As the proliferation of online learning enables students of every age, culture, and experience level to further their education, it is imperative that universities prioritize instructor presence in the online classroom. To be effective, instructors must excel at more than just teaching. 

By improving upon their social and cognitive presence, they can enhance the online learning experience for students, helping them feel connected to their school and fellow classmates. The result is an improvement in overall performance for both student and instructor. 

Recognizing this, the University of Arizona Global Campus has created the Instructor Presence project and certification, which came as a result of award-winning research conducted by four faculty members in the University’s College of Health, Human Services, and Science: 

Their research, Instructor Presence: A Sustainable Practice for Improving Student Success, Retention, and Satisfaction in the Online Classroom, earned the instructors the 2019 Online Learning Consortium Effective Practice Award, which recognizes, “effective techniques, strategies, and practices that are shared by members of the OLC community to advance quality and access to online programs.” 

The Online Learning Consortium is a collaborative community of higher education leaders and innovators dedicated to advancing quality digital teaching and learning experiences that are designed to reach and engage the modern learner. The winners, says the OLC’s Interim Chief Executive Officer Dr. Jennifer Mathes, represent extraordinary examples of the innovation happening in digital teaching and learning today.

It also illustrates the commitment the winners have to their practice.

“This award acknowledges the level of dedication the University has consistently upheld to providing quality education for all,” says Dr. Rosser-Majors.

The Need to Improve Instructor Presence

The Instructor Presence project began in 2016 and the final product, completed in 2018, includes seven self-paced training modules that specifically address three areas of instructor presence: teaching, social, and cognitive. 

The goal was to build a series of training modules that identified successful applications of instructor presence and improve results of numerous variables associated with online learning, according to  Dr. Rosser-Majors.

The six variables of focus include:

  • Improving retention and success
  • Increasing satisfaction
  • Improving persistence
  • Increasing the perception of psychological support
  • Increasing feelings of belonging
  • Supporting the need for human connection 

As Dr. Rebor explains, instructors’ cognitive, social, and teaching presence can make a vast difference in student enjoyment, learning, and overall success. 

“Through our data, we also learned that instructors themselves enjoyed teaching to a greater degree as compared to pre-module release,” she says. “In my experience, when you do something you love, you go the extra mile, no matter what!”

The Research Process

In order to gather the necessary information, the team conducted surveys of faculty members and included within each of the seven training modules strategies and examples of how to be fully engaged in the online classroom. 

“For example, within the teaching presence module, we discussed the importance of providing effective feedback to each student,” explains Dr. McMahon. “Instructors were provided with examples that encompassed written feedback and audio feedback and were reminded that providing effective feedback to students increases retention rates, decreases failure and dropout rates, and improves student satisfaction in the online classroom.”

As the research process began, the team learned that each instructor had a different comfort level when it came to sharing in the online classroom. But after those surveyed completed the training modules, they noted a significant difference between pre-treatment and post-treatment conditions.

“These results suggest that completion of the presence modules made a marked improvement in the potential strategies being employed by instructors and hence, affecting retention,” Dr. Rosser-Majors explains. “These results suggest that completion of the presence modules by instructors made a marked improvement in student success.”

Sharing Their Success

Since its completion, the Instructor Presence project has been transferred to a platform that allows all instructors to access the modules and further develop their teaching, cognitive, and social presence. The success of the project also led to the creation of the Instructor Presence Certification, which is available to all faculty. 

“While our work is not yet done, we are so pleased with the progress of this initiative to date and sincerely hope that all online faculty and staff receive direct benefits so that instructor and student success can be enhanced in the long- and short-term,” Dr. Rosser-Majors says.

Now that it’s been recognized by the Online Learning Consortium, the project is now positioned to benefit faculty outside of the University of Arizona Global Campus. Through the Instructor Presence website, online instructors can view the research and learn how to enhance their presence in order to make a difference in student enjoyment, learning, and overall success.

“It is my hope that the content and resources will aid faculty outside of the University of Arizona Global Campus to become more engaged so that online faculty and students across the nation can benefit,” Dr. Rebeor says. “Online teaching and learning come with pros and cons but with increased instructor presence, the list of cons has just gotten smaller.”

In addition to viewing the project on its website, you can watch this video developed by the team and presented to the Online Learning Consortium.

To learn more about earning a college degree online, contact an advisor


Written by University Staff

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