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How are present are you as an instructor in your online courses? Research* has shown that tutor presence – the sense of the tutor being there – is a key motivator for online students. The trick is to find the middle ground between being omnipresent (and too stifling), and being invisible (and appearing uninterested ). Here are five things that can help you strike this balance.

1 Socialising activities
Ensure that there are plenty of socialising or ice breaker activities at the beginning of your course. This will help the group to gel, which serves a basis for future pair and group work online. I’ve blogged about this here.

2 Your role in forums
How often should you post? What’s the right ratio of tutor to student postings in forums? Our rule of thumb: respond to almost every forum posting at the beginning of a course e.g. during the first week. Then gradually post less as your students become more comfortable with interacting online. Your role should initially be very hands-on, with a one-to-one forum posting ratio, and then can become less hands-on. Around a one-to-four ratio would be a good ration to settle at (that’s one tutor post to four student posts). There are also occasions when you will want to not be involved in a forum discussion at all. Make this clear. We tend to post something along these lines to the forum early on:

Just to let you all know that I won’t be posting in this forum (unless you ask me a direct question!), but will of course be reading everything. I’ll provide a summary of the discussion points that arise at the end. Look forward to reading your contributions!

Then students know that you are reading their posts, but not responding directly. Total silence looks like absence, which looks like a lack of interest.

3 Media
Include a range of media through which to address your students. You can include a video roundup of the week’s work for example, or post a video introducing a new topic or stage of the course. Audio will also work well. Both give a sense of immediacy and social presence.

4 Synchronous sessions
If most of your online course takes place asynchronously, ensure that the regular synchronous (real-time) videoconferencing sessions are built into the course. These need to be structured and carefully run, rather than an aimless chat in which participants can easily feel they are wasting their time. More on this in these extracts from my ebook Webinars.

5 Virtual worlds
Nothing gives a better sense of social presence online – of actually ‘being there’ – than meeting in a virtual world. Consider running synchronous sessions in a virtual world such as Second Life. But remember – the learning curve involved in learning to move with ease in a virtual world is extremely steep for the uninitiated. It’s only worth integrating element such as this if your students are already very tech savvy users of technology, or can easily get up to speed, and you plan to use it regularly. Otherwise the effort will not be worth it, and it would be better to concentrate on other synchronous tools such as video-conferencing.

What about you? How do you maintain a sense of ‘presence’ in your online courses?

[*Patrick Lowenthal: Social Presence: A good overview of some of the research carried out into social presence]

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
December 2011