In both online and face to face courses, the class climate and sense of community play a significant role in the learning experience. The benefits of a positive and welcoming learning community are well-documented (e.g. Garrison, 2007). In a learning community, students connect with others and work together to co-construct knowledge. Learning communities include the instructor and the students, but the instructor sets the climate and ensure that the community is people-centered, productive, and respectful (Mandernach et al., 2006). The Community of Inquiry Model emphasizes the importance of instructor presence in the overall learning experience. This is based on survey results reporting that instructor presence is a significant factor in student satisfaction, perceived learning, and sense of community (Garrison, 2007). In other words, how students perceive their instructor influences their learning experience by affecting motivation and communication. In particular, the first week of a new course is a crucial time for establishing instructor presence (Dennen, 2007). This is when students assess their comfort level and develop a sense of connectedness, which then sets the tone for the remainder of the course. From the first week onwards, frequent and effective interaction with students maintains instructor presence and continues to support the learning community (Mandernach et al., 2006). This leads to the important point that there are multiple facets in the role of the instructor. Berge described an instructor’s roles as four-fold: pedagogical (ensuring that learning is taking place), managerial (setting the course structure), technical (ensuring comfort with tools and technology), and social (creating a friendly environment to support learning) (2008). The social aspect is critical in promoting relationships, developing cohesiveness, and establishing the learning community.
Establishing a positive learning environment in an online course may be more challenging due to the reliance on asynchronous technology-mediated interactions rather than personal human dynamics (Mandernach et al., 2006). The impersonal framework of eLearning and the potential for disconnectedness and isolation has put greater emphasis on the issue of community (Garrison, 2007). In a face to face classroom, each instructor will have developed specific approaches for building rapport with their learners. These approaches may include small talk prior to class, sharing personal stories, discussing projects they are working on, and other techniques to create a positive and welcoming community (Wright & Moke, n.d.). In online courses, instructors may forego these activities, missing the opportunity to build a sense of familiarity with their students. However, there are numerous ways an instructor can enhance presence and create community in an online environment. Although online instructors may never meet their students, students still want to get to know their instructors. At the outset of a course, the instructor can create an introductory welcome forum for biography posts. Here the instructor would start by posting a photo and/or video and some biographical information, including personal interests (Reeder, 2010), and then encourage students to post about themselves. Another way an instructor can establish presence is to set synchronous online office hours. Online office hours are pre-arranged days and times when the instructor will be available via Skype, chat, or other technological means (Cole & Kritzer, 2009). Weekly video messages are another way to establish presence and enhance community. Short 3 to 5 minute videos can be easily recorded using various technologies, providing students with an auditory and visual connection with the instructor (Cole & Kritzer, 2009). Aside from the personal look and feel, these videos provide students with important information about the course as it progresses. Voicethread takes the weekly videos one step further by allowing students to post audio, video, or text comments (Wright & Moke, n.d.). This creates a multimedia discussion board that replicates typical face to face interactions more closely than a video alone. Screencasts may be used where a visual demonstration would be helpful for students (Wright & Moke, n.d.). These tools create videos of a computer screen while recording the instructor’s voice, mimicking a demonstration that would occur in a face to face classroom. Soliciting feedback is another technique for the instructor to maintain community in a course. Since the instructor can’t see the students’ facial expressions or body language, it becomes increasingly difficult to assess where learners are at and how they feel about the course. Anonymous surveys or evaluation forms will not only help instructors identify and improve problems, but also sends the message to students that the instructor cares about what they think and how they are doing (Reeder, 2010). A final example of increasing instructor presence in online courses is the active participation in discussion forums. A significant part of making presence known to students online is to initiate and contribute to discussion forums (Creating & Maintaining an Instructor Presence, 2010). This could involve adding new information to re-start stalled conversations or posing thought-provoking questions to students to deepen the conversation, which mimics what would happen in a face to face class discussion. Participating in discussion threads also allows the instructor to share their enthusiasm with students.
A significant issue with respect to the role of the instructor in developing community is the lack of instructor training and awareness. Without understanding the importance of community and their influence on its development, an instructor may not consider the social aspect of their role, particularly in online teaching. In this case, a common pitfall occurs when the instructor puts more emphasis on their technical and managerial roles than on their pedagogical and social roles (Berge, 2008). It’s not uncommon for an instructor to set up the online course website and step back with hopes that learning will take place (Easton, 2003). This detracts from community-building and negatively impacts the social aspect of learning that is so important in online adult education. Even if an instructor is aware of how crucial an online community can be, they may not know how to approach community development in an online course. Training programs can help educate instructors about the importance of their role in online communities and can give them the tools to enhance their presence (see examples described above).
In my recent experience as an adult online learner, I have come to value instructor presence and its significance in creating the sense of community in a course. In other words, I’ve seen the direct link between the role of the instructor and the development of a learning community. In 2011, I took two PIDP courses online with two different instructors. In both courses, the instructors demonstrated a clear presence from the beginning and established a people-centered community of learning. For example, the instructors posted weekly update videos, scheduled synchronous chat sessions, were active in discussion forums, and responded promptly to any questions or concerns. The active involvement of the instructors contributed to a positive social climate and a welcoming feel throughout each course. Because of this, I truly enjoyed interacting with others and with the course material, and I’m certain that I learned more because of the connections that I made. Both of these courses were valuable learning experiences centered on the instructors’ presence and the resulting effects on the overall class climate.
I’ve also witnessed the other side of the coin, so to speak. In the EDUC 4150 course last fall, the lack of instructor presence was detrimental to the learning community. The instructor did not provide a personal introduction at the outset of the course, was not an active participant in the discussions, did not post weekly videos, and lacked immediacy in responding to questions (if at all). I felt absolutely no connection with the instructor and dreaded approaching him with a question. The participants of this course, being instructors ourselves, clearly saw the need for social interaction and community as key elements of learning. We banded together and supported each other’s learning as much as possible. However, our communal frustration continued to grow throughout the course, ultimately coming to the point where we all wrote a letter of complaint to the Dean. This situation demonstrates the severity of the impact of instructor presence on a group of eLearners. Despite my best efforts, I learned very little in that course. I attribute this result to the lack of community, stemming from the lack of instructor presence. The knowledge construction would have been much more powerful if the instructor had been an active facilitator in the course. I sometimes wonder if things would have turned out differently if we had complained earlier on in the course. I suppose the outcome would depend on the motivation, training, and time availability of the instructor. Regardless, this experience emphasized the importance of instructor presence in the establishment of an online learning community.
Due to my recent positive and negative experiences relating to the instructor’s role in establishing community, I approached this journal entry with a heightened awareness of this issue. However, my readings about the strong relationship between instructor presence and establishing community have solidified my understanding and emphasized the importance of this connection in eLearning. I agree with what the literature states about face to face instructors, who often don’t need to put in a conscious effort to establish community (Mandernach, 2006). Their presence in a face to face class is a given and their verbal and non-verbal contributions help to establish and maintain community throughout a course. In the face to face classes that I teach, I rarely consciously consider what I must say or do to create a learning community. Of course, I facilitate discussions, share relevant personal experiences, and encourage mutual respect, but these are things I do naturally and don’t consciously think about. However, as a relatively new online instructor, I’ve found that I really have to make a continual conscious effort to fulfill the social aspect of my teaching role. Up until recently, I’ve had no training around online instruction, so I analyzed what my online PIDP instructors did well and tried to replicate that in my own teaching. For example, because I appreciated instructor involvement in forums, I have also actively participated in forums in my own online instruction. I’ve also included welcome biography forums and I provide prompt feedback and answers to questions. I also make a point of offering encouragement and positive comments to maintain a comfortable and welcoming climate. Although the literature has confirmed that what I’m doing is a good start in establishing community online, there are other things I can do to strengthen my presence and therefore the development of community.
This research and reflection has led me to wonder about the online instructors who haven’t taken online courses themselves and who haven’t undergone any eLearning training programs. I am curious about whether new online instructors are aware of the importance of their role in community, and how this role differs from face to face teaching. I can envision a lot of new instructors learning about this the hard way, through negative course feedback and poor student engagement and performance. This thought saddens me because I have experienced the negative impacts associated with a lack of instructor presence and I don’t wish that on any student. I truly hope that institutions are properly preparing their faculty for the social role in online instruction. Also, if institutions could increase the amount of time instructors are paid for, this might provide incentive for enhanced involvement and presence in online courses. My current employer has offered no encouragement or incentive for my eLearning training, but I’m taking this certificate program for the ultimate benefit of my students. I hope there are many other online instructors out there with the same motivation.
The link between instructor presence and community is essential for me to consider as I work on developing and teaching online courses in the future. Through my recent experience and readings on this subject I’ve learned how a lack of instructor presence can be detrimental to the sense of community in a course, and ultimately how this impacts learning. I’ve also come across some new ideas about how to enhance my presence in my online courses. I plan to continue most of my current practices to establish presence, but there are a few new things I’d like to incorporate into the next online courses that I teach. For example, in the past I have never posted weekly update videos for students. I usually just sent out a weekly email reminding students of due dates and any other news, but this may be perceived as impersonal. A video with my face and voice would be much more personal and show students that I cared enough to construct and post it. I’ve also never held synchronous office hours, instead relying on students to ask questions via email or discussion forums. In the first week of my next online course, I’d like to ask students to fill out a form indicating their day and time preferences for online office hours so I can accommodate as many people as possible. In terms of student feedback, I’ve only asked students to complete a summative evaluation form at the end of each online course. At this point, I’ve lost the opportunity to improve the course before its conclusion. I’d like to add in at least one anonymous formative survey per course to gather feedback about how things are going for students. This would occur about 30% of the way through the course (e.g. at 3 weeks into a 10 week course). Finally, I’d like to incorporate more Screencasts into my online courses to make the content more interesting and visual. I could use Screencasts in my online Soils course when showing students how to perform different calculations. I could also use Screencasts in my online Botany course by showing and explaining the different parts of plant tissue as viewed through a microscope. To summarize, the tools I want to incorporate in order to strengthen my role and my impact on the course community are:
- Weekly update videos.
- Synchronous office hours based on student availability.
- Formative feedback using anonymous surveys.
- Screencasts for calculations and other demonstrations.
Although there are many additional ways to enhance my presence and its effects on community, I want to make manageable adjustments to my courses now and will add more techniques later on.
Berge, Z.L. (2008). Changing instructor’s roles in virtual worlds. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 9(4): 407-414.
Cole, J.E., & Kritzer, J.B. (2009). Strategies for success: Teaching an online course. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 28(4): 36-40.
Creating & Maintaining an Instructor Presence. (2010). Distance Education Services, Continuing Studies, University of Victoria. Retrieved February 3, 2013 from http://distance.uvic.ca/pdfs/instructors/Creating-Maintaining-Instructor-Presence.pdf
Dennen, V.P. (2007). Presence and positioning as components of online instructor persona. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 40(1): 95-108.
Easton, S.S. (2003). Clarifying the instructor’s role in online distance learning. Communication Education, 52(2): 87-105.
Garrison, D. R. (2007). Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1): 61-72.
Mandernach, B.J., Gonzales, R.M., & Garrett, A.L. (2006). An examination of online instructor presence via threaded discussion participation. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 2(4): 1-9. Retrieved February 7, 2013 from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol2no4/mandernach.htm
Reeder, C. (2010). Keys to creating a successful online course for do-it-yourselfers. Education Digest, 75(5): 24-27.
Wright, L., & Moke, C. (n.d.). 10 ways to enhance instructor presence in online programs. Retrieved February 3, 2013 from http://www.deltak-innovation.com/sites/dtk/files/DELTAK-10-way-lowres_0.pdf