Teaching Presence in Online Courses: Organization and Design Are Key

Author: 
Denise H. Barton and Debbie Maness
November
2017
Volume: 
12
Number: 
11
Innovation Showcase

Communicating to students in a way that leads to student satisfaction and success in online courses requires teaching presence. The main instrument of learning is communication and the success of students’ learning depends on the faculty member’s preparedness to engage them in the learning process (Serdyukov & Serdyukova, 2015). Online instructors must, therefore, work to find strategies to improve students’ satisfaction of teaching presence through approaches that address these concerns.

According to Florescu and Pop-Pacurar (2016), one of the most important factors influencing the motivation of students is faculty presence. Research indicates a positive correlation between teaching presence and faculty communication timeliness (Skramstad, Schlosser, & Orellana, 2012). Hajibayova (2017) notes that regular faculty engagement through various modes of communication created faculty presence. Watt’s (2016) reports that both synchronous and asynchronous communication supports student achievement of objectives in the online class.

Problem

One of the greatest challenges in quality online instruction is design and organization of an environment that appeals to and engages students through communication and feedback. For effective online learning—and to keep students motivated and achieving—communication of content, feedback, and progress are necessary. Yet many students comment that they need clarification on instructions and assignment expectations, and more guidance from the faculty member on how to complete assignments and other required tasks in the course. This translates into the need for more or better communication from the faculty member.

Need

To support teaching presence, faculty members must be available to online students and respond to them in a timely manner. When students are assured that the faculty member will respond to them when needed, they can focus on completing work. Because of its importance to their success, student satisfaction with faculty communication, in the form of teaching presence, should be measured and evaluated to determine if online students are happy with the availability of their instructors.

Methodology

Two professors investigated student perceptions of teaching presence in two different curriculums at Wake Technical Community College. A business professor and an English professor collaborated to determine student satisfaction of their individual teaching presence in four online courses in fall 2016. The teaching presence survey (TPS), part of the community of inquiry (CoI) theory, was used to poll students using a web-based online survey tool. Data analytics were collected from the Blackboard LMS showing faculty’s dates and times in the courses compared with students’ dates and times in the courses. Data analysis involved comparing the TPS survey results with the Blackboard LMS data to determine if there was a correlation between student satisfaction with teaching presence and the time faculty and students were in the online courses synchronously.

Results

Students reported 92.4 percent satisfaction with course design, organization, clear communication of content topics and goals, instructions, and due dates. They rated facilitation of the course as 79.57 percent and direct instruction as 84.51 percent positive. These responses indicate that the greatest rate of student satisfaction in these courses was experienced through course design and organization. Using Blackboard LMS analytics, a comparison of dates and times faculty were available and dates and times students were available showed some overlap. Due dates were the main dates students were found in online classes and the correlation between faculty presence and student presence in online courses did not provide information to support or dispute the ratings students gave on the TPS. This may mean that faculty presence in online classes is communicated to students through other methods, such as effective course design instead of synchronous availability of the faculty member. The following lessons were learned through this data analysis and evaluation of the courses’ designs.

Lessons Learned

The first section of the TPS included questions regarding course design, organization, communication, and instruction. Student responses indicated 92.4 percent satisfaction with questions included in this component. Data show that the greatest student satisfaction was with course design and organization; we believe the ratings are based on the fact that we see this aspect of teaching presence as the most important. Based on these results, our faculty presence was demonstrated through effective course design by both instructors, who consider students’ needs for time management, learner control, engaging content in a consistent structure, a variety of presentation modes, and interaction with peers. It requires facilitation and direct instruction, which is present in the online courses of students surveyed.

Efficiency in design and organization is a key component of students’ satisfaction with teaching presence and success in online courses. Students taking an online course for the first time can become overwhelmed with poor course design and organization. The more organized a course is, the more easily they can find all the content and assignments. For students who have difficulty focusing and maintaining attention (Bálint et al., 2009), course design and organization play a key role in success or failure. A well-designed course can provide students with a platform to concentrate. Being able to spend the majority of their time completing work rather than looking for what to do is vital to students’ success.

When a course is designed well, it fosters better student time management skills. Students who understand the demands of the course from the very beginning are better able to experience course completion and success. When due dates are clear from the beginning of the course, students have an opportunity to plan ahead and break down the work into manageable pieces.

Also, having clear instructions and due dates posted within the first week of the course allows students to maintain control over their learning experience. When students meet the specific expectations of the course, they may increase their self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation. Having the weighted average, or current grade, listed in the grade book demonstrates to the student that the faculty member is actively concerned about the students’ ongoing progress. When students know where they stand with respect to their grade at any point during the course, they have the opportunity to motivate themselves to do a higher level of work to achieve a better grade. When the weighted average or current average column is not correct or not visible to students, they may not know how they are progressing and may not realize they need to put in more effort.

Engaging content in a variety of formats with consistent structure keeps the students’ attention and allows for better participation while providing a framework that is familiar in each unit. Using the same structure in each unit allows students to navigate within the course more quickly and easily. This improves confidence in the online course experience, as they meet expectations and are successful with learning course content.

Recommendations

Based on high TPS ratings for online course design, strategies that lead to student satisfaction of teaching presence include:

  • Post weekly course schedule with assignments and due dates in the LMS in a printable format the first week of class. This allows students to view all course due dates and organize their work.
  • Populate all assignment submission tabs the first week of the course so students do not have to search for this information and functionality. Locate submission tabs with the assignment directions.
  • Use rubrics for all assignments. Rubrics include criteria for grading and help students to understand what items should be included in the assignment and how each of these items is weighted and graded.
  • Set weighted or current average in the LMS the first week of class. Provide students access to their current course average at all times, including as assignments are graded.
  • Provide ongoing feedback and communication of progress with LMS grade book and email reminders for timely submission. Administer an early identification success software multiple times during each semester to alert students on their academic progress and attendance. Send kudos for outstanding student performance and warnings for subpar performance in behavior, academics, and attendance.
  • Post instructions on how to post a discussion thread and reply to students before discussion board assignments are due. Place an introduction discussion board in the first week assignments. Use additional discussion boards for collaboration of content-specific material throughout the class.
  • List faculty office hours, standard response timelines to student emails, and grading turnaround times. Notify students via email the reason for any delay, such as attending a conference or being out sick.
  • Provide students with instructions on how to reflect on their learning through guided questions posted by the faculty member. This may include a peer review of writing assignments or a reflection of what they have learned throughout the semester. Recorded journals and blogs in the LMS.
  • Provide instructions for a student-only discussion board at the beginning of the course. This student to student only interaction discussion board provides a forum for student only questions and assistance where the faculty member does not participate, but does monitor. Provide expectations for professionalism and respect.
  • Post faculty personalized videos to welcome students to the course, to introduce the faculty member, and to communicate the course structure. This allows students to see and hear the faculty member. This familiarity with the faculty member supports more positive emails from students. Use additional personalized faculty videos throughout the course to present key concepts.

Summary

To address the gap in student satisfaction with faculty presence, two faculty members at Wake Technical Community College collected data on their students’ perceptions of faculty presence. The results showed that student satisfaction with online communication improves with organization and good course design, when communication concerning course content and goals are clear, and when specific instruction and announced due dates are present from the first week of course. Facilitation and direct instruction were important, but course design and organization were rated the highest. Because the TPS component that received the highest student satisfaction was course organization, the strategies employed by both professors contributed to higher ratings. These strategies were focused on organization, design, and providing structure to the course so that students could concentrate on completing the work and not on trying to understand what they should be doing.

Next Steps

Both faculty will scale the results of this research in two ways. First, this information will be added to the online faculty mentoring communication and collaboration software to be used by mentors in supporting faculty who are new to online teaching. Second, this information will be communicated to all online faculty through professional development presentations.  

References

Bálint, P., Czobor, S., Komlósi, A., Mészáros, V., Simon, & I. Bitter. (2009). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): gender- and age-related differences in neurocognition. Psychological Medicine, 39(8), 1337-1345. Doi: 10.1017/S0033291708004236

Florescu, M. H., & Pop-Pacurar, I. (2016). Is the fear of 'being wrong' a barrier for effective communication between students and professors? A survey study at Babes-Bolyai University Romania. Acta Didactica Napocensia, 9(2), 47.

Hajibayova, L. (2017). Students' viewpoint: What constitutes presence in an online classroom? Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 55(1), 12.

Serdyukov, P., & Serdyukova, N. (2015). Effects of communication, socialization and collaboration on online learning. European Scientific Journal, 2, 86-100.

Skramstad, E., Schlosser, C., & Orellana, A. (2012). Teaching presence and communication timeliness in asynchronous online courses. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 13(3), 183.

Watts, L. (2016). Synchronous and asynchronous communication in distance learning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 17(1), 23-32.

Dr. Denise H. Barton is professor, Business Administration and Human Resources, and Mentoring Coordinator, online faculty mentoring program. Debbie Maness is assistant professor, English, and Faculty Association President, Wake Technical Community College, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and/or submitting college and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.