Where’s My Online Instructor?

You’re about to start a new online class. Do you have any expectations about the level of involvement for your online instructor? Are you concerned about being able to communicate with your instructor and when they may be available to assist you?

The online classroom has changed the format of traditional learning. Words form the primary basis of communication and interactions can occur more frequently, as the online classroom is always accessible. Instructors are also expected to be available for more than just one scheduled class meeting. In fact, most online schools do have a requirement in place for instructors to follow, typically involving the number of days they must post messages within the discussion board and the maximum time limit for answering your questions.

From my perspective as an online instructor, the level of involvement that I have in the class determines not only how well the class is managed, but also how meaningful the learning experience is for students. When I'm actively involved in the class, I'm creating what’s known as a virtual presence, which means showing up for more than an occasional discussion board posting and being noticeably engaged in the class. I’ll provide you with an inside look at the ways I develop a strong virtual presence and give you some suggestions to use if your instructor is not easily accessible.

Expectations for Your Instructors

Within a technology-enabled learning platform, an instructional presence is possible when your instructors are active in the class discussions and they are responding quickly to your questions and the overall classroom conditions. As a student, you’ll develop perceptions about the class, the process of learning, and the school based upon your classroom interactions, so you'll likely to find it reassuring to know that the instructor is dedicated to your progress and overall development.

Because an online classroom is always “open,” I’ve found that students expect to “see” their instructor in the classroom. That’s not an unreasonable expectation because you would walk into a traditional classroom and expect the instructor to be there. However, the question for online schools involves the frequency of an instructor’s presence. The general requirement is that instructors should be visible in the classroom on a regular basis, monitoring discussions and the learning environment.

I’ve worked with specific requirements regarding the response time for answering questions (generally 24 to 72 hours from the time it was posted) and the minimum number of discussion board messages I’m required to post. Here is a sampling of the participation requirements I’ve worked with for some of the larger online schools:
•    Post two messages on five days within the discussion board threads each week.
•    Post eight substantial messages during the class week.
•    Post messages within the discussion threads on three days minimum during the class week.
•    Respond to a minimum of 25% of students’ postings.

Keep in mind that this actually requires a great deal of time for your instructors because most are working full time and are teaching classes in a part time capacity. After all, good responses take time. When I post my responses, I avoid using short replies. Instead, I’ll relate my response to what you’ve written, add information from the assigned reading, provide supplemental resources when applicable, and ask follow up questions. For most class weeks, I’m actively involved at least five out of seven days because I want to encourage you to be engaged in the class and it is a method of replicating the interactive nature of a traditional classroom. 
 
How You’ll Interact With Your Instructor

The format of the learning environment may have changed with an online platform; however, I know the need for one-on-one interactions with students has not changed. These interactions are most effective when your instructor has developed a strong virtual or social presence — one that is responsive to students and their developmental needs. 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 because students do not feel lost or completely alone. Knowing that meaningful interactions can take place through a technology-based environment reduces many potential barriers to learning because students can receive assistance within a timely manner.

But where do these interactions take place? With most online classroom platforms, there will be a designated thread for students to post questions. That’s where you can ask questions that are of a general nature, such as questions about your assignments. For questions about feedback, your progress in class, or anything else of a personal nature, follow your school’s procedures. Generally, the correct procedure is to send an email to your instructor’s school email account. I’ve found that my timely response and positive attitude about receiving emails has a direct impact on my students' perception of the online learning experience, so during the day, I’ll check for messages on my lunch break. I occasionally check throughout the evening as well.

How an Instructor Develops Visibility and Availability

The primary classroom communication and relationship-building occurs through posted messages rather than scheduled classroom meetings. You’ll find that most of your instructors guide the development of online classroom relationships by being highly visible and frequently available.

What does this mean to you as a student? Simply put, for my online classes, I frequently post messages within the discussion thread and more importantly, I’m always in the background – reviewing classroom postings, providing clarification when needed, answering questions, addressing potential conflicts, and posting announcements as I find new information related to the course topics or updates from the school.

For the times that I’m working in the background, it does present a challenge because it is easy to assume that if you cannot “see” when your instructor is present, that they are not actively involved in the class. That is not always the case, so to let students know I’m present, even if I’m online reviewing assignments, I’ll utilize instant messaging as a means of demonstrating my availability. With online schools, there isn’t a designated time either for office hours, so I’ve found that instant messaging also provides students with another means of contacting me during the week.

What If Your Instructor Isn’t Available?

Keep in mind that the approach to classroom facilitation that I take may be different from your own instructors because there are no guidelines in place for visibility. But regardless of the instructional approach that your instructor utilizes, it is important that you ask questions any time you need assistance or have concerns. Instructors are there to support your progress and need to know when you are unclear about any aspect of the course or the learning activities.

So what should you do if your instructor doesn’t seem to be available or isn’t responding to your questions? First, be sure that you have sent your messages to the instructor’s school email address so the school has a record of your conversation. The next step is to contact the department chair, if that is an option, and you can find a contact name. (Your enrollment advisor may have additional contact information or procedures to follow) If there isn’t a department chair, you can contact the Academic Affairs department and request assistance. Be sure that you have made attempts to contact your instructor and that your messages had a direct request for assistance, that your messages utilized a professional tone, and that you waited for a response during the time period stated within the course policies section. If after all of this, you are within your rights to request outside assistance.

Remember that your online instructors care about your progress and want you to do well, so if you need help, say so. Most instructors can be reached quickly by email and understand the importance of responding in a timely manner, especially those like me who have been an online student themselves. While you may not always be able to “see” your instructor, you should know that they are there and have a plan to be visible and available. But in the rare case where you have an instructor who isn’t responsive, you can take further action and request assistance from your school. Hopefully, most of your interactions will be positive and you will enjoy developing a working relationship with your instructors.

Let me know if you have had a positive or negative experience @DrBruceJ

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Gene Blevins/Corbis

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