“Where’s my instructor? Am I being taught by a computer?” “I got an 80 on my paper and the only comment was good work—how do I improve?” Sad to say that these are not uncommon questions, they are all too frequently raised by students in some online courses or at some online institutions. Over the years my colleagues and I have “reviewed” hundreds of courses for our Educational Partners and have, more frequently than we would like, asked similar questions – where is the instructor presence that is so necessary to the success of students in a course and the retention of students in a program.
I once had a professor, in a brick-and-mortar classroom, tell us on the first day of class that we wouldn’t be meeting during the term because we had our textbook and we only were required to come to the classroom for the midterm and the final. I wondered at the time, what is he being paid for? I transferred to another section but other students didn’t and they received no value for the tuition they paid (beyond the credit hours) – only value for the textbook they purchased. How can a similar, completely undesirable scenario be avoided in online courses. How can we provide students with an answer to the question – where is my instructor?
As some wag might say, “it’s not brain surgery!” Any instructor with the desire to actively “teach” students can be “present” in the course and provide students with that desirable presence and support that are the hallmark of a good instructor. As our Academic Training and Consulting staff has said in many venues, you can achieve a strong instructor presence by following some clear best practices:
Welcome your students to your course:
• Send a Welcome Email the week before your course starts and then send a very similar First Day Email the day the course opens.
• Post a Welcome Announcement that students will see when they enter your course.
• Respond with a personal “welcome” to each student in the Introductions discussion site which we recommend be placed under Course Home.
• Place a “welcome” message with the course overview statement on the Course Homepage.
Tell your students who you are and how to contact you:
• Post contact information in the Syllabus and in an Announcement referring students to the Syllabus. We recommend an Office for course-related questions and email for personal issues. And, don’t forget to tell students to use the Help Pages or to contact the Help Desk for assistance with technical issues.
• Post a biographical statement and a photo in the Syllabus with your contact information. Here you might also add a link to an audio clip. An alternative is to have an Instructor Introduction content item under Course Home with this information.
Communicate regularly throughout the course:
• Respond within 24 hours during the week to course-related questions posted in the Office discussion site which we recommend be placed under Course Home.
• Respond within 24 hours during the week to personal issues sent to you by email.
• Post a Weekly Announcement, at a minimum, to keep students informed of course events and consider sending a Weekly Email with the same information to ensure that all students are seeing your “messaging.”
• Actively facilitate unit or weekly discussions with a presence on multiple days in the discussion – many institutions require an instructor presence in discussions a minimum of three days a week but we recommend more active facilitation.
Provide constructive feedback on assessed course items:
• Provide constructive feedback on assignments in the Gradebook or the Dropbox comment areas.
• Provide constructive feedback on assignments themselves if you download them to your desktop and make comments using track changes or a similar program.
• Provide constructive feedback on discussion participation in the Gradebook.
• Provide constructive feedback on exams and quizzes in the Gradebook comment area unless you allow students to see both questions and answers on the review date.
As you may have heard our Academic Trainers and Consultants say before, “Good teaching is good teaching – in the classroom or online.” Much of what is recommended above would be a carryover from the classroom of any good instructor.
Our advice is to be proactive in establishing and maintaining an instructor presence in your courses. Get actively involved and let education happen for your students.
Ken Switzer, Ph.D.
Senior Academic Trainer and Consultant