Instructor Presence in Online Courses: It’s Not Just a Façade

Concurrent Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

A profile of various methods to set, sustain, and enhance instructor presence in online courses.  Based on survey data, we distinguish forms of instructor presence that students perceive as adding substantively to their learning experience versus those that merely regarded as a visual façade, adding style, but little substance. 


Sharon is a Professor of Management at the University of Delaware. She teaches face-to-face, hybrid and online courses in strategic management and international business in the undergraduate and MBA programs of the Lerner College of Business and Economics and regularly teaches in the University of Delaware Honors Program and the Online MBA. She has published research and presented on teaching pedagogy, including several times at the University of Delaware Faculty Institute. Sharon's teaching efforts have earned the Lerner College Outstanding Teacher Award and the UD Online Innovative Teaching Award. Sharon has published studies on cross-border mergers and acquisitions, the management of foreign subsidiaries, international aspects of top management compensation and the effects of cultural differences on behavior in organizations. Her research has won several awards and has been published in the Academy of Management Journal, Strategic Management Journal, Journal of Management Studies, Management International Review, Journal of International Management, Cross-Cultural Management and others. She has served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Management and Journal of International Management.
Daniel P. Sullivan, Professor of Global Studies | Director of Global Studies at the Alfred Lerner College of Business of the University of Delaware, received his PhD from the University of South Carolina. He researches a range of topics, including globalization and business, international management, global strategy, competitive analysis, and corporate governance. His work on these topics has been published in leading scholarly journals, including the Journal of International Business Studies, Management International Review, Law and Society Review, and Academy of Management Journal. In addition, he has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of International Business Studies and Management International Review. Professor Sullivan has been honored for both his research and teaching, receiving grants and winning awards for both activities while at the University of Delaware and, his former affiliation, the Freeman School of Tulane University. He has been awarded numerous teaching honors at the undergraduate, MBA, and EMBA levels—most notably, he has been voted Outstanding Teacher by the students of 18 different executive, MBA, and undergraduate classes at the University of Delaware and Tulane University. Professor Sullivan has taught, designed, and administered a range of in-class , hybrid, and online graduate, undergraduate, and nondegree courses on topics spanning globalization and business, international business operations, international management, strategic perspectives, executive leadership, and corporate strategy. In the United States, he has delivered lectures and courses at several university sites and company facilities. In addition, he has led courses in several foreign countries, including China, Hong Kong, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. Finally, he has worked with many managers and consulted with several multinational enterprises on issues of international business.

Extended Abstract

Presentation Description

As online education proliferates, course designers have grasped onto the set of findings that suggest Instructor Presence in an online course increases student satisfaction (Baker, 2010; Ladyshewsky, 2013, Wise, et al., 2004).  There are a range of methods that a teacher can apply to introduce and/or increase his or her presence in an online course; popular choices include personalized videos of the instructor, interactions with students, in-depth feedback to discussion posts, and designing a course structure and content flow that promote high levels of student engagement (Swan & Shih, 2005).  Some forms of instructor presence have been shown to promote student satisfaction in online courses, suggesting it is a critical design element in online pedagogy (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). However, there is scant evidence regarding which of these approaches are valued by students (Sheridan & Kelly, 2010). Closing this gap, we argue, helps improve the efficiency of the online course design and the effectiveness of its delivery.


We conducted an empirical study to distinguish between those forms of instructor presence that students believe add substantively to their learning experience in an online course and those that are merely a visual façade, adding style, but little substance.  Our overall hypotheses was that online students value substance over style; moreover, they can see through the façade of superficial, synthetic presence, yet appreciate an instructor’s presence that meaningfully contributes to their learning.


To test this issue, we collected data from student exit surveys across multiple iterations of an online graduate business course to assess the degree to which various forms of instructor presence perceived influence student learning.  Additionally, we analyzed in-course Learning Management System analytics to assess students’ use of specific course materials intentionally designed to directly enhance instructor presence.


Our preliminary findings suggest that students do, indeed, place a high value on many types of instructor presence in online courses. However, students place significantly more importance on elements of instructor presence that support substantive learning opportunities for them, such as instructor created content lecture videos, course assignments that directly apply content material, and detailed feedback on their performance.  Students saw less value in elements of instructor presence that provide a visual presence or interaction without simultaneously adding to their learning experience, such as instructor introduction videos, bio sketches and introduction discussion boards. 


These findings support and add to previous research that demonstrated the importance of instructor presence in terms of course structure and design.  In particular, they demonstrate the importance of creating a high level of cognitive discourse in a community of inquiry that leads to student learning, (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005).  Significantly, our results confirm that contrary to popular suggestion, not all methods and modes to enhance instructor presence are productive.  Given the time required to develop many of these methods and modes, such as a personalized course overview, online instructors may wish to rethink the value of certain options. Fundamentally, our results highlight the importance of emphasizing substance over style to setting and sustaining valid, engaging, and respected instructor presence. Our data, both objective and anecdotal, indicate that many students see through the façade of stylistic enhancements to course design, and question its legitimacy and usefulness. Hence, our results suggest instructors aiming to improve their presence should follow a more productive path in investing effort in improving the substantive structure and content of online courses.


In this Emerging Ideas Session, we will provide a looping PowerPoint slideshow that demonstrates:

  1. The various methods faculty can use to set, sustain, and expand instructor’s presence in an online course
  2. The distinction between stylistic vs. substantive methods.
  3. The forms of instructor presence that add to students’ perception of the instructor’s presence in the course
  4. The types of instructor presence that students perceive as improving the meaningfulness of the learning experience
  5. How students’ behaviors within the online learning management system signal the value of some forms of instructor presence


Throughout the slideshow, the co-presenters will engage in conversation with attendees in an attempt to learn even more effective ways of creating instructor presence in our courses.  Ideally, this conversation will help instructors to improve their understanding of and identify paths to enhance their presence in their own online course. Besides the PowerPoint slideshow, we’ll provide participants a summary profile of the report.


Goals: after this presentation, participants will:

  1. Understand the various ways instructors can build and enhance presence in their online courses
  2. Clarify the difference between substantive and stylistic presence
  3. Identify the types of instructor presence that students perceive as meaningful and valid
  4. Determine productive paths way to build instructor presence into current and future online courses


Works Cited


Baker, C. (2010). The impact of instructor immediacy and presence for online student affective learning, cognition, and motivation. Journal of Educators Online, 7(1), n1.


Garrison, D. R., & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. The American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 133-148.


Ladyshewsky, R. K. (2013). Instructor presence in online courses and student satisfaction. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(1), 13.


Sheridan, K., & Kelly, M. A. (2010). The indicators of instructor presence that are important to students in online courses. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6(4), 767.


Swan, K. & Shih, L.F. (2005). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(3), 115−136.


Wise, A., Chang, J., Duffy, T., & del Valle, R. (2004). The effects of teacher social presence on student satisfaction, engagement, and learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 31(3), 247-271