Be the Host: Starting before the course begins, send out a welcome email that contains the syllabus and tips for success in your class. Post regular announcements summarizing course themes, discussion board threads, and general assignment comments.
  2. Be the Authority: Set clear expectations and class rules (netiquette) as well as an honest schedule about when you will be in the class area, how quickly you will respond to questions and grade assignments. Provide your students with a clean, well-organized class space so they never have to hunt for information.
  3. Be the Expert: Participate in discussion threads on a regular basis. Answer student questions yourself, and make sure your responses are complete and prompt. Don’t leave the class facilitation or questions to the students. Provide adequate and detailed responses on assignments and don’t rely only on rubrics for grading.
  4. Be the Liaison: Help students see connections and draw like minds together. Praise excellent ideas and the people who had them. Use students’ names when you address them in the discussion board and other open forums.
  5. Be the Gateway: Provide links to articles that illustrate your course concepts. Assume your students are interested in applying what they are learning and help them do that.

Next, you must take some steps to mitigate the lack of face-to-face contact and human interaction in your online class. “Being there” online is more than showing up; it also means being seen showing up. Several of the suggestions above will help you do that. Posting regular announcements, promptly answering questions, and providing personalized and detailed comments on assignments will all show you’ve been present for your students. In fact, these are the instructor interactions research shows that students want the most. But to fully establish yourself as a human being, you are going to need to share something of yourself personally. Your students need to be able to put a face on you:

  1. Glad to Meet You: Your personal introduction is crucially important in an online class. Share as much detail as you feel comfortable with. Provide pictures of yourself or things that are important to you. Work to give them a sense of you as a person, not just as an authority in your field.
  2. This Week We’ll Learn: Consider providing a brief video introduction for each week/unit/module. Allowing students to link the concepts of the class to you personally through your face and/or your voice will make the concepts feel more vivid and relevant to them, and it will help reinforce your ongoing presence in class.
  3. This is What I Tweet About That: Although many students do not like to have required social media interactions for courses, they will follow professors if given the chance. Consider creating a professional Facebook or Twitter account and encourage your students to follow you. Through social media you can provide real-time comments about current events and improve the sense that you are a real person with interests and ideas.

When textbooks get in the way of presence

The realities of many online courses mean the analog between them and the face-to-face class can break down. Even if you teach the same course online and face-to-face, it’s possible that your online course is fundamentally different because of the content delivery.

Consider a typical face-to-face course structure: The professor chooses a textbook, assigns readings, crafts lectures and assignments to augment and apply the readings, and tests over the readings, the lectures, and the assignments. All the while, the professor shows up, maybe makes a few jokes, and over time reveals a bit about their personal life.

When a seasoned face-to-face instructor attempts to put that same course online, two things can break down immediately. First, the sense of self that is unveiled over time in the course often goes away because online communication requires more intentionality, but all this article’s advice to this point addresses that concern. It is the second disconnect that is much more difficult to tackle.

When professors put courses online, they sometimes feel technically ill-prepared to translate their face-to-face content delivery (lectures, discussions, group work, Socratic interactions, etc.) into something that will work online. There are technical challenges, training challenges, and even software challenges to address. These are serious concerns.

Unfortunately, there often appears to be an easy answer. Many professors are regularly presented with textbooks with “enhanced” and “online” materials that appear to solve all the technical and training challenges professors might face. With these materials professors are freed of the need to produce much of their own online content; no need for lectures or any other materials.

There is a robust debate about publisher-generated online materials. This is not the place to fully explore that debate. Nevertheless, it is important to note one rule of thumb about these publisher materials: the more heavily professors rely on them in an online course, the more important it is for professors to dedicate themselves to creating a strong sense of their presence in the course.

Building a sense on instructor presence is an ongoing process, no matter what kind of classroom you have. The key to it is the key to success in most things: try, and keep trying. Only you can put you in your class.