Instructor Social Presence in Higher Education Emergency Remote Teaching

Concurrent Session 6
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Student connectedness with online instructors is important for student learning and satisfaction. We share results from a cross-sectional survey of higher education students enrolled in face-to-face instruction forced online due to COVID-19. Responses provide insight into what students value in the online sphere and assist instructors with building connections.


Amy Garrett Dikkers is an Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She teaches in face-to-face, hybrid, and online learning modalities with undergraduate students and current educational professionals through Master’s and doctoral programs. Her scholarship in online and blended learning spans the spectrum of Pk-20 educational organizations. To date she has over two dozen publications that examine the value of online and technology-enhanced education for diverse populations of students and the teachers who work with them.
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.

Extended Abstract

Topic and Importance

In spring 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty at our regional public university, like many, shifted from face-to-face teaching to online or remote teaching for the remainder of the semester. Moving from the face-to-face environment to an online environment can be a difficult transition for instructors who may have never taken online courses and may have only taught face-to-face. This transition requires instructors to move from a teacher-centered role to a learner-centered role or facilitator (Sammons, 2003). Moving from the ‘sage on the stage’ to a facilitator of knowledge requires support and training (Kim & Bonk, 2006). The management of time with relation to both facilitation (e.g., being available 24/7) and course design can prove difficult for novice faculty (Smith, Ferguson, & Caris, 2002). 

In addition, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all instruction moved to an online format within a short time duration. Instructors at our institution had about ten days to make the transition. In many cases, this shift was also required to be into an asynchronous learning environment due to connectivity concerns and shifts in student situations that meant they could not necessarily connect for synchronous class times. We were interested in hearing from students about a class they had in the spring semester that they felt successfully shifted from the face-to-face environment to an online environment. Specifically, we asked them to focus on a class that was successful in keeping them in touch with their instructor, content, and peers. The current study investigates instructor social presence in a semester that was interrupted where conversations and connections that had already formed in the F2F environment shifted to an online environment in order to determine instructional practices that supported those continued connections.

Our study is centered on an understanding of instructor social presence. Researchers have been working to decipher instructor social presence for almost two decades and have found that students value instructors who are caring, responsive, and establish a method of communication between themselves and the students (Hodges & Cowan, 2012; Sheridan & Kelly, 2010; Wise, Chang, Duffy, & del Valle, 2004; Whiteside, 2015). Research has noted the crucial role of the instructor in online course facilitation to establish teaching presence (Mandernach, Gonzales, & Garrett, 2006; Wise, Change, Duggy, & Del Valle, 2004). Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, and Archer (2001) incorporated this type of interaction under teaching presence, which is the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the realization of personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes. Instructional practices that support instructor social presence include posting regularly to the discussion board, timely responses to emails and assignments, and modeling good online communication and interactions (Paloff & Pratt, 2003; Kassinger, 2004; Martin, Wang, & Sadaf, 2018; Whiteside, Garrett Dikkers, & Lewis, 2017). Many researchers have tried to define instructor social presence; a few researchers have attempted to define instructor social presence from the students’ perspectives (Sheridan & Kelly, 2010).

About our Study

This study used a cross-sectional survey design with an anonymous online survey administered to a representative sample of 6000 undergraduate and graduate students at our institution at the close of the semester, after the traditional student evaluation period ended. There was a response rate of 7% (N=432). Table 1 presents basic demographic information of respondents.

Table 1: Survey demographics


76% Female

22% Male

1% Prefer not to answer

1% Other


85% Undergraduate

13% Master’s

1% Doctoral

1% Post-Bacc/Certificate


77% 18 to 24

12% 25 to 34 

6% 35 to 44

4% 45 to 54

1% over 55

The instrument contained basic demographic information, explored facilitation of learning through the lens of instructor social presence, and included open-ended questions to reflect the change of instructional method from face-to-face to online. Students were asked to identify a face-to-face course that successfully transitioned to online and provide examples of why they thought the course was successful. Students were also asked to provide additional information they wanted to share.  Open-ended questions received the most responses on the survey, while close-ended question response rates varied; therefore, the qualitative data is central to our presentation, with the quantitative data providing further support and detail. 

Plan for Interactivity

We will start our presentation with an interactive Padlet, asking audience members to share examples they know of course practices that are successful in helping build connectedness in online learning. We will use audience ideas to springboard our conversation about the current study. We will share the foundation of our work through a brief discussion of instructor social presence and will focus the time on a guided discussion of the results from our study. We will utilize the Padlet throughout the presentation by posing questions related to the findings and asking audience members to share their reflection and ideas. The Padlet will be a resource-driven space where audience members can return and share additional items with each other even after the presentation has ended. 


This session offers research-based takeaways on what students value in an online class, specifically as it connects them to their instructor, peers, and content. Initial findings are included in the proposal based on preliminary data analysis.

  • Which aspects of instruction were deemed successful by students as keeping them connected to their instructor, content, and peers?

Instructor responsiveness

Students used the terms responsive and accessible interchangeably. Students valued being able to contact their instructors, having timely responses to inquiries, and regular reminders of due dates.

“Professor consistently reached out and offered opportunities to talk and ask questions.”

“My instructor would email back very fast, answer any of my questions, and also continuously sent out weekly announcements to address what was due at the end of the week.”

68% of student respondents identified it was most important for instructors to respond to student questions or concerns within 12 to 24 hours. This almost immediate turn around could be because these classes were face-to-face before COVID-19 and most met two or three times a week. Students had access to their teachers regularly in the face-to-face classes and it seems like that expectation or desire carried over into the remote classes. 30% of students felt it was most important to make response times known in the syllabus.

Empathic facilitation

An area most noted and important when considering social presence in online learning is empathic facilitation. Students highly valued instructors who reached out via email or announcements, noted an understanding of the situation, and otherwise demonstrated they cared about the students, the situation, and continued student learning.  

“My instructors were very accommodating and understood students were having to homeschool their own children while trying to complete their own graduate work and work from home (employment).”

“She was extremely understanding and helpful. She wanted us to succeed and still understand the material but knew that we were facing a lot of changes and stressors.”

The majority of participants agreed or strongly agreed that the feelings an instructor can create in an online course, part of instructor social presence, were important to their learning and motivation: 

  1. Creates a feeling of trust and acceptance (69% SA, 30% A, 2% D, 1% SD)
  2. Creates a feeling of community with the instructor (61% SA, 34% A, 2% D, 3% SD)
  3. Gives me a sense of belonging in the course (61% SA, 30% A, 6% D, 2% SD)
  4. Makes me feel good about myself (51% SA, 40% A, 6% D, 2% SD)
  5. Creates a feeling of community among the students (54% SA, 36% A, 7% D, 3% SD)

Online teaching best practices 

Students valued clear organization of content, as well as instructors changing assessments such as cumulative tests to short answers, or incorporating reflections or materials that were authentic to the learning context. 

“The organization from my teacher and the simplicity/straight forwardness of the course layout made the transition extremely smooth. He provided reminders for upcoming due dates and video instructions for things we did not cover in class … He also had an updated syllabus/course modules in a timely manner where it was easy to identify changes.”

“Our professor sent us emails for each class period along with additional emails with reminders, all of which served to thoroughly but concisely explain what we needed to do, when we needed to do it by, and where instructions were located on Canvas.”

“[She] modified assignments to be done best online by eliminating or adjusting certain in-class materials.

“We were supposed to have debates in class and did not get the chance. Luckily, the debates turned into discussion boards where you had to pick a side of the argument and respond to other people who you agreed/ disagreed with. It allowed me to understand the material better and was a fun way to have a form of contact with my peers.”

In our presentation we will provide specific instructional strategies to increase social presence in online learning and suggest tools and methods for faculty and instructional designers to consider.