Online Instructor Presence

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

In her 2010 performance, The Artist is Present, Marina Abramović demonstrates the power of human presence.  During her performance, Abramović sat silently in a chair in the Museum of Modern Art. Visitors were invited to sit across from her, make eye contact with her, and simply share in the same space. After the exhibition, visitors reported on the affecting nature of this experience, often describing it as unforgettable. Despite the surrounding crowd, the sense of immediacy created by the act of sitting together led visitors to feel they had shared an intimate moment with the artist. Abramović, herself, said that the show changed her life forever.

Learning in the classroom happens because you are there to facilitate interaction, collaboration, activity, and even play. Your presence in the classroom transforms the student learning experience; the online classroom is no exception.

Unfortunately, our online students largely miss out on their instructors’ presence. This is a problem; literature shows that lack of instructor presence can have negative consequences for the student.

We can solve this problem by becoming more present in our online courses. How do we get started? Instructor presence relies on three elements: teaching presence, instructor immediacy, and social presence.

  • Establish teaching presence
    • Use a consistent organizational structure
    • When things are out of the norm, keep students informed in announcements and the weekly overview
    • Facilitate the use of course materials with clear and detailed instructions
    • Provide direct instruction
    • Summarize weekly discussions
    • Create videos (e.g. course overview and weekly overviews)
    • Use microlectures
    • Create unique lessons for your students
    • Embed instructions on how to submit assignments, access grades, and read feedback
  • Employ instructor immediacy
    • Use humor
    • Promptly respond to students’ questions and concerns
    • Address students by name
    • Participate in discussion boards and model expected communication
    • Encourage students to participate in discussion and to share personal stories
    • Commend exceptional participation or contributions to classroom discussion
  • Establish social presence
    • Incorporate your personal interests and experiences into your teaching
    • Model open and respectful communication
    • Create a welcome video

Try some of these or all of these and if you need assistance, let the Faculty Support Center staff know. Whatever you do, remember this: Be present for your students. Nothing replaces you in the classroom, even online.

What do you do to establish your presence in the online classroom? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Additional Resources:


Akers, M., Dupre, J., Chermayeff, M., Abramović, M., In Shepherd, E. D., Halpern, N., HBO Documentary Films, Music Box Films. (2012). Marina Abramović: The artist is present.

Olubukola Afolabi, R. (2016). Emphasizing instructor presence in digital learning environments. In S. D’Agustino (Ed.), Creating teacher immediacy in online learning environments (pp. 37-54). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2013). Lessons from the virtual classroom: The realities of online teaching (2). Somerset, US: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from

The First Day of Class

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Make a great impression and leave them wanting more. This is the advice my peer advisor gave me as I prepared for my first day of college teaching. He knew (and I quickly learned) that the first day of class is one of the most valuable. The first day is when you begin to build your classroom community and set the tone for the entire term.

Do you want to spice up your traditional first day of class activities this term? Here are some suggestions from author James M. Lang:

Syllabus review
Rather than reading the syllabus to students, use syllabus review time as an opportunity to get students engaged and participating early.

  • After distributing the syllabus, have students work in pairs to review the syllabus and identify three questions they want to know about the course. Then, ask students to share their questions so you can answer them.

Ice breakers
Use ice breakers to foster a feeling of community and allow students to share in the ownership of the classroom space.

  • Stand by the classroom door, shaking student hands and introducing yourself to them by name right away.
  • Pass students dry erase markers as they enter class and have them write their names on the board before they sit down.

First impressions
Spend the first day or two of class trying to find out what information students know (or think they know) about the subject matter.

  • Ask students to write a paragraph in response to two or three substantive questions about their past experiences with the course topic. (For example: “Describe for me one work of visual art that has really impressed or interested you; what made it stand out for you?”) Afterward, have students pair up to share and discuss their responses before inviting students to share their responses with the class.
  • Use students’ responses to help you plan the content you cover in the first week or two of classes.
  • Revisit students’ first-day responses at the end of the term to close the loop on the conversation and to acknowledge new insights students have gained throughout the course.

Big and interesting questions
Develop an activity that invites students to engage in the intrigue of course-related central questions, mysteries, or puzzles.

  • Example 1: A statistics professor informs their class that, “once there are thirty people in the room, the probability that two people have the same birthday is more than 75%” They then poll students until they find the birthday matches in the class (they report they’ve always found at least one).
  • Example 2: A writing professor shows their students a poem that presents the reflections of an older narrator on a childhood experience with his father (one that many students are able to identify with) and asks students to write down in their notebooks whether they believe the narrator’s attitude towards this experience is positive or a negative one. This activity leads to a group discussion about the influence of past experience on understanding. The group also discusses analysis, using evidence as support, and other skills that students need to be successful in the course.


Another worthwhile first day activity is to collect student contact information. At a recent professional development meeting, Dr. Scolforo suggested distributing index cards and having students write down the following: their phone number, the phone number of a close contact, scheduled events during the term, and current obstacles to success. Having this information readily available makes it easier to reach out to at-risk students later in the term.

Do you do something noteworthy on the first day of class? Tell us about it in the comments section! Did you try one of these ideas on your first day? Let us know how it went!


Lang, J. M. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

1 4 5 6