Instructor presence in online learning – is not optional, it is essential.

Picture a traditional, face to face classroom.  At each class session, the instructor posts the reading assignment, questions to answer and their email to use if anyone has any questions but was not physically in the classroom.  How engaging is that?  Not much by almost anyone’s estimation.  Yet this is sometimes not uncommon in an online learning environment.  

Parker Palmer reminds us that “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness…the place where everyone’s intellect, emotion and spirit converge.”  In his article “E-Personality: The Fusion of IT and Pedagogical Technique” author Peter Chepya introduces the concept of “companionability and presence… the cumulative effect creates an atmosphere [he calls] presence learning.”  When an instructor facilitates connectedness combined with their presence in an online class, one can expect positive results:

  • “One thing that made this instructor a cut above the rest was her outstanding use and management of the discussion boards. Discussions were always helpful and relevant. The topics truly brought another level to the learning environment. The way the course was laid out forced a deeper understanding of the material verses memorizing facts and dumping the info after taking a test. I was constantly engaged and thinking about the world around me and how I would use the information we were learning in the future.”
  • “This was by far the best online class I have ever taken. The Professor was outstanding! He made the class fun and interesting and was extremely active in discussions.”
  • “This is the 2nd course I have taken from this instructor. She engages her learners on the Discussion Board better than any teacher I’ve ever had.  She is an excellent communicator and makes me feel like an adult by allowing me to bring my experiences to the table.”
  • [The teacher] “is a wonderful instructor. He shows obvious enthusiasm for his subject matter. In addition to this, he responds promptly to any questions the students have & he involves himself in the discussion forums, asking additional questions of the students in order to increase their understanding of the course objectives. “
  • “This is hands down one of the best online courses I’ve taken so far.  The simple fact that my instructor consistently gives constructive and positive feedback is instrumental to my learning.  She actually wants me to learn and be successful.”  
  • “At first I was got off guard by the in-depth discussion board, but once we got started I have found it a wonderful learning tool.”

The effectiveness of instructor presence and facilitating meaningful, engaging online discussions is supported by research.  Ryan and Deci suggest that basic learner motivation stems from an innate need to feel connected, feel authentic, and have the capacity to make free choices (Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Directions and New Directions, 2000).  Brains scans have shown that when new learning is readily comprehensible (i.e. it makes sense to the learner) and can be connected to past experience (meaning), there is substantially more cerebral activity followed by dramatically improved retention” (Macquire, Firth & Morris as cited by Sousa, 2011). “Of the two criteria, meaning has greater impact on the probability that the new information will be stored” (Sousa, 2011).

Instructor presence in online learning – is not optional, it is essential.


Works Cited

Chepya, P. (2005). E-Personality: The Fusion of IT and Pedagogical Technique. Retrieved from EDUCAUSE Review Online:

Palmer, P. (2007). The Courage to Teach. Jossey-Bass.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, pp. 54 – 67.

Sousa, D. (2006). How the Brain Learns. Corwin Press : Thousand Oaks, CA.




Last 5 posts in Featured Resources