eCoaching Tip 110 Presence in Online Courses – How are You Present to Your Students?

June 13 2013

eCoaching Tip 110 Presence in Online Courses – How are You Present to Your Students?


“I take it (my course) with me.”  This was the response from our two guest faculty when asked, “What do you do when you need to be away from your course for a day or two?”  For Nancy Langer, she added that the learners in her courses are often early in their online learning experience, and that she doesn’t want them to feel as if “I have abandoned them— even for a day!”

For Jerry Groves, an international consultant and very frequent traveler, touching base with his students every morning and every evening from wherever he is how he stays in touch and is present to his students. He commented that he feels it is important to be available to your students. And added, “Students need feedback when it is a burning issue for them. It is important to get an answer back to them.”

All About Presence

This tip focuses on teaching presence in online courses. In this tip you will hear from two experienced SLPA faculty — Nancy Langer and Jerry Groves — about how they communicate their teaching presence, showing their students that they care and that they are there for them to help them learn and succeed.  In the Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online (Boettcher, 2006-2012) presence is best practice number one. More than ten years of research suggests that teaching presence, one’s engagement with learnersis the single most significant variable in learning effectiveness and satisfaction.  Additionally, if an online instructor does “presence” right, they are often forgiven for other perceived or real shortcomings.

What is teaching presence?  As you will recall, teaching presence is one of the three presences — social, cognitive and teaching presence — defined in the Community of Inquiry(COI) framework developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000). Ongoing research of the COI has identified three categories of teaching presence, but the easiest and simplest definition of teaching presence is “being there.”

As you read Nancy and Jerry’s stories, think about how you are present to your learners, and if they “feel” your care for them and your expertise.

The Three Presences from Community of Inquiry Framework

  • Social presence — Ability of learners to project themselves socially and academically and getting to know each other as three-dimensional people despite not meeting face-to-face.
  • Teaching presence — Design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes.
  • Cognitive presence — extent to which participants critically reflect, construct meaning, and engage in discourse for the purpose of sharing meaning and confirming understanding.

Guest Faculty – Nancy Langer

One of our guest faculty is Nancy Langer who teaches courses in the English core area, specifically the Adult Transition Seminar and the English 101 and 102 courses. She is a relative pioneer in teaching online, beginning in 2004 by volunteering to design these core courses for a new online program at Duquesne. This summer she is teaching UCOR 102, Imaginative Literature and Critical Writing. Teaching these core courses means that she is one of the first faculty that learners experience when beginning an online program.

Guest Faculty – Jerry Groves

Our other guest faculty is Jerry Groves whoteaches global leadership, a graduate capstone course, as well as leadership and change management courses. In particular, he teaches a trilogy of courses in the Global Leadership program — (1) Leading International Teams, (2) Leading Organizational Change, and (3) Leading International Development. Jerry is teaching Leading International Development this summer. In addition to teaching, Jerry is an international consultant in the area of change and leadership development.

Top Tools for Communicating Presence

Since presence is so essential to effective online teaching, the first question that Nancy and Jerry responded to was, “What are your favorite tools for communicating your presence to your students?”

1. Welcome Emails Before the Course Begins

It was delightful to hear the enthusiasm and energy when Nancy and Jerry shared their favorite “presence” communication tools. As it happens, both Jerry and Nancy were quite passionate and committed to sending out welcome notes to their students as early as they can and to send these messages from their own email addresses. Why do they feel this initial contact to be so valuable and important?  Here are some of their thoughts behind these early welcome notes:

  • An official welcome from the institution is one type of welcome, but a personal welcome from an instructor is more direct, more intimate. It begins the process of building bridges and connections between the faculty member and his/her students. It begins to lay a foundation of trust.
  • An email directly from an instructor makes it easy for students who might be nervous or confused with a question or just a little anxious about contacting the instructor. As Nancy noted, all that a learner needs to do if they have a question is hit “Reply” or pick up the phone and call her, which she also encourages.
  • The email reminds students to order the course books so they have the book on day one of the course.
  • The email is an easy way to remind students about the preweek, alerting them that the course begins before the actual start date, and for them to post their introductions and start thinking about their learning goals.
  • The email is also used by Nancy to send the syllabus and the course calendar (MS word) early, again to ensure that students know when the course begins officially as well as to encourage them to do some of their life planning around important dates and assignments.

It is interesting to note that these welcome notes launch social presence as well as the teaching presence associated with course design and setting clear expectations. Students feel welcomed, begin to know their instructor, and have early access to the calendar and the syllabus.

2. Email Communications, Discussion Forums and Announcements

Email communications are another favorite presence communication tool for both Jerry and Nancy, but again, for somewhat different reasons. As Jerry is traveling so frequently, he has developed the habit of managing his Moodle courses primarily through email rather than working directly in Moodle. It is through email that he answers questions, manages and comments on discussion posts, and supports team work. Each student posting in Moodle is automatically forwarded to Jerry’s personal email account which allows him to know all activity in the Moodle website but also helps in quickly responding to students. Nancy checks and watches her email daily, but manages her discussion forum posts within Blackboard.

Nancy believes that she connects deeply with her students via email. She said,

“I keep my eye on the email all the time, and I find that students are very appreciative when I reply. When students take the trouble to write an email to me, it is generally something important, such as wanting an extension or having problems taking an online test.”

The Announcement tool within Blackboard is another favorite presence tool used by Nancy.  She sends out weekly announcements, sending them directly to students’ emails. What does she “announce?”  In addition to posting weekly reminders about assignments and deadlines, she uses the announcements to direct students to some completed action on her part, such as completing the grading of papers so they can review, reply or move on to the next step of a project or make revisions.

Managing Discussions and Teams— How Cognitive Presence Works

Cognitive presence is the set of teaching behaviors that focus on supporting the intellectual growth of students. This is how Jerry uses his discussion forums to support cognitive experiences. Jerry noted that the discussion forum questions serve as the starting point for their weekly discussions and not the ending point. He believes that “If you frame the questions well, they become the catalyst for the conversations and intellectual growth…” Jerry added, “For example, in my leading international development course, three weeks of discussion questions take about five weeks to complete as we keep cycling back and expanding.”

Jerry then described his process for identifying core concepts in his course. He noted that,

“We cover the fundamental conceptual models and theories in the first half of the course. Then I have them do a look back and to individually develop a set of Ten Key Lessonslearned. Once that task is complete, the teams go to work and merge their lists and then the teams merge the list into one set of ten key issues for the class. This also helps to prepare them to work as a larger team and gain experience for the major team assignment which follows the ten lessons learned assignment. They also do peer assessments of every team members’ contribution to the final team project.”

Many online instructors find working with teams to be a challenge. But working in teams is essential to the learning goals of the global leadership courses. We talked about how he manages the team processes. First of all, on the size of teams, Jerry’s students work in teams no larger than five, and often only three-four students. Jerry noted that students find it easier to stay in touch with one another with smaller teams. Jerry also learned that his students are using a bunch of different social media tools to communicate and stay in touch. Some of the tools they are using include Facebook, YouTube, Google docs, and Skype.

Managing Discussions — How Nancy Does It

Nancy communicates her teaching presence primarily through how she manages the discussion boards. Since the Adult Transition Seminar (ATS) is mostly focused on writing, it is very much a process course, rather than a content course.  So rather than a cyber café for students to support and help each other, this support and encouragement often happens within the discussion forums.

Nancy manages her discussion forums with a focus on those process goals. When she is teaching ATS, she has two different discussion boards going all the time. Rather than organizing forums by week, she organizes them according to categories of skill building, focusing on writing and study skills.

For example, most of her teaching presence happens in her writing workshops forum, where the discussions and examples focus on different elements of good writing, such as topic sentences, thesis examples, paragraph development, and paragraph cohesion.  In the forum on study skills, she focuses her energy on posting catalyst questions and hints from a practical hands-on book that students really enjoy. Nancy noted that, “This is the place where they bond with each other and share their experiences about what works for them, and I keep my focus on the directing the writing workshops.”

Tools for Being Present Summary

Here is a quick summary of the most used online “presence” tools. As technology is changing and becoming easier and more mobile, we have more and more choices. The one challenge we always face is making the most of our time with these tools.  So what works for each of us can vary dramatically. What doesn’t change is thinking about how our students “feel” our presence, our expertise, and our listening to and guiding their learning experiences.

Text Box: Tools for Presence
Asynchronous tools
•	Welcome messages
•	Announcements
•	Text, Audio and Video Concept introductions
•	Discussion boards 
•	Responses, questions, challenge postings
Synchronous tools
•	Phone/conference calls 
•	Text messaging
•	Live classroom (Blackboard Collaborate)
•	Skype calls/conferencing 
•	Google Hangout calls/conferencing





Concluding Tips on Presence

When asked for a final piece of advice regarding the importance of presence, Jerry suggested,

“Look at what new students are going through. You want to create a bridge between you and the students. They are often nervous as they are coming back to school, often after a long time. They are new to the technology and they want to do well.  We need to, as faculty step down off our pedestals and be as collegial as we can. We can’t have a lot of distance between us and our students. The more we can make them feel comfortable, the more spontaneous they can be and the more spontaneous we can be as well.”

Nancy wrapped up her thoughts on presence with this final comment.

“I think the dailycheck-in is very important. I check email and the course site every day and usually more often than once a day.  Even when I am away from Pittsburgh, I take it all with me. The other thing I do is try to be flexible with my students. I really try to work with them as much as possible. I try to be as understanding of their life situation as I can be. I try to be sensitive to their needs and to let them know that I care about them. That happens mostly in email.”

More Background on Teaching Presence Research from Garrison and Vaughan

As noted earlier, research on teaching presence and the COI model is ongoing by an ever-expanding group of researchers. While I find it easiest to think about teaching presence in two categories, the work that is done priorto the course and the work that is done duringthe course, current research is separating the teaching presenceduringthe course into the two categories of facilitating discussion and direct instruction. Here are the names and definitions of the three categories of teaching presence:

Categories of Teaching Presence (Vaughan & Garrison, 2010)


Presence is one area in which teaching online has very different expectations from teaching an on-ground or campus course. Online teaching is very daily and even more than daily. Students expect faculty to be available almost any time a faculty member has not explicitly said that they would not be available. The default is that you are “there” waiting to listen, to respond, to direct.

Some of this expectation must be managed or faculty would not be able to accomplish anything else. So early on, it is best to set your course policies as to when you will be “there” and how often you will be “there,” while also checking daily the course site, email and phone and whatever other media your students and you use to communicate.   To close, as Nancy has said, the more ways you communicate the better.

Many thanks to Nancy and to Jerry for sharing their expertise.  Judith


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2008). Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles, and Guidelines San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lehman, R. and Conceição, S. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching: How to “be there” for distance learners. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Rovai, A. P. (2002). Building Sense of Community at a Distance.International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1). Retrieved June 7 2013 from

Row, A., & Kline, M. (2012, October 12 2012). Cleaning Out the Crickets: Enhancing Faculty Presence in Online Instruction Learning Effectiveness. Paper presented at the SLOAN-C-2012, Orlando FL. Retrieved June 6 2013 from

Shea, P. & Bidjerano, T. (2009). Community of inquiry as a theoretical framework to foster “epistemic engagement” and “cognitive presence” in online education. Computers and Education, 52(3), 543 – 553. Retrieved June 7 2013 from

Swan, K., & Ice, P. (2010). The community of inquiry framework ten years later: Introduction to the special issue. The Internet and Higher Education, 13 (1–2), 1-4. doi:

Vaughan, N., & Garrison, D. R. (2010, Sept 15 2010). Teaching Presence: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry in blended learning environments. Paper presented at the ELI EDUCAUSE Online. Retrieved June 6 2013 from

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher