The Importance of Instructor Presence in Online Learning

A photo of a man looking at an iPad and smiling.

Of all the possible relationships within the class environment (instructor-student, student-student, student-content), the relationship between the student and the instructor is one of the most important, whether the class is entirely online or all face-to-face. However, these different formats do bring a different dynamic to the relationship.

Trisha Bender (2003) cautions about the dangers of psychological remoteness, or relational distance, between instructors and students in any classroom setting, but the physical distance inherent to online classes can exacerbate this. Ironically, sometimes students and faculty interact more in an online course (through emails and direct communication via discussion boards and feedback) than in face-to-face classes. However, deliberate steps must be taken to overcome the perception of the relational distance in online courses.

One of the ways you can minimize this perception is through instructor presence. Instructor presence means creating the perception for your students that you are right there with them in the process of learning. Consider some of the following strategies adapted from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Academic Technology Center for improving instructor presence:

  • Help your students know more about you. Include a picture or avatar. Let them know your philosophy of teaching, your personal and professional interests, and your research. Some instructors use a brief video of themselves talking to their students to increase this feeling of presence.
  • Begin each week with a supportive note to your students that explains the course outcomes for the week and the expectations for their work. Overviewing the content for the week. Insert a comment about a current event that relates to your course or something happening on campus that may be of interest.
  • Narrate your slides with your own voice. Use a conversational tone and employ humor, anecdotes, examples, and/or storytelling.
  • Login to the course site several times during the week and leave students a note indicating that you have been there: an announcement, a note to students, or a posting to the discussion board.
  • Anticipate questions that your students have and post a FAQ section. Consider having an instant messenger tool set up during the week for office hours.

Providing Encouragement and Creating Relevance

Another way in which you can reduce relational distance and increase instructor presence is by building encouragement into your online course and explaining to students what makes the course content particularly relevant. Further, an encouraging and supportive environment will also help students maintain a good attitude about their learning and language that explains why what they are reading and doing in the course makes the learning more meaningful to them.

As you go through your online course, try to identify areas where encouragement can be worked into the lessons and activities. If you have taught the same course for a while, you may already know what areas are often the most difficult for students to understand or what aspects they tend to struggle with the most. Try adding some short statements here and there – it doesn’t have to be very elaborate:

  • “While learning how to cite sources correctly can seem difficult at first, practice will definitely make it easier!”
  • “If you are worried that you will never memorize all the citation rules, try to relax. These are something that you just need to know how to look up. In fact, they sometimes change with updates, so memorizing anything other than a few basics is not really the best use of your time. Instead, work on learning how to use your style guide and where the different rules are located so that you can more easily look up how to cite your sources.”
  • “Are you struggling with the idea of rhetorical devices? If so, you are not alone! Check out the links below for some more information or post to the Q&A discussion forum to get answers. Don’t suffer in silence – there is always someone else who has the same question that you do!”

This type of language throughout your course, in addition to a few encouraging announcements here and there, can really change the overall climate of your course. You can create an environment where students feel that their fears are acknowledged and that help is available. These actions can reduce anxiety and increase learning.

To tighten up the potential for student engagement in the course, you will also want to be sure to add some language throughout that helps to explain, inform, and connect ideas in the course. Adding this kind of information to the course provides relevance for why a reading, activity, or skill is important. Additionally, this aspect of the course is one where you have the ability to truly provide the value of your knowledge and experience as an educator – something that the books and materials often do not do. You can provide this sort of language and information via announcements, within the course modules and/or units, and prior to exams or assessments.

Within the course modules and/or units, you can provide:

  • An overview of the module explaining what the topic will cover, how it flows from what was previously covered, how it may be important for students in their future careers or studies, and how it will help prepare them for what they will be studying next. This is also an excellent opportunity for you to share your own relevant experiences from your career or studies.
  • A few sentences accompanying readings and materials that explain to students how these materials will prepare them for the course activities and assessments.
  • A few sentences that explain to students how the learning activities tie in with the learning materials and how the activities will help prepare them to do well on the assessments and/or meet the learning outcomes for the module and/or course.

To learn more about using modular organization in your online course, click here

Prior to exams and/or assessments you can provide:

  • A few sentences explaining what parts of the module the exam/assessment pulls from and how it will help show that students have mastered certain module and/or course outcomes.

Once you have integrated this type of encouragement and communicative and connecting language into your course, you will begin to see your course really flesh out – it is the meat on the bones of your course. These are also the areas where many online instructors feel at a loss when moving from a face-to-face environment, since these are typically the types of conversation that you have while in the classroom with your students. Adding it to your online course takes a little time and effort, but not as much while you are engaged in teaching, and the benefits are a dramatically changed course climate for you and your learners.


Bender, Tisha. (2003). Discussion based online teaching to enhance student learning. Sterling: Stylus Publishing.

Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment and Redesign. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute Academic Technology Center. (2007, Apr. 5). Improving Your Teaching Presence in Distance Learning Courses.