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Best Practices | Cultivating a Sense of Presence in Your Online Course

When considering the basic differences between face-to-face and online classes, the digital separation between students and instructor-as well as between students-is typically what first comes to mind. Unfortunately, this separation, if not properly managed, can lead to students feeling isolated and disoriented in the online platform and ultimately result in dissatisfaction and lack of retention in the online learning environment (Lehman & Conceição, 2010).


Separation, if not properly managed, can lead to students feeling isolated and disoriented in the online platform.  


Instructors can help to combat this sense of separation and isolation by cultivating presence in their online course. In this case, presence refers to an impression of community connectedness, togetherness, and awareness that is created via the expression strategic thoughts, feelings, and actions through an online medium. In order to create presence in an online course, there are a few areas an instructor may want to address, in particular, preparing for presence, investing in training, setting up students for success, focusing on communication, monitoring effectiveness, and embracing feedback.

Prepare for Presence

Proper preparation in creating the elements of presence before your course begins will help you feel confident when delivering your course. Your level of preparation will be reflected in the course and will affect students' perceptions of your commitment to the course as well as your expertise on the subject. Additionally, your level of preparation will affect how students value the course. It is wise to approach your course with a strategic plan that outlines how you will be present for students. Your strategic plan should include creating a course facilitation plan, reviewing your instructional methods and activities, preparing for the unexpected, and performing a test run of your course's functionality before it goes live. Reviewing the types of activities, interactions, strategies, and technologies you plan to use throughout your course can illuminate areas of the course in which more instructor presence may be required. Adequate preparation before the course begins is critical in making presence happen in your online course.

Invest in Training

Good course development and design always begins with training, especially when considering the modes through which you will connect with your students in an online learning environment. One of the most important things you can do is become familiar with the learning management system (LMS), its features and its limitations. Having technical understanding and familiarity is an incredible asset once the course goes live and students begin interacting with the learning environment you have created. Not only will you be able to plan learning activities that utilize the LMS's interactive features to the fullest, but you'll also be able to troubleshoot any potential issues that may arise. CIRT Events offers regular training sessions on a variety of relevant topics, including using the Grade Center and other assessment tools. CIRT also provides walk-in training and troubleshooting as well as phone and email support. You might also consider connecting with someone in your department who is experienced in working with the LMS and designing effective online courses. Peer collaboration is an excellent way to be introduced to new ideas and methods for cultivating presence in your course and can also provide an added layer of support unique to your department or area of expertise.

Set Students Up for Success

Students in an online course come from a variety of backgrounds. Lehman and Conceição (2010) point out that, "no matter who your learners are, you must provide services to meet their needs" (p. 40). One of these services should include making initial contact with your students by sending a welcome letter, video, or announcement before the course begins. A pre-course announcement will give you an opportunity to introduce yourself, your vision for the course, and a personal invitation to students to get involved with the class. A welcome message from their instructor not only sends students the message that you care about their learning experience, but also that you will be monitoring their interactions in the course.


Providing a detailed orientation to your course will set the pace for students and give them a valuable introduction that includes navigation details, course expectations, course timeline, instructor contact, and netiquette rules (Lehman & Conceição, 2010). The orientation can take the form of a scavenger hunt, survey, quiz, etc. and will facilitate a connection between the students, the instructor, and the content. It is also important to make no assumptions about the level of expertise or the technical abilities of your students. Toward that end, you might want consider linking students to relevant and helpful resources like the LMS's help site, UNF's Student Online Learning Orientation course in Blackboard, as well as any technology-specific instructions needed for success in the course.


Build a sense of student presence by including introductory activities for students to complete during the first week of class. Typically known as icebreakers, these introductory activities can take the form of blogs, discussion boards, group activities, or minor multimedia projects. Whatever the icebreaker is, it should involve students introducing themselves and sharing personal (not private) anecdotes. "A well-designed pre-course orientation can help learners feel they are part of the learning community," which is a critical component of student success and retention (Lehman & Conceição, 2010, p. 41). Ultimately, the initial services you provide to students help them "get ready for a safe and comfortable [learning] environment" (Lehman &Conceição, 2010, p. 40).

Focus on Communication

Focusing on communication with your students in your online course will enable you to provide support, encourage learning, and resolve conflicts-all crucial parts of creating presence. Determine which parts of your course will require your facilitation and which parts can be self-paced. Making this determination will give you an idea, depending on the assignment or activity, of where to focus your presence and whether you should be interacting with students one-on-one, with groups of students, or if students should be interacting with one another.


Once you have decided on where you will be present, you must determine how you will be present. The Announcements feature in Blackboard provides an opportunity to check in, maintain continuity, and keep students on task. Weekly announcements are a great place to provide basic directions for assignments, explain requirements or grading criteria, show and offer support related to course content, and give gentle reminders of deadlines and upcoming assignments. Your announcements should be conversational and personal-they serve as a way for you to remotely connect with your students. Specific details, personal information, or actual instruction are not appropriate for announcements.


In a traditional class, office hours are typically held in the instructor's office or department. Maintain your commitment to meeting with students who need support in your online class by becoming proficient in technologies that will enable you meet virtually, such as Blackboard Collaborate, Skype, and Google Hangouts. Often times, students who take classes online are familiar with technology and may prefer to hear or see you via an audio or video announcement. Consider providing video feedback to students' assignments so as to encourage and inspire their learning; this feature is built into Blackboard in the Record from Webcam tool. Focused and strategic communication will result in a sense of connectedness between you and your students and will send the message that you care about their experience in your course.


Writing is probably the most common medium through which instructors interact with their students in an online course, particularly when providing support, inciting discussion, and provoking critical thinking; however, the written word can sometimes be confusing, redundant, and impersonal. Developing strong instructor-student, student-student, and student-content connections is essential for a successful online learning environment. You can facilitate these types of connections through writing by paying attention to your tone, highlighting the most important details, focusing on quality over quantity, and being succinct in your feedback. Writing with these intentions will help prepare students for the course, deliver the essential content, and clarify any ambiguities.

Monitor Effectiveness

A variety of approaches can be used to identify which activities and formats incorporated into your course are working to create a sense of presence. Utilizing the following strategies will help to shed light on the level of instructor and student presence in your course:

  • LMS User Progress Report: Most learning management systems can compile some type of user progress report to identify which students have been active and when. In Blackboard, this feature is known as the Retention Center. Utilizing this feature allows you to identify students who may not be participating so that you can contact them and attempt to connect them to the course.
  • Student Participation: While the LMS might provide data about student activity, monitoring and being aware of student participation with regard to discussion forums, assessments, group work, social networking, etc. will illuminate whether your level of presence is sufficient or needs improvement.
  • Student and Instructor Activity in Non-Content Related Area: Provide students an opportunity to come together in the course over non-content related information. Including a "Q&A," "Technical Help," or "Think Tank" forum in your discussions area will encourage students to communicate with one another and with the instructor. Evaluating the interaction in these non-content related areas will determine if more or less presence is needed outside of the curriculum.
  • Course Surveys and Evaluations: Deploying mid-term and end of term surveys and evaluations is an excellent way to gather first-hand information from students. Using mid-term course surveys in particular "shows your concern about your learners...provides you with information on how the course is progressing, and...gives you an opportunity to better meet your learners' needs" (Lehman & Conceição, 2010, p. 86). Employing open-ended questions is recommended in both mid-term and end of term surveys and evaluations so that students can reflect on the course and share and process feelings related to their learning experience.

Embrace Feedback

Acting upon course feedback (i.e., from surveys and evaluations) will enable you to not only fine-tune your course, but also continually improve on your effectiveness as an online instructor. As Lehman and Conceição (2010) point out, it is important to recognize that instructor and student "presence may vary from course to course even when you are teaching the same course" (p. 88). Examining formative and summative feedback can help you increase your understanding of student performance, gain credibility among your students, build engagement in future iterations of the course, and establish favorable learning conditions. Look for relationships between student grades, attitudes, and participation in your course activities and assessments. Embracing feedback and making appropriate changes in your course will continue to develop your sense of presence in your course and will ultimately result in you being more comfortable with the online learning environment.

References

Kahnweiler, J. (2013). Quiet influence: The introvert's guide to making a difference. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Lehman, R. & Conceição, S. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.