Is a Video Enough? Considering Instructor Presence and Social Presence in Online Courses

small figurine of budda on a green leaf

Recently, DLINQ convened a conversation with Middlebury Institute for International Studies faculty around online/hybrid learning challenges and opportunities, and we asked the group to share words that come to mind when they think about online learning. The participants shared a mix of positive and negative attributes related to their experiences with online learning, ranging from “convenient” “flexible” and “student centered” to “solitary” “distracted” “visually bland, less appealing to the senses” and “requires extra effort to connect and stay engaged.” These latter comments speak to the heart of what many people fear is missing from online learning: personality, a sense of intimacy, a feeling of community and trust. When asked to describe a typical online course, people often think of the hour long video in which the instructor delivers the majority of content, with some follow up quiz questions, and (if lucky) a chance for students to explore their ideas together in a discussion forum; rinse and repeat, week after week. Where in this formula is the opportunity for faculty and students to share their authentic selves within a community of learners?

This question was on my mind as I read Cathy Barnes’ article Where’s the Teacher?  Defining the Role of Instructor Presence in Social Presence and Cognition in Online Education in the book Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning. Framed by the Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) Community of Inquiry model, “which described the concept of interplay between teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence” (Barnes, 2016, para. 4), the article presents a review of literature on research that examines the effects of instructor presence on social presence and student cognition in online learning. While we might expect instructor presence and social presence to be synonymous, instructor presence is separate from, but directly tied to, social presence, which in turn is tied to cognitive engagement. We can think of social presence as a co-constructed emotional engagement in the class community arising from the teacher and students’ ability to bring their personalities into the class. Instructor presence is an important consideration for designing online learning spaces that allow for such a community to emerge.

Drawing on Garrison et al. (2000), Barnes suggests that instructor presence can be embedded into an online course in three ways: 1) in the design of the online learning environment (the ways in which the course is structured and organized, selection of content and how students engage with the content), 2) through facilitation of the course (communication with students, feedback, etc.), and 3) through direct instruction (via, for example, lecture videos). Facilitation is the element of instructor presence that most clearly supports social presence; in their chapter on instructor social presence in the edited volume Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research, Richardson and Lowenthal (2017) define instructor presence as “influenced by the frequency, type, and quality of interactions between the instructor and the students.” However, Barnes warns that interaction is a necessary but insufficient element of building social presence. Trust is a component of social presence, and you can interact with content or peers without feeling part of a trusted community of learners. Barnes suggests a number of ways for teachers to promote social presence, including through a focus on shared educational goals, student collaboration, and open and honest communication between all members of the class community.

So to come back to our typical online course described at the beginning of the post, don’t the hour-long instructor videos check the box of instructor presence? While videos may be one option for providing content via direct instruction, relying on long lecture videos as the central pedagogical approach ignores the facilitation aspect of instructor presence; social presence is shut down without an avenue for teachers and students to express themselves, or to demonstrate their understanding. The role of the teacher is, indeed, critical to successful online learning environments; but humanistic online learning design embeds instructor presence in ways that provide space for teachers and students to share their authentic selves within a community of learners.

Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash