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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  1. Oh, Dr. J, that is a tough one. First, I have a pretty heavy discussion requirement, and I make it count for a lot of their grade. That way many of them will take it seriously. A couple of good posters make all the difference in the community building process, I think sometimes even more than my presence. Something about peer interaction provides good inspiration for everyone, it certainly does for me. In addition to interacting with reluctant students and praising them for good contributions (sometimes even sending them a little e-mail to see how there are), making the discussion board a safe and fun place for interaction is important. Monitoring with a gentle touch helps a lot.

  2. Hello Amy:

    Thank you for the reply.

    You have made a very good point about the need for good writing skills. I believe that for an online environment our words, tone, and writing skills portray an image for us. I also have found that the use of emoticons can help to create a friendly tone. Finally, the use of introductions is a great way to break the ice and let students see us (as facilitators) as real people. How do you encourage reluctant students to interact and participate in the community-building process?

    Dr. J

  3. I use a few techniques for establishing connection with my students and for personalizing the experience. First, I think it helps if you are, at least to some degree, a good writer. While I’m professional, I’m not formal or stiff in my writing for my class. Some may disagree, but I use emoticons, especially when I e-mail students. I don’t allow chatspeak or shortcut spelling, but especially in environments with varying degrees of literacy, it can help set tone in an important way. I try to be funny when I can and also accessible.

    I also let them know a bit about me. Of course I post an introduction, but I let them know that I have hobbies, a life, a family and that there is a real person sitting behind the keyboard. It’s too easy for students to forget that sometimes, I think. If I’m teaching from my field site or another location than my home, I share that. I know if I were in front of a class, there would be all sorts of informal banter, and we would learn things about each other. I think some forms of appropriate sharing of lives helps build community. No one wants a dry professor, either in a classroom or online.

  4. Hi Amy:

    Thank you for providing these additional techniques for developing a strong virtual presence. All of the methods you’ve listed are effective in building the type of connection that you have described.

    I am curious about your last sentence. How do you show who you are in your messages? Do you interject personal or professional examples? Or do you try to adding your own personality to your postings?
    Dr. J

  5. These are all very good points, of course, and I agree about the need for solid instructor presence in the discussion board area. There are other ways that an instructor can connect with students as well. I like to frequently e-mail my courses with resources that I find, or I post them on the announcements page. I have a list of them that I keep and add to. Discussion board summaries, and pre-prepared lectures that you can post throughout the week also help with interaction. Finding your voice as an online professor is very important. If you show a bit of who you are in your writing and presentation, students will feel more of a connection to you, and that makes a difference as well.

  6. Hi Joan:

    I understand the challenges of being an adjunct instructor and the issues you have talked about in your reply.

    Maintaining a strong virtual presence does require time and effort. When I work on my online classroom presence I do this not in hope of getting a future assignment or better pay, I do this because I want to have a significant impact on the students’ learning experience. As an educator my first concern is the students and their developmental needs.

    From my experience I have found that when my focus is on the students, rather than on the conditions, I am much more effective with creating a dynamic learning environment. In turn, my performance is recognized through student evaluations and classroom audits. Because of that feedback I am able to gain future assignments.

    The point I’m trying to make is this: it is easy to look externally at what isn’t right about the “system” or what needs to be changed. While those issues are certainly valid the most important aspect of classroom facilitation is meeting the needs of the students. I can control the internal/classroom conditions. If the external conditions/university policies are not what I expect there is always the freedom as an adjunct to seek employment at another university.

    Dr. J

  7. Hi Dr. Johnson,

    I agree with all you said and found this to be helpful. My only concern and experiences in online education, though, have involved part-time adjunct appointments, with a lot of grading and tight deadlines to meet for the schools. Schools limit the hours and classes any one adjunct can work for them, as well, and PT-adjunct contractors are not overpaid for their level of education and experiences, required to even get an adjunct assignment. Class sizes can require a lot of added time for management also.

    Many adjuncts work outside the home as well (or do other things for income not related to being an adjunct), and maintaining a strong, virtual presence in online classrooms is a lot of extra work and results in working for free for the school, with no guarantee of any future assignments.

    Schools could inspire more dynamic virtual classrooms and instructors, if they kept classroom sizes smaller, paid better and offered FT-virtual positions to their adjuncts. Until that changes, there’s only so much time in a week, to get the required coursework done, answer student emails in a timely manner and stay updated with required school training, seminars, continuing education requirements, etc.

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