Creating Productive Presence: A Narrative

Bill West

Seven years ago, the Department of Rhetoric (now Writing Studies) and the School of Nursing collaboratively created an online class. It was an adaptation of a course on Technical Writing that focused on the genres of communication in nursing using medical content. The decision to create the course completely online was made for two reasons. Students were on two separate campuses (Minneapolis and Rochester) and the students fit a profile for successful online learning. We had conducted a study to find if there were differences between traditional classroom students and online students. We also wanted to explore learning styles that led to success in the online environment. There were no significant demographic differences between the two groups. Old assumptions about distance learning were not verified. The students were not older, and were not employed full time. We asked them to supply us with zip codes. With the exception of one student serving in Bagdad, none were distant.  Students who thrive in the online classroom tend to do better than their traditional counterparts and also tend towards a semi-independent cognitive learning style.

As predicted, the nursing students performed very well in the class. It was a writing intensive course with major assignments due each week. Papers were returned with comments and suggestions. They could not be re-submitted for a change in grade, but more often than not, changes were made and suggestions acted upon and the papers were re-submitted anyway. (The resubmission rate varied from 10-35%.) There were up to 80 students in the class and interaction with the instructor was done via email. The first time the class was offered, we noticed frequent and odd email styles. Some of the emails were written all in caps, others seemed to demand immediate response to a question. We called some of the students and asked if they meant their emails to come across as angry and demanding. They sincerely said that that was not their intention. We looked to the online environment for an explanation. The online classroom lacks the subtle cues of tone, inflection and intent. Emoticons, in other online contexts, were developed to fill this gap. We realized that without the signals and human cues, the students couldn’t fully read the intent or interpret cues. Presence had to be established, but there was a confounding factor.

In the traditional classroom instructors are constantly giving subtle cues about what is or is not important in the textbook and other readings.  Absent these cues, the student, particularly a motivated one, might read the entire textbook and determine what is important. Students doing better in online classes may be a function of teachers not getting in the way of a motivated and semi-independent student. The trick would be to create presence without thwarting this potential benefit.

The course was designed to take advantage of online features. It was not text heavy; it provided the information that was needed to do a task at the point that it was needed. Robust interactive features were built in, so that some exercises were instructive games. The assignments built on one another. A proposal defining a disease process that the student wanted to research was addressed to the instructor.  An online presentation that created the major paper’s outline in power point had other nursing students as the audience. The major paper was to be written for a nursing instructor who specialized in the field of the disease process. The final assignment was to design a brochure providing the information a newly diagnosed patient suffering from the researched disease process would need to know in a manner they could absorb. A sophisticated animation was provided prior to this last assignment. It illustrated the month of anguish of a newly diagnosed HIV patient before he stumbled upon the one thing he needed to know immediately after diagnosis: where to find a support group.

Early each semester the class was offered, a student envoy would contact me and ask for a face to face meeting to discuss a problem she was experiencing in the class. Each time an envoy visited it became apparent that the ‘problem’ was an excuse to meet and judge what I was like. The students were placed in editing discussion groups where they peer reviewed each other’s papers. Invariably, when I would review the discussion groups, I would find comments passed on through the envoy that described me in general beneficent terms: “He doesn’t seem so bad.”

A variety of techniques were employed to provide the presence in the class that would make an envoy’s trip unnecessary. Weekly postings to the class discussing upcoming assignments and general news were instituted. Student evaluation comments indicated that these posts were viewed as hovering: a presence that repeated an already available schedule.  Extra online office hours were added as well as extended regular office hours.  Three Breeze presentations were added to supplement the material on APA citation and to add an actual voice to the classroom. The envoys continued to visit.

At this point we convened a focus group of interested students. They told us what they liked and what they found wanting in online classes. They valued the liberty of asynchronous work, but found available instructor advice advantageous. While they valued comments on their work, they valued independence even more. Because the students were a cohort, knowing each other from several other common classes, they did not feel the need for community building online. They thought that online classes were the future especially as they pursued continuing education credits throughout their careers. While focused on the future, nostalgia for traditional classrooms emerged.

I put on a suit and tie and had two traditional lectures in a classroom-like setting videotaped. Both were on topics that I knew were new to the students. One was on evaluating health care websites for future patients. The second was on health literacy: how to determine it in a patient and how to compensate for critical drops in ability to understand at time of diagnosis. The style of the videos was direct lacking even titles. The visits from the envoys stopped when these videos were added to the class. The presence that they needed was the one they felt they were losing to progress.

Presence is more than showing up. It is a complex term. Given that presence can both help and harm, it is important for each class and student audience type to determine what they need rather than what theory dictates they should have.  A case in point can be found in the online version of WRIT 3562W Technical  and Professional Writing course. One of the most difficult issues in online teaching is identifying and helping the number of students who stop participating in the class. Sending these students emails reminding them that they were still in the class and needed to participate had not proven to be effective. After interviewing several of these students, two things became apparent. First, students simply forgot about the class. Secondly, they overestimated their ability to catch up which only increased the time before attempting to complete overdue assignments.

Two online sections of WRIT3562 were selected for a pilot to address this errant audience. After an initial adjustment period of two weeks when students had accommodated to the online environment, those students who missed assignments by 48 hours received an email. They were informed of their current grade and the date by which they would lose even partial credit for the assignment and what their current grade would be at that time. When contacted, students reported that this was helpful and motivational. However, at the end of the semester there was no significant improvement in dropout rates or failed grades. Five students were briefly interviewed. All but one acknowledged that the email alerts were initially helpful. There was a point when the alerts induced a sense that trying to catch up and stay in the class was simply overwhelming. Three students reported being embarrassed when reminded that they were behind schedule. More interviews are planned to try to identify the tripping point between helpful and hindering.  It is worth pursuing this vexing problem because more than a nostalgic presence is needed for these students. We are discussing a hypothesis that a simple app could be devised to alert students via Facebook when assignments were missed. At the same time students would receive information on their current grade in the course and the predicted grade if the missing assignments were not turned in by a certain date.  If the time of hyper-presence can be determined followed by alternate presence interventions and if the results can be replicated, then we would have a marketable app for various classroom platforms. An app would automate instructor presence thus avoiding student embarrassment.

The two problems addressed in this chapter each resulted in a technological approach to presence. Unlike the traditional classroom, online instructors can project multiple presences to different needs of different subgroups in the class. We anticipate that as we identify these distinct presences we will more exactly define the online classroom identifying needs that can be met with socialized technology.

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. and Archer, W., (2001). Assessing Teaching Presence in a Computer Conferencing Context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (2), 1-17.

Palloff, P., & Pratt K., (2011). The Excellent Online Instructor: Strategies for Professional Development. San Francisco: Wiley.

Persico, D., Pozzi, F., & Sarti, L., (2010). Monitoring Collaborative Activities in Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. Distance Education, 31 (1), 5-22.

Peterson, J. et al, (2001). Designing and Facilitating Class Discussion in an Internet Class. Nurse Educator, 26 (1), 28-32.

Shea, P., Li, C. & Pickett, A., (2006). A Study of Teaching Presence and Student Sense of Learning Community in fully Online and Web-enhanced College Courses. Internet and Higher Education, 9 (3), 175-190.

West, W. Rosser, B.R.S., Monani, S. & Gurak, L (2006). How Learning Styles Impact E-learning: a case 
Comparative study of undergraduates who excelled, passed or failed an online course in scientific technical writing. E-LEARNING (ISSN 1741-8887) Volume 3, Number 4.


Bill West, PhD <>
Bill West is an Instructor in Writing Studies and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Epidemiology and Community Health, SPH.