Pathways to Presence: Exploring Gender-Based Differences in Establishing Teaching Presence in the Online Classroom

Concurrent Session 7

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Do instructors establish teaching presence in their online courses differently based on gender?  What are the perceptions of instructors as they create their “pathway to presence” in the online courses they teach? Drawing on previous research, we examine if gender differences impart unique teaching presence strategies.


Janice M. Orcutt, Ed.S., Ph.D., is an Online/Distance Learning Instructional Specialist (ODL IS) at The University of the West Indies Open Campus responsible for professional development programmes for adjunct facilitators. She has been involved in online communities for 40 years and served in online higher education institutions in roles including course developer, instructor, and administrator over the last 20 years. Previous speaking engagements included OLC Innovate 2018, OLC Accelerate 2016, and conferences sponsored by Pearson Learning (CiTE) and the Society for Applied Learning Technology (SALT).
Laurie P. Dringus, Ph.D., is a Professor in the College of Computing and Engineering at Nova Southeastern University. Her research interests include human-computer interaction, information design, and usability. She has published widely several articles and presentations related to the research, design, development, and evaluation of online learning environments.

Extended Abstract


The climate for learning in an online classroom is greatly influenced by the presence, availability and supportive nature of the instructor and can generate a positive learning experience for students (Cox-Davenport, 2014; Kaufmann, Sellnow & Frisby, 2015). While the scholarly climates that are created in accelerated course terms or structured online course environments may be questioned (Bowden, 2012), the essence of "presence" is not one-dimensional in that the instructor merely follows a set of prescribed actions that demonstrate availability and supportiveness in the online course.  Presence is also a mindset for extending oneself as a course unfolds. This mindset includes a strategic workflow of effective practices that lead to co-construction of the intellectual climate shared by the instructor and students in the online course. Building upon research presented in the OLJ article entitled “Beyond being there: Practices that establish presence, engage students and influence intellectual curiosity in a structured online learning environment” (Orcutt & Dringus, 2017), the authors explore differences in behaviors reported by the study participants using gender as a differentiating lens.

Gender-based differences are recognized in online education, particularly with respect to interaction preferences, communication styles, and the resulting relationships that are formed within a community of learners (Gunn, McSparrow, MacLeod, & French, 2003). Traditionally, communication styles are assigned to gender, with feminine styles characterized as cooperative, sensitive, collaborative and compassionate; and masculine styles characterized as task-oriented, analytical, competitive or dominant (Tomai, Mebane, Rosa & Benedetti, 2014).  Secreto (2013) notes that these communication styles affect each gender’s approach to online learning, whereby females prefer to learn in more collaborative ways and men show a preference to working independently. Gunn et al. (2003) similarly investigated gender preferences in learning, noting that certain types of course activities appeal to male preferences for competition and dominance, and female preferences for collaboration and communication.

In this study, the authors pose the question, if gender-oriented communication styles influence the learner’s experience in the online classroom environment, then might these same communication styles influence the practices used when establishing teaching presence in online classrooms?

Carr-Chellman (2014) indicated a need for gender neutral materials and for creating learning experiences that all learners can benefit from, regardless of gender. Can this be achieved when the instructors themselves might have preferences or styles that are gender influenced and therefore, potentially biased towards one part of the student population?

The essences of teaching presence practices that emerge in structured online environments are unknown. While the course content is prescribed for the instructor in the structured online course, the instructor's role to inspire intellectual curiosity is not prescribed.  What inspires instructors to reach beyond prescribed pedagogies and competencies that are related to teaching presence was the focus of the original study (Orcutt & Dringus, 2017). The current study attempted to identify from instructors what “pathway” or choice of actions they took in establishing their presence, and to determine if gender had an influence on preferences for the actions taken. When research indicates that female learners make up a large portion of online course takers and degree seekers (Carr-Chellman, 2014; Secreto, 2013), it is incumbent on educators to understand the role gender plays in establishing presence, and how the pathways taken might influence sensitivity to gender diversity in the online classrooms.

Presentation Goal

Framed in the theoretical perspective of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model, the presentation will include an overview of the previous qualitative study which investigated the actions, intentions and perceptions of online instructors with respect to the phenomenon of teaching presence as it was established in a structured online learning environment. Using a comparative analysis based on gender, the results of this previous study will be presented to the audience showing commonalities and differences in practice. Through this presentation, audience members will gain insight into the differences in perceptions and intentions of successful instructors in establishing teaching presence from a gender-based orientation. Audience members will be invited to participate in the discussion, reflecting on their own experiences and discuss observations they may have related to approaches while establishing their “pathway to presence” in their online classrooms.


The goals of the original study (Orcutt & Dringus, 2017) were to qualitatively assess the processes utilized by instructors when establishing teaching presence and to learn how their processes influenced the development of an intellectual climate within a structured or prescribed online classroom format. The current study builds upon that inquiry by exploring differences among the participants based on gender. The overarching question guiding this study was:

  • Do instructors utilize different practices to establish teaching presence based on gender?

Supporting this investigation, subordinate research questions highlighted specific areas addressing the goals of the study:

  • How might gender influence how instructors perceive their intentions related to teaching presence practices?
  • How might gender influence how instructors create the academic climate in their courses?
  • How might gender influence practices utilized in inspiring the intellectual curiosity of students?

In the original study, a collective case study was conducted using the Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) method, relying on in-depth semi-structured interviews with six participants teaching at an institution which prescribed course delivery within a specific format.  This sample was evenly represented by male and female participants, with three of each gender. Keeping the original research questions of the study in mind, the analysis was conducted in four stages:

  1. Analysis of activities undertaken in establishing presence using temporal references associated with the phases of course delivery;
  2. Analysis of the intentions of the instructors as they revealed the reasons behind the actions taken when establishing teaching presence;
  3. Analysis of themes associated with practices related to setting academic climate
  4. Analysis of themes associated with practices related to inspiring intellectual curiosity



Preliminary findings include the following emergent themes from the analysis of the comparative case:

Themes Related to Practices in Establishing Teaching Presence. Within the temporal context of course delivery, the study identified a high consistency in actions taken to establish presence independent of gender; however, some distinct preferences were identified which might be attributed to gender.

Themes Related to Influence on Inspiring Intellectual Curiosity. The analysis of the comparative case revealed practice preferences which aligned with gender-related communication styles.

Overall, the comparative case revealed that pathways chosen by instructors when establishing teaching presence and inspiring student intellectual curiosity rely on communication styles that have been previously shown to be gender-related. However, the study revealed that the foundations of the actions taken in establishing teaching presence that were common to both gender groups, represented a balance of actions that could be assigned to both feminine and  masculine styles.


We anticipate that by focusing on various emergent themes from the study, session attendees will be able to recognize some unique strategies that instructors use in establishing teaching presence and the implications for professional development associated with pedagogical approaches.  While the study did not control for gender differences, we note certain practices that were revealed about presence may also bring closer attention to positive approaches to diversity issues, specifically, gender diversity. We wish to inspire attendees to think about teaching presence strategies that create their “pathway to presence” in their online courses.


Bowden, R. (2012). Online graduate education: developing scholars through asynchronous discussion. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24(1), 52-64.

Carr-Chellman, A. (2014, August). Where the boys are: Understanding online learning and gender. E-Learn, ACM.

Cox-Davenport, R.A. (2014). A grounded theory of faculty’s use of humanization to create online course climate. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 32(1), 16-24. doi: 10.1177/0898010113499201

Gunn, C., McSporran, M., Macleod, H., & French, S. (2003). Dominant or different? Gender issues in computer supported learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks7(1), 14-30.

Kaufmann, R., Sellnow, D.D., & Frisby, B.N. (2015). The development and validation of the online learning climate scale(OLCS), Communication Education, 1-15. doi: 10.1080/03634523.2015.1101778

Orcutt, J., & Dringus, L. (2017). Beyond Being There: Practices that Establish Presence, Engage Students and Influence Intellectual Curiosity in a Structured Online Learning Environment. Online Learning, 21(3). doi:

Secreto, P. V. (2013). Gender equality in online learning: The case of UP Open University.  13th International Educational Technology Conference, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 103, 434-441.

Tomai, M., Mebane, M. E., Rosa, V., & Benedetti, M. (2014). Can computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) promote counter-stereotypical gender communication styles in male and female university students?. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences116, 4384-4392.