To post or not to post: Instructor presence in discussion boards

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

As online courses continue to increase, the use of discussion boards continues to be the main venue for communication between learners and their instructor. This qualitative study analyzed student perceptions of how students prefer their instructor to engage with them when discussion boards are being utilized in the online classroom.


Sheri Conklin is the Director of e-Learning at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She collaborates with colleagues to deign faculty professional development for online and web-enhanced course design and delivery. She also disseminates information regarding pedagogy for online and web-enhanced courses to the faculty through print and web media, as well as hosting socials. Sheri has taught both web-enhanced and fully online for UNCW for the last 8 years. Her prior experience includes Instructional Designer, e-Learning Instructional Support Specialist and special education teacher and department chair. Sheri earned a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and a teaching certificate in special education. She recently finished her Ed.D from Boise State University.
Amy Ostrom is an Instructional Designer with the Office of eLearning at UNCW who primarily works with the College of Health and Human Services and College of Arts and Sciences. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Education with an emphasis in Theater from Erskine College as well as a Master’s plus 30 in Special Education, specializing in Educational Technology and Content Delivery from the University of South Carolina. Amy has a professional interest in faculty/professional development, humanizing online learning, emerging technologies, UDL, authentic assessment, higher education leadership, and quality assurance measures for online courses. She loves collaborating with faculty to find ways to integrate technology into the classroom and beyond to meet the needs of all learners.

Extended Abstract

Social presence continues to be an area of research interests in online courses and is widely used as a guide for planning, developing, and researching online learning (Boston, Diaz, Gibson, Ice, Richardson & Swan, 2009; Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007; Kumar, Dawson, Black, Cavanaugh & Sessums, 2011; Kumar & Ritzhaupt, 2014). Social presence is defined as the ability to project ‘self’ and be perceived by others as a “real person” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). Social presence has been associated with the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model. The CoI model posits that cognitive, teaching, and social presence all work together to create an environment that increases learner satisfaction and perceived learning.  The CoI defines online educational experience as consisting of three presences: (a) social presence, which can be defined as the learner’s ability to present himself or herself as a ‘real person’ (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001), (b) cognitive presence, defined as the degree to which learners can create meaning through sustained communication (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000), and (c) teaching presence, defined as the design and facilitation of instruction, including direct instruction for the purpose of creating social and cognitive processes to facilitate deep and meaningful learning.   (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison,  & Archer, 2001).


Overlapping into the realm of social presence is teaching and instructor presence where the ability of the instructor to project themselves to their students and be perceived as a “real person” is expressed multi directionally (Lowenthal & Richardson, 2017).  Teaching presence has been defined as 1) instructional design, 2) facilitation of discourse, and 3) direct instruction (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001).  The facilitation of discourse is most notably associated with use of online discussion boards and has been associated with instructor social presence. There has even been an appeal to add instructor social presence as a fourth construct to the CoI framework (Pollard, Minor, & Swanson, 2014). Instructor social presence can be constructed and maintained through the design and facilitation of online courses.


Instructor social presence has been defined by the following dimensions: 1) message friendliness, 2) knowing the instructor, 3) instructor friendliness by manipulating the levels of instructor social presence in two groups. Sheridan and Kelly (2010) examined instructor presence traits that students felt were most important: 1) clear course requirements, 2) responsive to students’ needs, 3) timeliness of information, and 4) instructor feedback. This exploratory study focuses on specifically instructor feedback within online discussion boards. Palloff and Pratt (2003) posited that instructor presence includes responding regularly to discussion boards as well as modeling appropriate online communications and interactions. The effects of instructor social presence has been correlated with several variables such as satisfaction, engagement, and achievement. However, a study (Wise, Chang, Duffy, & De Valle, 2004) has indicated that social presence affects the learner's interactions with and perceptions of the instructor, but it has no effect on perceived learning, satisfaction, engagement, or achievement. Therefore, there is a need to further research on the impact of instructor social presence in online instruction (Pollard, Minor & Swanson, 2014).  A recent study (Richardson et al., 2016) has shown that instructor social presence can be a relevant and even  critical aspect of online learning, especially for students’ success in the online space.


In this spirit, we conducted a study using a population of students that  were asked to complete an open-ended survey regarding their experience in the online discussion boards. This was done during the middle of the semester, so the instructor could make changes to their interaction style based on the feedback. The students were part of Educational Leadership Master’s programs at two southeastern universities. Many studies (Palloff & Pratt, 2003) indicate the importance for instructors to participate with their students in weekly discussions. Oftentimes, the questions from the CoI  instrument (Garrison et al., 2000) are closed ended in nature and do not reflect how students perceive instructor presence and what they value.  This exploratory study examined one area of instructor social presence, feedback on discussion boards, to determine students’ preference for interaction.


While there was no specified method that stood out as a preference, the implications from the study are clear and easily replicated to a variety of online learning scenarios. For example, some students only wanted the synopsis, others wanted interaction throughout the duration of the the discussion board, and a few preferred both methods. However,  the reasoning for the preferred method was a wide range of reasons including student motivation, time management, and knowing the instructor was reading the student posts. In this presentation, we will discuss the methods the instructor followed to obtain feedback from the students and the strategies that were employed as a result,including instructor immediacy and personalization of feedback, to increase quality interaction between student and instructor.  We will also discuss and provide examples for how these and similar strategies can be embedded into the course delivery method to increase the social interaction and teaching presence in any online course that uses discussion boards leading to a more satisfying and engaging experience for the learners.