Instructor presence via synchronous interaction in online courses: What does the data say?

Streamed Session Research

Brief Abstract

Researchers share the results of a meta-analysis examining research on synchronous instructor presence in online courses and the relationship to student outcomes. We will discuss the research process and unexpected challenges. The discussion will include how the results can be applied by different stakeholder groups, including recommendations for researchers.


Mary Ellen Dello Stritto is the Director of Research for Oregon State University Ecampus, where she designs and conducts research studies on online teaching and learning, provides support for faculty research on online education, and produces tools to promote research literacy. Her background is in psychology with a specialization in quantitative methodologies, survey design, and statistical analysis.

Extended Abstract

While online learning mostly happens asynchronously, the higher education students enrolled in predominantly asynchronous online courses prefer classes that include more synchronous instructor presence in addition to the asynchronous component. (Capranos, Dyers, & Magda, 2022). As a response to students’ preference, we were interested in examining the existing findings and pedagogical positions in terms of the benefits of synchronous instructor presence on student learning and satisfaction in online courses. Considering the diverse context of online learning such as course disciplines, characteristics of students and institutions, delivery modes and tools used for interaction, the researchers aimed to conduct a meta-analysis of the studies on online learning over the last decade. The students' preference for synchronous interaction with the instructor motivated our meta-analysis. We were interested in investigating whether synchronous instructor presence benefits student learning. However, the barriers we encountered in each stage of the project have become the defining characteristic of our work and have provided us with an insight into deeper issues in online education research. Specifically, these issues were: (1) the instructor presence variable was not uniformly operationalized in different publications; (2) the instructor presence in synchronous classes was frequently difficult to identify due to inadequate reporting in the method sections; (3) the beneficial outcomes of the synchronous interactions with the instructor were measured differently in different studies; (4) statistics in the results section was reported inadequately often with crucial information such as a number of participants, group sizes, standard deviations missing, and (5) fewer than expected number of publications on the effects of synchronous instructor presence on student learning. We found a lack of solid theoretical and empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of synchronous interaction in online learning. We will share our decision process in conducting a meta-analysis and systematic review and present a summary of the findings. Our presentation will include the overall analysis of the effects of the inclusion of synchronous instructor presence in online courses as well as the potential contextual effects of subject matter discipline. We will discuss the implications of this research for different stakeholder groups in online education: faculty, instructional designers, and online program administrators (department chairs, deans, etc,). Thus, there are two outcomes of our meta-analysis project that we will report and discuss. The first outcome is the answer to the initial research question that motivated our meta-analysis, and that should inform educational practice and policies in online higher education. The second outcome is the overall description of the publication and research quality that we hope will inform the researchers, peer reviewers and journal editors. The presenters will share their lessons learned and key takeaways: (1) For researchers, peer reviewers, journal editors, regarding the importance of reporting the full data and context, selection and implementation of meta-analysis and systematic review methods, and (2) Suggestion for further research on online instructor presence that includes an examination of the actual quality of the student-instructor synchronous interaction Interaction plan The presenters will engage the OLC audience through interactive online tools to increase presence and significance of learning. The interactions are planned to activate participants’ experience, apply their understanding, and reflect on the findings from this study to their research, teaching, and administration. At the beginning of the session a Jamboard discussion questions will be posed to the audience: Do you have a sense of the preference of students at your institution for synchronous interaction in online courses? What is the current practice and inclusion of synchronous components in online courses at your institution? During the session the following question will be posed in the chat for discussion: Estimate the number of articles the team reviewed at different stages of the search for the meta-analysis. The closest winner will get a small prize. Throughout the presentation, we will also respond to questions in the chat. At the end of the session, we will ask for reflections and applications in a Jamboard discussion: What findings are you surprised by? How will you learn what you used today? How do we set standards for researching and reporting of research? References Capranos, D., Dyers, L., Magda, A. J. (2022). Voice of the online learner 2022: Shifting preferences in post-pandemic online learning. Maitland, FL: Wiley University Services.