Presence is a blessing, omnipresence is a curse

I’ve been thinking about an instructor’s social presence in learning environments a lot lately. I just wrapped co-editing a special issue of Distance Education on Social Presence and Identity (still awaiting issue assignment), and also facilitated a module on social presence for online educators (for those who are interested, see some of my teaching resources on this topic linked below). Plus I’m teaching online all summer, and I find that I’m constantly thinking about how I am — and am not — present for my students in different ways and at different times.

Instructor presence in a course is expected. In classrooms, it cannot be avoided other than through absence. If an instructor is teaching, she is present. Even if she speaks softly and doesn’t exude much personality, she is still present. We can describe how she speaks, how she dresses, how she moves, where she stand, and how her gaze falls as she faces the class. We learn a lot about her from these things. She is more than just a volume of information tumbling across the room.

Online instructors, in contrast, can teach their course without instructor presence. A collection of posted materials and assignments, bullet-point list announcements reminding students of tasks for the week, rubrics checked off and numbers appearing in the grade book, analytics showing that the instructor logged in to the course daily … these would all be considered evidence of online teaching, and yet none of then inherently communicates the instructor’s presence to the students. Think this doesn’t happen? Think again. I’ve had access to classes like this as a researcher and once experienced it as a student. Someone is behind the scenes making sure content is posted and assignments are graded, but no one is interacting with the students or even communicating directly to and with them (aside, of course, from hopefully answering email queries).

A visibly present instructor makes a difference to students (and surely I am preaching to the choir in this forum). It’s unnerving having to communicate with people who you’ve never seen. It’s even more unnerving to have that person assessing your work. By tending to the human need to sense a real person on the other side of the screen, instructors create a supportive learning environment. Instructors with good social presence are likely to do things like record welcome videos at the beginning of class, use photos in their profiles, interact with students on discussion forums, and along the way share tiny (and often inconsequential, but nonetheless very human) pieces of information about themselves. The end result is that students start to feel that they know (within appropriate bounds) the person who is guiding and grading their learning experience.

However, when presence becomes omnipresence, either in terms of instructor performance or student expectations, problems arise. Omnipresence pertains to the open-ended communication portions of an online class: email, discussion fora, social media tools. Omnipresence (or the perception or expectation of it) in an online learning setting may sound great at first, ensuring that a 24/7 classroom really is a 24/7 classroom. Indeed, I’ve heard omnipresent instructors referred to as online learning heroes and held up as models for the rest of us to follow. But are they heroes, and are their heroics worth it? I see omnipresence as a curse, for three reasons.

The first is instructor burnout. Can you really maintain it for a full term? Even if teaching is a priority for you (and it should be!), is it the #1 priority in your life? Are you prepared to log in every day, multiple times a day to check for posts? To respond to every post on a discussion forum?

The second is student self-sufficiency. Trying to solve one’s own problems is a good thing. Back when I was an undergraduate, there was no email (well, there was, but we weren’t using it to communicate with professors). Office hours were held once or twice a week, and you showed up and waited in line to get your questions addressed. Quick questions could maybe be asked at the end of class — if they were really quick. Maybe. I used to write my questions down on the last page of my notebook, to save them up and not forget them. If it was Friday and the next office hour was Wednesday, I could choose to wait, or I could try to see if I could answer my own question (read the syllabus, look something up in the library, ask other students). This was pre-Google, mind you! The questions that I asked the instructor were questions I tried to answer myself and simply couldn’t. These days, contacting the instructor is sometimes the first thing that gets tried. I know: more than once I’ve checked email to find two messages from a student, just an hour or two apart. The first asks a question, the second indicates that the question has been answered by checking the syllabus or looking it up in the LMS.

The third reason is student community and interdependence (or lack thereof). If students post to a discussion forum and the instructor replies to every post, students will stop responding to each other. Why bother if they know that the expert will show up and weigh in? Learning environments in which the instructor answers every question, affirms every comment, and is always right there to respond may seem student-centered on the surface, but are really instructor-centered.

As an online instructor, I want to develop and maintain a strong connection with my students and to facilitate their learning processes, but I do not want to be teaching 24/7. I want to take some days off, and I want to walk away from my electronics for several hours without feeling like I’m doing something wrong (and without my students feeling like I’ve abandoned ship). I do not want my students to be dependent on me, but rather I want to teach them how to be problem solvers. And I want my students to support each other, to engage in the negotiation and co-construction of knowledge that will only occur if the expert stands back a little bit and allows — nay, expects — their communal discourse to occur.

As I talk to online instructors and try to be an evangelist for developing their own style of instructor presence that will help them communicate effectively with and support their students in the learning process, I have to remind myself — and them — of the Emerson quote: Moderation [pun intended] in all things.

Adobe Spark pages assembled for teaching about instructor presence in online courses