My teacher’s a robot: beating negative perceptions when teaching online

Students on online courses complain of a lack of interaction, motivation and familiarity with teachers, research shows. Wendy Cowan looks at how to build ‘instructor presence’ into online courses

Wendy Cowan's avatar
30 Jan 2023
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Athens State University

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The basics of building engagement and motivation for learning online
4 minute read
Advice for teaching online

Initially excited to review the student feedback on my online course, I was quickly dismayed as I read the comment: “All she did was grade my papers.” Has your heart sunk as you read similar words in a course evaluation? When learning online, there is a danger that students start to think of you, the teacher, as being like The Great Oz behind a heavy curtain, divorced from their learning, a figure whose sole function is to “grade papers”.

For the past 10 years, online course “design” has been heavily studied, resulting in faculty being encouraged to use sources such as Quality Matters to guide effective course design. However, course design does not address instructor presence in the course.

Students perceive the instructor as absent in online courses, research shows. Whether this perception is real or based on old typologies of distance education akin to correspondence courses, the perception remains and must be addressed through “instructor presence” in the course.

Students on online courses report insufficient interaction and familiarity with their instructors and a lack of motivation. Feedback in one study included: “I want a real teacher”, “I prefer a course taught by a human” and “There is no instructor personality interjected into the course”.

So, how do instructors overcome this perception and ensure students view them as “present” in online courses? The following strategies will help.

Counter the stereotype

Stereotypes of online courses shape students’ attitudes, making them less likely to engage with the instructor and course materials. Thus, from day one, counter these stereotypes by proactively addressing them and letting the students know:

  • I am available
  • I want to hear from you
  • I am excited to have you in the course
  • I can’t wait for us to get to know each other.

These messages can be conveyed via announcements, email, podcast or video messages.

Encourage communication

Throughout the course, use announcements, videos and other materials to emphasise the desire for student communication. Remind students repeatedly. Share pertinent communication information during the induction and throughout the course.

  • How to contact me: email, phone number, office location and hours, Zoom info
  • Communication policy: email or phone preferences and message response time; assignment assessment response time; and how and where you post communication
  • Communication resources: when using new tools or resources, such as Zoom or Teams, provide “how to” use instructions
  • Email, announcements and assignment documents: remind students of your availability and desire to hear from them.

Brand yourself

There’s nothing worse than a student being asked, at the end of 15-week course: “Who was your instructor?” and the student responding: “I don’t know.” Make sure students know.

Marketing experts make sure we remember the names of advertised products through branding. Instructors can use this same strategy by adding their personal brands to courses. One simple way to do this is by adding a consistent graphic with your name, picture, email address and any other relevant details to all assignments, presentations and other course materials. Using this same individual branding across all the courses you teach will help students quickly recognise you.

Share the real you

Students want to know their instructors as real people, not just as a series of digital messages. In traditional face-to-face courses, it’s common for lecturers to share personal stories or information, which makes them more familiar and relatable. The same information can be shared in online courses. For example, if something funny happens, include it in a weekly video message or introduce family members through video. When introducing yourself, include more information than your educational pedigree, such as your hobbies, pets, interests and so on.

Include personalised video messages

While most of us do not like the way we look and sound in a video, students want to see us. Students receive cues from their instructors’ facial expressions and body language. The excitement and enthusiasm that can be projected through videos is contagious. This helps increase student engagement and interest in assignments and course topics. Good uses of video message include:

  • Assignment feedback: video feedback is a great way to praise work, explain errors and discuss ways to improve in a more personal and sensitive way
  • Assignment instructions: in addition to written assignment instructions, include a video in which you discuss the assignment, emphasising the expectations, common errors and most important aspects to consider. You can inject lots of enthusiasm.
  • Course lectures: allow your face to be captured alongside a slide presentation
  • Bonus information: if you come across great information, related to the course or not, share it with your students. For example, one autumn term, I found a great resource for creating Christmas cards. I created a “how to” video for my students and received multiple thank-yous.

Go live

Even in asynchronous courses, some students may want to connect with you virtually. This can take place one on one, in small groups or whole-class sessions. It’s also a good idea to record and archive sessions in order share them with students who were unable to attend.

While course content is paramount to engagement, real engagement happens through relationships. In order for a student to have a relationship with their instructor, they must perceive the instructor as a real person, not a robot, and a person who is actively involved in the course and cares about the students’ progress through it and general welfare.

Singly, each step outlined above will add a degree of instructor presence, but when combined they will send a real message that the course tutor is present, available and keen to interact with and support students.

Watch Wendy’s presentation on the same topic: My Teacher’s a Robot.

Wendy Cowan is a professor of education and department chair at Athens State University.

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