Awareness of the presence of a passionate, knowledgeable and skilled online teacher improves student confidence supporting independent learning and socialisation of the learning experience. Regular online communication can bolster student awareness of the support and availability of the teacher and humanise the expectations around learning activities and assessment. Teacher presence can also support the development of learning communities for purposeful interaction between students. This element supports enhanced learner-teacher and learner-learner engagement.
A recurring theme in discussions with experienced distance and online teachers at CSU and one well supported in the literature is the idea that students respond very positively to subjects in which they feel that their learning is being supported by a teacher rather than feeling that they are being expected to study alone. While the elements discussed thus far focus considerable attention on achieving a strong social presence in the online learning site, the role of the teacher remains critical in this setting. Akyol, Garrison, & Ozden (2011), for example, suggest that online students often need more teacher guidance than on campus students to ensure knowledge and skill development, effective communication within the learning community and overall course satisfaction.
Much of the literature that would be referred to for ‘teacher presence’ is the Community of Inquiry literature that, as Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2010) point out, started as such with several articles around the year 2000 (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison & Archer, 1999; Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001; Anderson, Rourke, Garrison & Archer, 2001). The Community of Inquiry framework, however, refers to ‘teaching’ presence, rather than ‘teacher’ presence, and includes peer teaching by students as well as instructional design and subject organisation (Anderson et al. 2001).
The notion of Teacher Presence within the Online Learning Model, however, focuses specifically on the immediacy and visibility of the teacher rather than the curriculum preparation included in the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework. Awareness of the presence of a passionate, knowledgeable and skilled online teacher has the potential to improve student confidence supporting independent learning and socialisation of the learning experience.
Teacher presence includes setting the tone of interaction and the instructor’s disposition is significant (Sheridan, Kelly & Bentz, 2013) which are elements of the broader notion of social presence. The emotional tone that the teacher creates in the learning space can show interest in the students’ learning and success and is related to ‘instructor immediacy’. Baker (p. 2) refers to Anderson’s (1979) finding “that immediacy-producing behaviours by teachers were significant predictors of instructional effectiveness.”
Regular online communication between teachers and students can bolster student awareness of the support and availability of the teacher and humanise the expectations around learning activities and assessment. Swan (2001) and others emphasise that the more interaction students believed that they had with their instructor, the more they were satisfied with their course. Ally (2008, p. 32) asserts that, “Interaction is critical to creating a sense of presence and a sense of community for online learners, and to promoting transformational learning”.
Teacher presence can also support the development of learning communities for purposeful interaction between students. For example, Kreijns et al. (2003) and McInnerney and Roberts (2004) highlight the importance of the teacher undertaking deliberate work towards the establishment of an effective learning community. Salmon (2004) also highlights the importance of the teacher’s role in establishing a learning community, presenting a detailed online teaching model which includes online socialisation as a key element within the model.
Anderson defined an excellent online teacher as having sufficient technical skills to navigate and contribute effectively, the capacity to develop trust and safety and resilience, innovativeness and perseverance (Anderson, 2004 as cited in Akyol & Garrison, 2011a, p. 26). Akyol refers to the need for teaching presence to address the “design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes to support and enhance a meaningful learning experience” (Akyol & Garrison, 2011a, p. 26).
Very close engagement between online teachers and students can take up a lot of time and academic staff workload can constrain this. However, there are a number of strategies for bolstering the sense of teacher presence in a subject that don’t necessarily take more time. The desktop recording of presentations or the recording of lectures for face to face students, as well as the provision of synchronous sessions using web conferencing software such as Adobe Connect or Blackboard Collaborate provide valuable connections between learners and teachers facilitating a stronger teacher presence. Strategies for structuring and responding to student forum discussions can maximise the peer support of students and maximise the impact of lecturer responses without increasing the time spent managing the forum. Strategies that make the support of students by a teacher more explicit are also likely to lead to improvements in students’ rating of the quality of their experience through external surveys such as the Course Experience Questionnaire, which refer explicitly or implicitly to teaching and to student engagement with their teaching staff.
A number of researchers have noted that teacher photographs, voice snapshots or welcome videos integrated within the online materials can be an important strategy for highlighting teacher presence. Swan et al. (2008, p.3) for example lists the inclusion of PowerPoint presentations, audio/video mini-lectures, and the provision of personal insights within the course materials as valuable strategies. Similarly, Garrison & Arbaugh (2007, p.168) highlight the inclusion of audio and video material within virtual learning environments as having potential positive implications for all three kinds of presence defined within the Community of Inquiry model. Anderson (2008, p.359) states that “although teaching presence is most commonly set in synchronous or asynchronous activities of the virtual classroom, it can also be set through fixed formats such as … audio-, video-, or text-based presentations”.
Others highlighting the potential for highlighting teacher presence within subject content include Lowenthal (2010) who notes that “people perceive some communication media as having a higher degree of social presence (e.g., video) than other communication media (e.g., audio)”. Sheridan (1992) mentions video as part of conveying telepresence, Ostashewski (2015) suggests the use of video as a strategy for teacher presence, Dunlap and Lowenthal (2009) recognise audio and video as a way of creating social presence, while Arbaugh (2001) suggests that video can convey teacher immediacy.
Thoughtfully managed communication tone and structure of the learning environment can encourage student participation and agency. The tone of interaction and the instructor’s disposition have an important role (Sheridan, Kelly & Bentz, 2013) and are elements of the broader notion of social presence. Dunlap & Lowenthal (2009, p. 130) point out about social presence: “Originally developed to explain the effect telecommunications media can have on communication, social presence was used to describe the degree of salience (i.e., quality or state of “being there”) between two communicators using a communication medium (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976).” Similarly, social presence in the Community of Inquiry literature includes ‘emotional expression’ (e.g. Garrison et al. 2000, p. 89) and “the ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real people’”.
The emotional tone that the teacher creates in the learning space can show interest in the students’ learning and success and is related to ‘instructor immediacy’. Arbaugh (2001, p. 43) states that “immediacy refers to communication behaviours that reduce social and psychological distance between people (Mehrabian, 1971; Myers, Zhong, & Guan, 1998)”. He explains that it traditionally included both verbal and non-verbal behaviours such as eye contact, smiling, body position, and using personal examples or humour. Baker (2004) sets immediacy and its reduction of psychological distance in the context of Moore’s (1993) transactional distance theory. Baker (p. 2) refers to Anderson’s (1979) finding “that immediacy-producing behaviours by teachers were significant predictors of instructional effectiveness.”
The Teacher Presence element is exemplified by:
- Welcome videos, audio recordings and photographs.
- Teacher photographs or voice snapshots throughout the online materials.
- Thoughtfully managed communication tone to encourage student participation and agency.
- Explicit acknowledgement and naming of all staff involved in the subject delivery.
- Timely responses to student online questions and Comments.
- New resources, including voice or video commentary, during the session in response to emergent ideas.
The TOL Learning Experience Framework, while encouraging designers to draw upon the OLM in a way which best meets the learning needs of the particular cohort, also recommends specific strategies to enact the Teacher Presence element, as follows:
- Teaching undertaken by knowledgeable and skilled academic staff with involvement from Industry - eg guest speakers or guest online discussion facilitators.
- Flexible teacher presence through synchronous and asynchronous engagement as well as through audio visual material within subject learning resources.
- Responsive teaching supported by learning analytics.
- Ideally teaching academics mark student’s work, when necessary additional qualified markers will be employed to ensure timely turn-around of marking/feedback on assessment tasks.
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