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RIT Ready: Moving Forward Into Fall
Faculty Course Technology Support
Blog » Course Design as Teaching Presence in Online Courses

Marty Golia—Faculty often struggle with the concept of online teaching presence. Does “being present” in an online course mean posting a new video every week (or every day)? Does it mean hosting live, synchronous sessions? Does it mean responding to every discussion post or email immediately?

Actually, a large part of your online “teaching presence” can be built into the design of the course and can be as unique and personal as when you teach in a classroom. A deliberate and effective online course design also establishes your instructor presence when it focuses on delivering an effective and enjoyable learning experience to students.

To understand the impact of teaching presence on student outcomes, Kupczynski, et. al., surveyed two groups of online students to find out how factors of online teaching presence affected student success in a course. The factors of teaching presence researchers identified were:

  • Instructional design and organization (course materials and activities, for example)
  • Facilitation of discourse (including engaging in asynchronous student discussions to raise questions or make observations)
  • Direct instruction (such as diagnosing understanding through student comments and providing explanatory feedback on assignments)

When students were asked to identify the factors that supported their success in the course, they ranked facilitation of discourse and direct instruction as equally important, with instructional design and organization far behind.

Perception of Factors Related to Success in Courses by Category

Facilitation of Discourse45%
Direct Instruction44%
Instructional Design and Organization11%

However, when students were unsuccessful, they identified course instructional design and organization as a more likely cause than the other factors.

Perception of Factors Related to Lack of Success in Courses by Category

Instructional Design and Organization45%
Direct Instruction34%
Facilitation of Discourse21%

It’s not too difficult to determine why students felt this way: the lack of a clear and purposeful design can lead to confusion, frustration, and de-motivation as surely as if the students walked into a dark, empty classroom. When students spend time trying to figure out what to do and where to find course materials, they may not have the time, resources, or direction to do their best work. Similarly, the instructor may have to spend more time answering logistical or navigational questions, explaining instructions, and clarifying expectations rather than focusing on meaningful instruction and feedback.

Dave Neumann says of his online communications classes, “Content organization and clear communication are paramount to the success of an online course. If a student is confused about due dates, location of information, or course organization, then presence is probably not going to make a big difference in the learning and teaching process. I put a lot of effort into presenting course information in manageable chunks, each being revealed as the course unfolds.”

A strong online design—driven by clear, measurable learning outcomes—can establish teaching presence by

  • Giving students a feeling that they are being guided and supported
  • Providing a structure on which the instructor can hang meaningful assignments, thoughtful discussion prompts, and engaging activities
  • Defining instances for the instructor to facilitate discourse among students and provide direct instruction to the whole class or individuals

Instructors who are new to online often have difficulty imagining what the teaching part of online teaching means. Separated from the idea of “contact time,” sometimes it can be hard to envision how to deliver the most value to students while the course is running. With a well-designed course, instructors can build in opportunities to give direct instruction and meaningful feedback through

  • Weekly text or video messages that debrief previous course activities, transition to upcoming activities, and provide overall context for what students are currently doing in the class
  • Substantial comments on student assignments (preparing rubrics and common feedback remarks can streamline this process)
  • Actively monitoring and facilitating asynchronous discussions, as needed

Tracy Worrell purposefully designed the sequence of instructional activities in her communications course to reinforce her presence.

On Sunday, my pre-set video and content go live. On Monday, my pre-set discussion questions open for students to respond to. Tuesday, I begin responding to student posts. Wednesday, students are submitting assignments and may see a brief, pre-set note come up from me reminding them of deadlines. Thursday is more live posting and interactions. Friday, I may post a note wrapping up the week, and on Saturday I rest. This has me posting “live” three days a week but the students feel that I am “present” six of those days.

Christine Kray, who teaches anthropology, stresses the importance of the tone of written materials because, “in an online course, all materials and all communications have to be inviting and encouraging. This doesn’t mean that they have to be lightweight, but all communications have to help create a positive learning environment for the students. If students are confronted with the legal, procedural, veiled threats of a traditional syllabus, they will drop the course before the Add/Drop period even begins.”

Developing your online teaching presence often requires more preparation time than developing a classroom presence. But with an effective online course design, instructors can establish and maintain their presence and their disciplinary expertise and share a valuable learning experience with their students.


Kupczynski, L.; Ice, P.; Wiesenmayer, R.; McCluskey, F. (2010). Student perceptions of the relationship between indicators of teaching presence and success in online courses. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 9(1), 23-43.


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