An Online Adjunct Instructor Needs a Strong Virtual Presence


BruceBy Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

As an adjunct online instructor have you considered your students’ perspective of your classroom presence? What does it mean to you to be actively present in your class? For any classroom environment an instructor’s presence is necessary for the development of social interactions and working relationships with students. Within a traditional classroom, students have the benefit of visually observing the instructor and their involvement in the class. The nature of those visual observations change with an online classroom environment and students look for other clues that let them know their instructor is actively involved in the class. Because direct interactions are absent from the online classroom an instructor needs to develop a strong virtual presence by utilizing effective indirect interactions.

A Traditional Classroom Perspective
For students attending a traditional college campus classroom the scheduled class time provides an opportunity for their instructor to deliver information, interact with them, and participate in discussions. The instructor has an opportunity during this time to assess students’ engagement in the class and their comprehension of course topics, which allows the instructor to adapt their instructional methods as needed, based upon what they have physically observed. Also visible to the instructor is the student’s level of motivation and participation in the class and they are able to monitor, guide, and discuss the student’s performance, while addressing any potential issues. Instructors who are used to a physical classroom may find that new techniques are required when making a transition to the online environment as communication and relationship-building occur through posted messages rather than scheduled classroom meetings.

The Online Adjunct’s Challenge
An online classroom environment requires an instructor to develop a new type of classroom presence, with indirect methods of presenting information and participation in asynchronous classroom discussions. For the online instructor, relationships between students and the instructor are often based upon written communication, without the benefit of verbal communication or follow up. The online instructor also becomes responsible for guiding the learner as they work and create knowledge in this technologically-enabled environment, changing the nature of instruction from a teacher who transmits knowledge to an instructor who facilitates the process of learning.

A common challenge for instructors in this environment is modeling active engagement in the class so that students are motivated to also be actively present. A virtual classroom is always “open” and students expect to “see” their instructor in the classroom. As noted by the Hanover Research Council through their studies about the online classroom, “this different dynamic makes it easier for students to feel as if the instructor is not participating in learning, thus making it more likely that students take a passive role as well.” Planned participation within discussion boards is one method instructors can utilize to demonstrate their active role in the process of learning. Through frequent postings and the use of questions that engage students in the discussion, instructors are able to replicate the interactive nature of the traditional classroom.

Interacting with Students
The format of the learning environment may have changed with an online platform; however, the students’ need for one-on-one interactions does not change. Kathryn Ley, Ph.D. confirms that “students crave online interaction with their instructors,” and that “more interaction may not mean more learning but it does mean a greater time commitment for both instructor and student.” Instructors can guide the development of online classroom relationships by creating an environment that is conducive to and supportive of productive exchanges. This requires an investment of time on the part of the instructor as online interactions do not occur with just one scheduled class meeting. Instructors are expected to be visible in the classroom on a regular basis, monitoring discussions and the learning environment.

Within a technology-enabled learning platform an instructional presence is possible when instructors are active in class discussions and they are quickly responding to students’ questions and the overall classroom conditions. In fact, the University of Maryland University College, Center for Teaching and Learning, has found that” the perception of faculty presence has been cited by many research studies as one of the most important determinants in student satisfaction with online learning.” Students develop perceptions about the class, the process of learning, and the school based upon their classroom interactions and they are likely to find it reassuring to know that their instructor is dedicated to their progress and overall development.

Availability Matters
Another important component of an effective online presence is the instructor’s availability. In order for learners to feel connected to the classroom environment they need to know that their instructor is available on a regular basis. The Hanover Research Council found that “a lack of visibility may lead to students’ critical attitudes of the instructor’s effectiveness and lower levels of affective learning.” Creating a virtual presence means more than posting an occasional check-in with the class; a strong instructional presence should include the instructor’s active engagement and participation in the class. An effective method of demonstrating availability is answering questions and emails within a timely manner. Some adjuncts also utilize instant messaging as a means of being available for their students.

Being Virtually Present
The online classroom has changed the format of traditional learning. Words now form the basis of communication and interactions occur more frequently as the online classroom is always available. Instructors are expected to be available for more than one scheduled class meeting. This requires an investment of additional time for adjunct instructors as they are interacting with the class and with all students throughout the week. These interactions are most effective when the instructor has developed a strong virtual presence, one that is responsive to students and their developmental needs. The University of Maryland University College, Center for Teaching and Learning, notes that “maintaining this faculty presence is also a motivating, energizing element for the online instructor.” Being actively engaged and present in the class results in a positive experience for the instructor and the students, and promotes a productive learning environment.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a Ph.D. in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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