Immediacy and Presence in Online Learning

Totally Online, by Jim ShimabukuroCredence Baker‘s study, “The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation” in The Journal of Educators Online (7.1, January 2010), is a substantial contribution to online instructional pedagogy.

The study focuses on instructor presence and immediacy in online courses. Presence is manifested in “instructional design and organization, facilitating discourse, and direct instruction”; verbal immediacy, in behaviors such as “giving praise, using humor, using self-disclosure.”

Major findings:

  • “While instructor immediacy was shown to be positively related to student affective learning, cognition, and motivation, it was not shown to be a significant predictor.”
  • “Instructor presence . . . is a significant predictor of student affective learning, cognition, and motivation.”

Instructional activities that impact presence “include presenting content and questions, focusing the discussion on specific issues, summarizing discussion, confirming understanding, diagnosing misperceptions, injecting knowledge from diverse sources and responding to student’s technical concerns.”

According to Baker, a “limitation of the study is the self-reporting nature of the measurement instrument [online survey], which hinders the ability to control errors and bias in the participants’ responses.”

Breakdown of the subjects: “The data collected for this study included 377 (n=377) uniquely completed surveys submitted online. Of the 377 respondents, 265 were females and 112 were males. A total of 71 students (18.8 %) indicated that this was their first online course, and 306 students (81.2%) indicated that they had had previous online course experiences. One hundred forty-one (141) respondents (37.5%) reported being graduate students, whereas 236 respondents (62.5%) reported being undergraduate students.”


One of my concerns centers on the discreteness of the predictor variables, presence and immediacy, which tend to overlap in discussion activities. For example, instructor participation in online class forums, the most direct means of interaction, seems to incorporate both variables, complicating comparisons.

This concern, however, takes nothing away from the confirmation that course design (to establish presence) is critical for an online class, and, arguably, the most critical implication of this finding is the need to provide ongoing released time for online faculty to continually develop, maintain, and update their virtual learning environments.

Perhaps a second important implication to improve presence (and immediacy) is to explore the incorporation of discussion moderators for online forums. This role could be filled by selected students trained to facilitate discussions.

A third implication is probably controversial, but it needs to be examined — recruiting and hiring instructors who are skilled in developing and using online learning environments. Currently, most online instructors use course management systems (CMSs) maintained by information technology (IT) staff. Eventually, through in-service workshops, they become adept at getting the most out of the CMS. To strengthen online offerings, colleges may want to include CMS skill as a prerequisite for employment.

A fourth implication is that colleges may want to provide ongoing released time for the development of skills that take the instructor beyond the confines of CMSs as well as funds and IT support to implement innovations outside the boundaries of CMSs. Since course design is so critical, it may be time to open it up to influences and resources beyond the college’s IT department.

A fifth and final implication is the need for colleges to keep a finger on the pulse of current technology actually used by our students, who are increasingly turning to handheld communication devices that bridge the gap between cell phone and notebook computer. For many or most of our students, the boundary between face-to-face (F2F) and virtual is shrinking so rapidly that they no longer make a distinction between the two. For all practical purposes, they are one and the same. We may, in other words, have reached the point where the online vs. F2F controversy is, literally, academic.

Baker’s study comes at an opportune time, interrupting a relatively dead period in the dialogue on online instruction. This may be just the breakthrough needed to explore the next step in online education.

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