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Creating Teacher Presence Online

When I started working through the online teaching course, one of the questions that I wanted an answer to was how can I help students to engage?

It is easy to see when a student is active on a discussion board and conclude that they are engaging. Some students are “lurkers” who are very active with the learning material and perhaps even read all the discussions, but don’t leave a trail of their engagement. Engagement can also fluctuate at different time points of the student’s studies, which is normal.

High transactional distance is like a view in a fog.

And then there are the students who are not engaging, who may benefit from support.

Transactional distance

A lack of engagement cannot necessarily be blamed on a student’s lack of motivation or personal circumstances, although these of course do matter. Increased transactional distance can make it hard for any student to engage. Transactional distance is a structural problem where the student might experience any of the following:

  • a lack of dialogue between the teacher and student
  • the education programme is too structured/rigid, or
  • the student lacks autonomy.

Teacher presence is highly significant for student satisfaction and a lack of this will generate high levels of transactional distance.

How can I improve my teaching presence?

I suppose the best way to demonstrate the importance of teacher presence is to ask what would happen if the teacher were not there. What does the teacher bring to the student experience? In my mind, there are three levels where the teacher is present. During the creation of the course material, during the period that the students are actively participating in the course, and after the course has finished in the form of assessment and feedback.

Level 1: the teacher pre-selects the material for the course, acting as a sieve to a world where it is not possible to know everything. The material presented is not simply a chunk of knowledge that students are expected to assimilate. Teacher presence should be built into the system. The teacher leaves signposts along the way by clearly outlining expectations, building bridges, putting material into context, and highlighting the important bits. The formatting of the material aims to support different student learning styles by considering the use of text, images, audio, and video. The teacher is responsible at this stage for creating “flow” for the students, or may otherwise find themselves firefighting the effects of poor engagement or increased need for support whilst the course is running.

Teacher presence can improve the view.

Level 2: the students enter the online course and start interacting with the course material. Their experience of the course will vary individually and as such there is no way for the teacher to completely avoid the need for support in the planning stage. Teacher presence is vital whilst the course is running. To provide a good foundation for dialogue, a short teacher biography and an introductory email when the course starts are good ways to start building trust. Reminding students of your presence via weekly email summaries, which might include signposting or answers to frequently asked questions, is a good way to “keep the door to your office open,” lowering the threshold for students to get in touch. Highlighting that you are here for both learning and pastoral support from the beginning can help to avoid ghostly drop-outs. Finally, when leaving comments on discussion forums or assignments, the teacher’s role is to be a facilitator of dialogue and a good listener. You are there to be the students’ audience, to encourage, and to guide. “Just giving the right answer” is rarely useful or memorable to the student.

Level 3: If using discussion forums, the teacher can do a round-up of the topic at the end of the course and offer one last chance to ask questions. It’s also good to give feedback at this stage, pointing out the ways that the students were successful and perhaps filling in any gaps in knowledge. If there was an assessment to be completed, having a drop-in feedback session where you discuss the common problems and answer any questions is helpful. It also shows that you care about the students’ outcomes and the students are not left over thin air with an assessment mark but no idea where it came from. This could be done for example as a video link drop-in session (or several if you have lots of time-zones) with a slideshow of common problems and then a chance for students to post questions  in the video chat function.

In conclusion, building in teacher presence at different stages of an online course is vital for reducing transactional distance and improving student engagement. It is normal for the level of engagement to fluctuate over time and teachers should accept that not all engagement is necessarily visible to them, but adequate teacher presence should act as a safety net to catch those students who are in need of support.

2 replies to “Creating Teacher Presence Online”

  1. mbreines says:

    Hi Emilia,
    I hope the course will give you some ideas on how to help students engage. It is a challenge when you can’t see them and don’t know their reasons for not engaging.
    Your points about teacher presence are well thought out. You seem to have a good idea of how you will do this in your own teaching. I guess each teacher’s capacity to do this depends on the number of students as well as other commitments, but it seems that you have set up a strategy that could work well for you. I like how you think of teacher presence as a process that can take different forms at different stages. What might work in week 2 might not work anymore in week 8, so an approach that develops over time would presumably help keep students engaged. Finally, you mentioned that ‘teacher presence should act as a safety net to catch those students who are in need of support’. How about the students who don’t reach out – can other modes of teacher presence or community building prevent or help identify these students?
    Best wishes,

    1. Emilia Porter says:

      Hi Markus,
      that’s a good question and the answer probably depends on many things, including the teacher’s other commitments, the group size, and cultural factors, for example. It’s possible for all these support structures (i.e. safety net) to be present in face-to-face teaching too without a student reaching out for help. The difference to online teaching is that it’s more obvious when a student does not turn up to class, so can be flagged by the teacher to the appropriate support provider.
      With online platforms such as Blackboard Learn, I know it’s possible to monitor “view statistics,” which might give you some idea of who is engaging and who isn’t, but these might be skewed for various reasons (e.g. accessibility, family and work commitments, etc). I suppose if you were concerned that a student was disengaged, you could contact them personally via email to check if they’re happy and point them towards support, but this can take a lot of time if you are teaching a large course.
      Finally, I think cultural factors will also influence the teacher’s approach. Different cultures have different levels of hierarchy and pastoral care between the teacher and students. In Finland where I come from, we view university students as adults who are responsible for their own education and therefore the onus is on them to ask for help if they need it. If they do ask for help, it is readily available and you get lots of “second chances” to complete a course. However, if a concerned teacher were to contact the student first, this might be seen as prying rather than caring.
      My experience in the UK is that a university student is viewed more as part of the community and the community is committed to looking after its members, including reaching out to those who might be struggling. With a better sense of community, the students probably have higher levels of trust towards the teacher, so approaching the student with an offer to help would probably be accepted more easily. However, with increasing numbers of international students on courses, I think it’s worth considering the cultural implications when offering support. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to this question.

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