Teaching Presence in Online Courses


Published: April 25, 2015 by Sue Alman

 After being an online instructor for nearly 13 years with a wealth of anecdotal “evidence” to suggest strategies for engaging students in active learning, I was part of an investigative team that conducted a comparative research study using the Community of Inquiry (COI) survey. The results of the study provided data to suggest that teaching presence–one of the elements in the COI–has a positive effect on learning outcomes and student satisfaction in online courses.

Students in online courses do not have the advantage of seeing their instructor as do students in a face-to-face setting. There are, however, many ways in which an instructor can be “visible” to students through active participation in synchronous or asynchronous discussions, timely feedback, office hours, posting announcements, and video recordings.

The Community of Inquiry (COI) is a concept that refers to a group consisting of an instructor and class of students engaged in learning and/or inquiry. The COI concept was developed by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer in 2000. (See The Community of Inquiry Framework Ten Years Later.) The Community of Inquiry is a constructivist model that identifies social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence to “define, describe and measure elements supporting the development of online learning communities.” (Swan and Ice, 2010)


Teaching Presence: A Short Review of the Literature*

Teaching presence is the professional, instructional relationship instructors have with their students. Whether the course is online or on-campus, instructors serve a fundamental leadership role in facilitating and managing the course. In online learning, faculty are often described as “the guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.” Lewenthal and Parscal (2008) emphasized that the “guide on the side” cliché should not mean the instructor is absent or uninvolved in the course. In online education, as in traditional campus courses, teaching presence is important because it has been positively correlated with student motivation, satisfaction, and learning (Swan and Shih, 2005). In fact, Swan (2001) concluded that interaction with instructors led to higher student satisfaction and perceived learning than interaction with peers.

Within the context of online learning, teaching presence is defined as “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes” (Anderson, Rouke, Garrison, and Archer, 2001, p. 24). Anderson et al. (2001) described teaching presence as having three main components: (a) instructional design and organization, (b) facilitating discourse, and © direct instruction.
In particular, instructional design had the greatest impact with well-designed courses leading to high levels of student reported satisfaction and learning.

Teaching presence is enhanced by what Moore (1990) called “transactional distance,” or the amount of dialogue that takes place between teacher and learner and how much structure the class provides. Moore (1993) defined transactional distance as the “psychological and communications space to be crossed” (p. 22) by instructors and students who are geographically separated. Under Moore’s model, a highly distant online classroom would feature very little dialogue between teacher and student and very little structure. The opposite, much dialogue and high structure, would offer the least distance (Garrison, 2000; Moore, 1990; Stein and Wanstreet, 2003).

Students value both social and teaching presence in online courses. In fact, it is the teaching presence that seems to link the social presence to the cognitive presence or deep learning that occurs in a course. In particular, students value meaningful dialogue and timely feedback from their instructors (Scollin-Mantha, 2008). Students with high overall perceptions of social presence also scored high in their perceived learning and perceived satisfaction with their instructor (Richardson and Swan, 2003). Research on teacher immediacy behaviors took into account many of the same factors as teaching and social presence. For example, both the quality and quantity of student participation can improve with greater teacher immediacy such as using student names, encouragement, and humor (Lobry de Bruyn, 2004). When compared to high teacher immediacy behaviors, Rifkind (1992) related a lack of immediacy to lower levels of affective student learning, higher levels of student frustration, and a more critical attitude demonstrated by the instructor.

Anderson et al. (2001) identified strategies to develop teaching presence based on the three components of instructional design, discourse facilitation, and direct instruction. Effective instructional design strategies included communicating detailed instructions and clear outcomes. Facilitating discourse in a learning community involved engaging students in meaningful dialogue, acknowledging student contributions, and helping students to reach consensus. Examples of direct or guided instruction included the instructor focusing or summarizing discussions, interjecting material from additional sources, and confirming understanding.

In additional strategies to facilitate effective online learning environments, Wheeler (2005) recommended that faculty respond to students with comprehensive, encouraging messages and feedback sent in a timely manner. Many faculty begin a course with student introductions and model the behaviors that they want students to emulate. To build a teaching and learning community, McInnerney and Roberts (2004) recommend timely synchronous communication in addition to asynchronous communication.

How to Promote Teaching Presence

There are many techniques to increase teaching presence as advocated by Quality Matters and Sloan-C. In 2012 SLIS used the Sloan-C Quality Scorecard to assess and measure the quality of our online programs. Our School’s online programs received a score in the exemplary range according to the Sloan-C Quality Scorecard. Teaching and Learning is one of the nine areas of quality, and SLIS noted some of the ways in which instructors use specific strategies to create a presence in the course:
• Instructors all provide a welcome message at the beginning of the class.
• Instructors are required to use a variety of teaching methods: lectures (which can be delivered live via web conferencing; recorded via web conferencing or Adobe Presenter or Panopto); written up via word documents. Instructors are also required to participate in the discussion forums; and respond within 48 hours to all student questions. They are also required to provide individual feedback to assignments.
• Also Standard 3. Instructor Contribution to Course Content and Student Learning of the SLIS Online Teaching Standards and Indicators. http://slisweb.sjsu.edu/downloads/SLIS_Online_Teaching_Standards.pdf
There is not a proscribed way to establish teaching presence so instructors can select the methods that are most appropriate for the course. The bibliography includes sources that discuss each of the elements of COI and suggestions to implement techniques in the online classroom.

* Excerpts of this entry were taken from: Alman, Susan W., Barbara A. Frey, and Christinger Tomer. Social and Cognitive Presence as Factors in Learning and Student Retention: An Investigation of the Cohort Model in an iSchool Setting. J. of Education for Library and Information Science, Vol. 53, No. 4—(Fall) October 2012.

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