Instructor Presence, part 1

So, I’ve been thinking, now that we’ve talked about participation and group work in the online classroom, it might be time to talk about what you, the instructor, might be doing while the students interact with each other.  Thus, a short series of posts on instructor presence that will explore the questions: what is instructor presence, how do you establish it, and how do you maintain it in a way that does not lead to the online class taking over your life?

In this first post I am going to talk a bit about what instructor presence is and what it might look like, as well as discuss some best practices around establishing presence.

Instructor presence

… a sense of presence is “being there” and “being together” with online learners throughout the learning experience. It looks and feels as if ….the instructor is accessible to the learners and that the learners are accessible to the instructor and each other, and that the technology is transparent to the learning process.

Lehman, R.M. and Conceição, S.C.O (2010) Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching, Jossey-Bass, p. 3

Online presence involves interacting in some way with your students – answering questions, posting reminders, saying “hello!”  Remember that while you may be online frequently, reading postings and grading assignments, your students can’t see you there unless you “talk” to them.  And if you don’t talk to them once and a while, they will begin to think you are not there at all.  The trick comes with finding a way to be present without becoming the sage on the stage once more, or dampening student to student interaction.

Establishing presence

There are many ways to establish your presence in an online course, but a good part of establishing presence lies in how you design your course.  For example, in addition to organizing your course site so it is easy to navigate,

  • Plan for what tools you will use to keep in touch with your students and create spaces for this interaction.
  • Set course expectations as part of the course design, and place this information in easy-to-access locations.
  • If you are going to use media (audio or video, for example) to enhance your presence in your online classroom, plan for this early so you have time to create your media pieces and set them up on your course site.

Strangely enough, another way to inject your presence is through the tone of your writing voice.  Since you will likely be providing students with text-based content, read it aloud to yourself (or to a friend or colleague) and ask yourself if it sounds like you’re speaking to students or reading a textbook.  Writing your course notes in a style that mimics how you would talk to your students in a face-to-face class will help bring you to life even without audio or video.

The easiest way to establish your presence once your course starts is to use your course discussion forums.  For example,

  • Post an introduction to yourself, including some personal information, a picture, and perhaps an audio or video clip so students can put a face and voice to your name.
  • In addition to an introduction, post a Welcome message to help set the tone for the course.
  • Communicate immediately where students can expect to hear from you during the course (i.e., is there an Instructor Messages forum they should be checking?  Will you be using a News tool to send regular messages?), as well as how often (i.e., will you be checking the site daily?  In the morning?  Evening?  How often will you be replying to student questions, etc.?)  Once you’ve established your plan, stick to it.  And if it has to chance for some reason, let your students know.

This is just the beginning – once you establish your presence, you need to maintain it.  So, in my next post I’m going to take a closer look at some best-practice examples around maintaining your presence in the online classroom, and discuss some tips and tricks to help you find a good balance between too much presence and not enough.

For further information about Instructor Presence and examples of establishing presence online:

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Special Blog Post – Accessibility and FAIR UVic

Well, I am slowly crawling my way back into posting on this blog.  I have a couple of posts in draft mode right now, and am hoping to get the next one which will be related to instructor presence, up next week.  In the meantime, I wanted to salute one of my colleagues, Sue Doner.  We were colleagues at the University of Victoria, and now continue on as colleagues at Camosun College.

Sue has a passion for accessibility in online teaching and for the past three years at the University of Victoria worked with the folks at the Resource Centre for Students with a Disability to create a website called FAIR, a site which “provides information and resources for instructors looking to produce accessible and usable content and learning experiences for students.

Now, I’m not going to tell you about FAIR, I’m going to let Sue do that in this blog interview from BCCampus, 5 Questions with Sue Doner: FAIR UVic and accessibility for online courses.  And when you’ve finished reading the interview, please do visit the FAIR website.   It’s an invaluable resource for those wondering what accessibility means, and full of information on how to make your online course site accessibility for a wide variety of learners.

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Assessing Group Work in Online Courses

It’s been longer than I had intended between posts, but this is because of some changes in my professional life.  As of November 18th, I will no longer be at the University of Victoria, but will be at Camosun College (still doing similar things, and still in Victoria, just down the road a bit.)  I have, however, decided that I want to remain committed to this blog – I’ve just moved it.  The content will still be geared towards those who are new/newish to online teaching, and I still welcome comments and suggestions for topics!  So, without further ado, here is Assessing Group Work in Online Courses!

Whether you call it group work, team work, pair work, or collaborative learning, there may be times when you want your students work together in some way in your online course.  In this post, while I will touch on some of the main considerations to keep in mind when deciding to add group work to your course, the focus of this post is really around assessing group work.

Why group work?

There are many good reasons to have students work in groups, and research supports the importance of collaborative learning in fostering critical thinking.  Here are some websites that discuss the whys of group-work in depth.

Fostering successful teamwork

Whatever group activities you decide to include in your online course, you need to ensure that you provide clear guidelines for your students around why they are working in groups (including how group work can benefit them in life/work, and how the group work aligns with the course goals), as well as about how they can most effectively work in a group.  Here is a short list of sample tips to provide to your students about how to work effectively as a group:

  • Start early (note that this presumes groups have been given enough lead time to allow them to work together effectively.  This is especially important in an asynchronous learning environment.)
  • Establish an overall timeline for the activity, and come to a decision around when group members will be available to post and comment on the work being done
  • Assign roles and responsibilities
  • Determine if it will work for group members to meet synchronously (e.g., by phone, by Skype, by chat-room), and when that could work (and how)
  • Establish and “sign” an agreement for the workload and division of labour
  • Let your group know immediately if you will be unavailable for a period of time, or will be unable to meet a pre-determined deadline
  • Let your instructor know as soon as possible if someone has not turned up for group work

Here are some websites that give some insight into fostering successful teamwork online:

Ideas for group activities

There are many kinds of activities that can work well for group.  For example, giving peer feedback, collaborating on a project (case study discussion, paper submission, etc.), and preparing and giving a presentation to the main group (perhaps with a facilitated discussion).  This website has some good examples of online group activities on page 14:

Assessing group work

Regardless of what kind of group work you have in your course, you will need to figure out a way to assess it.  While grading for both process and product may require more work up-front, research and anecdotal evidence suggests that this is the best way to go.  So, here are some questions to ask yourself when working out an assessment strategy for group work:

  • Will you assess a final product as produced by individuals?  Will you give grades to individuals for specific components of a group-produced final product?
  • Will you assess a final product as created by the group?  Will you give the same grade to each person in the group?  And, if not, how will you determine individual grades?
  • Will you assess the process of how the group worked together?  Will you build in penalties for any non-participants?
  • Will you ask the students to self-assess or peer-assess the group work process?  Both?

The answers to these questions will depend on the outcome you wish the students to achieve.  For example,

  • Is the goal to have students produce a collaborative project (paper, presentation, etc.)?  If so, then assessing the final group product makes sense.  You may then want to add a peer-assessment piece whereby students “rate” each other on the way they worked in the group (i.e., did they complete tasks on time, were they regularly interacting with the group, etc.).
  • Is the goal to give students a chance to network and bounce ideas off of each other, rather than to assess them on a group-created product?  For this kind of group work, there may or may not be a formal submission required.  If there is, individual student submissions may be a good way to go.
  • Is the goal to engage students in a peer assessment activity?  In this case, there may be no reason for additional peer assessment of the group-work process, but you may wish to grade them on the quality of their peer reviews.

Rubrics for Group Work

As always, giving students clear instruction and including rubrics/grading criteria for group work activities will help avoid confusion that might arise when students are working in groups.  Here are some links to sample rubrics you may want to try (or adapt) in your own course:

Finally, here are some websites that discuss the many possibilities for assessment of group work in an online classroom:

At some point in a future post, I will talk more about group work itself, and explore what kinds of group activities work best and how they can be effectively managed.  In the meantime, I do encourage you to try a group activity in your course if you feel it’s appropriate.  And try it for more than one offering of your course.  I think you will find that, over time, the rewards it will bring to the course experience will be worth the effort.

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Assessment Strategies for Discussions

In my last post, I talked about participation, specifically participation as engagement.  And one of the activities that allows you to most easily see and gauge a student’s participation is the discussion.  Now, there are many site you can go to for information on specific discussion activities and strategies for facilitating successful discussions.

For example, Debbie Morrison has posted a three-part series on discussions on her blog:

You can find ideas for discussion activities at:

And you can find information on effective facilitation, on crafting questions, and on setting expectations and encouraging students’ participation in discussion activities at:

So, in this post, I am going to stick to talking about some assessment strategies for discussion activities.

Assessing discussions

There is a wide range of strategies for assessing online discussions.  When deciding which one (or which ones) to use, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why is it important to you to have discussions in your online class?  I.e., how will discussions help you meet your teaching goals?
  • What do you want students to get out of the discussions – what skills and knowledge?  I.e., how will discussions help students meet the course objectives?
  • How are your discussions related/connected to the assessments in your course?

So, here are some assessment strategies you might consider:

Number of postings

While an easy way to grade discussion postings, counting postings does not really encourage critical thinking or the peer interaction that is fundamental for a real discussion.  So, while you may want to keep an eye on how often a student posts in the discussion forums, I would encourage you to use more than number of postings as grading criteria for discussion.

Length of postings

You might use length of postings as a criterion to ensure that students don’t just post a “yes” or “I agree” response to a question.  It can also rein in those students who want to post 10-page essays as discussion postings.  In your instructions to students, be clear with students as to what a post of adequate length looks like.  Is it no less than 250 words?  Is it no more than 500 words?  Why?

Responses to other postings (thus, a “discussion”)

This is a pretty critical piece.  If you are going to call an activity a “discussion”, you should probably attach a requirement for students to post responses (Yes, it’s true – you will likely get more activity if you attach a grade component to this.)  And you might also consider giving them some guidelines as to what comprises an adequate reply (i.e., more than just “I agree”).

Follow-up questions

To take it one step further, requiring that students ask follow-up questions of fellow students to lead the discussion in new directions would increase the level of critical thinking.

Integration of content and/or readings into the discussion postings

Requiring students to refer directly back to the readings in the course will hopefully ensure not only that they will complete the readings, but that they will discuss how the readings relate to the question(s) posed.  Here is an example of a rubric which integrates content knowledge and interaction:

“Quality” postings

We all want our students to compose quality postings, but what is “quality” in the context of your discussions?  Does this mean that:

  • Questions have been answered thoroughly?  (And what does “thoroughly” mean?)
  • There is evidence of critical thinking and reflection?
  • There has been contribution of original ideas?

Once you’ve established what quality looks like for you, think about how these different levels of quality would look as grades.  A rubric for this kind of activity should clarify for the students what a “high-quality” posting would look like to you.  For example:

Of course, the criteria you set for discussion participation in your course most likely contain several, or all of these strategies, and more.  The most important thing you can do once you’ve decided on the appropriate set of criteria for your course is to make the criteria clear to your students, be consistent with your grading, and provide timely feedback to encourage them to meet, and continue to meet, your expectations.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

In the end, the most important thing you can do is to prepare your expectations and instructions in advance so that they are clear to your students.  Provide a rubric/list of criteria so that they are not taken by surprise when they receive their grade, and make sure to provide timely feedback on postings where required by your expectations.

For more ideas on assessing online discussions, see the following website:

In my next post, I’ll be talking about assessing group work in online courses!

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In my last post, I talked about giving feedback to students.  But, beyond giving feedback,  how should we assess participation?

First of all, I like to ask:  what is participation anyway?  I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently.  I often hear “participation” used as another name for discussions in an online class, but experience (and some reading) has taught me that it’s more complicated than that.  So, in this post, I am going to talk a bit about the concept of participation and some general ways to assess it, and then in my next week’s post, I’m going to hone in on and talk about some assessment strategies for discussions.

So, what is participation to you?  Is it a way to make sure students are present?  Is it a way to ensure that they are engaged in the content and with other students?  Is it a way to encourage them to engage?  These questions probably don’t have easy answers, and your answers to them very likely depend on your teaching style, the content of your course, and the specific activities you designate as participation.  But, if you consider “participation” to be an important component of your course, and especially if you feel it is an important enough component to grade, it’s important to be clear with your students as to what participation in your class means and what specifically it will consist of (i.e., what components in your course do you consider to be “participation”, and how each of those components will be graded, if they are graded).  You might also explain why these activities are important – important enough for them to participate in!

For me, participation means student engagement – engagement with fellow students, with the instructor(s) and with the content.  Some of these elements of engagement might include students:

  • Demonstrating a weekly time commitment to the course (i.e., by them in the Learning Management System)
  • Showing their presence in the course (i.e., by asking questions or making comments about the content)
  • Engaging in the discussion forums – both as an original poster and as a responder to other postings
  • Engaging in pair or group activities, and carrying their weight in those activities
  • Sharing resources, ideas, etc. with the class

And as the instructor/facilitator, what can you do to encourage students to engage?  Here are some things to think about:

  • Are your expectations clear?  Have you included guidelines and instructions for participation and engagement?
  • Have you given students enough time to engage given the asynchronous nature of your course?
  • Are you modelling what you consider to be “good participation” yourself?

Now, let’s take a moment to think about grading participation and to consider why it might be (or might not be) important to grade participation activities.  Does participation need to be graded because we don’t see students in an online class and want to make sure that they’re there and engaged?

Well, experience (mine, and that of other instructional designer colleagues) indicates that students are more likely to engage in participation activities if there is a grade attached to them.  I think sometimes we assume students will engage actively because they understand that engagement is a critical component of the learning process, but I have found over the years that this is simply not true for most students for the duration of a course (in other words, they may start out very engaged, but gradually drop off as assignments due dates approach and their lives get busy).  Remember that typical Continuing Studies student are adult learners with full-time jobs and family commitments.  They want to know why they are being asked to do what you are asking them to do, and want to see clear links to measurable outcomes.  So it’s important to tell them specifically how each participation activity relates to the assessments or to the course goals (or unit learning objectives).

My personal opinion is that we should think less about a separate “participation” grade, and more about how participation activities can support other assessments in the course (and be integrated into the grading this way).  For example, if students worked in groups towards a common goal (like a presentation), we could add “group work participation” to that assessment’s grade.  Or if students engaged in a discussion of a case study before submitting their own analysis of a different case study, that discussion engagement could then be part of the submission’s assessment.  Or, if students completed a survey or poll as preparation for an assignment, that could also be a component of that assignment’s grade.

What if you think a student is not participating enough?  What does that mean, and should you do anything about it?  Remember that some students take online courses because they like to study on their own.  They may prefer learning without the benefit of others.  You need to weigh out whether it is important for the context of the content for them to be “forced” to engage.  It may be that you want them to experience working in a team and sharing resources with others because if they work in the field in question, they will have to do this in the workplace.  If so, let them know this (and the “penalty” for not participating) – you can never be too explicit online!

Since this has turned out to be a more general post about what “participation” actually might be, rather than a post offering you concrete ideas of how to assess it, next time I’ll discuss some assessment strategies for participation activities, including for one of the more common participation activities, the discussion.

For more ideas about participation and about possible participation activities, here are some good websites (in no particular order):

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Giving Feedback

So in my last post I talked about using rubrics for assessment, but along with providing students with your grading criteria (which will also help guide you as you grade assignments) and providing them with a grade, you also should provide your students with feedback on their assessments.  It sounds simple, but providing good feedback that will guide your students to improving their work as they move through your course can be challenging.

So, what is the goal in providing feedback to students?  To quote from the Providing Meaningful Feedback ( PDF file from the Distance Education Services (DES) website, students need feedback:

  • “To encourage them and build their confidence by letting them know what they’re doing well.
  • To support them in diagnosing their strengths and weaknesses.
  • To keep them on track so they meet the course goals and unit objectives.
  • To help them improve future performance. Feedback should be constructive and not subjective, specific and clear, and about something students can change for their future work.”

Since I don’t want to repeat everything that is in this document (just click on the link above to read more), I’m going to concentrate on talking about some specific ways instructors in various programs here at Continuing Studies have provided feedback to students.

Specific Feedback

First, the tried but true track changes and comments in a WORD document to provides specific, one-on-one feedback.  This is something most of you (if not all of you) have probably done, but in addition, consider asking students to respond to your embedded feedback if there is time.  Sometimes we think we are being clear when, in fact, students are confused and unsure about what we are trying to convey in our feedback – they may, in fact, get stuck on just one word, either missing the specific meaning of the word or the point of your feedback as a whole.  So, asking them to respond to your feedback is one way to check to make sure they are clear.

In addition to providing comments in WORD, you can also use the Comments box in Moodle’s Assignment tool to provide some more general feedback.  This is especially useful for assessments that are done off-line and not submitted (like discussion assignments).

Remember to provide specific feedback in a timely manner so that students can assimilate your feedback on one assignment in time to apply it to the next.  If you are struggling with completing feedback in a timely way, it might be time to look at the due dates for your assignments!

However you provide specific feedback for assessments, remember to be consistent with your rubric or grading criteria.  Feedback is not the grade, but the feedback and the grade should support each other.

General Feedback

Consider posting a forum message to all the students giving them general feedback on the assignment in question and some general tips on how to improve as they move forward in the course.  You might also want to record an audio message to convey this information as well – students do seem to appreciate hearing an instructor’s voice as it adds that “human” element to the online course.

Peer Feedback

Ask students to provide peer feedback to each other.  So, for example, consider pairing students up and having them give feedback on each other’s draft assignments.  The final submitted assignments will undoubtedly benefit from this.

Be aware, however, that you should provide students with guidelines around how to provide feedback, and also how to take it (or not take it).  These are not skills that come naturally, but are important skills to develop.

Ongoing Feedback

Find ways to provide feedback throughout the course (so, not just when students submit assignments).  One way to provide ongoing feedback is giving students opportunities to self assess, for example, using Moodle’s Quiz tool to provide an automatically assessed multiple choice “quiz” so students can see how they are doing.


Feedback can be more than concrete critiques of assessments or knowledge.  You can also give students feedback in the form of acknowledgment – so, for example simply acknowledging their postings in a discussion forum.  For some more tips on providing acknowledgement feedback, see Providing Feedback to your Distance Learning Course (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) at scroll to the bottom of the page)

What’s good for the goose…

And it works the other way as well.  Ask students to provide YOU with feedback – it could be you asking them at intervals how things are going, or asking them to tell you what they understand or don’t understand about the feedback you gave them!

For more tips on providing feedback to your students, check out the following websites:

What about providing feedback for discussions and assessing “participation”?  Well, we’ll talk more about that in the next couple of posts!

But before you go, feel free to leave a comment sharing how you provide feedback to students, or how you use feedback to support your students.  Or just ask a question!

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Welcome to the first post on the Teaching Online at Continuing Studies blog site.  To find out more about the blog and about who exactly is posting here, click on the About link in the menu above.

So, I thought I would start this blog with a series of posts related to assessment.  And, the  first topic is one that has come up in many conversations with instructors, program coordinators, and my colleagues here at Distance Education Services:  rubrics.  What a first topic!  But using rubrics (as well as defining what they are) is definitely an important topic of discussion here at Continuing Studies.  Let’s start by answering a couple of common questions:  what is a rubric, and why use them?

So, what is a rubric?  Sometimes described as “scoring tools”, rubrics can indeed be used to grade students, by listing the criteria by which they are to be graded, and the number of “points” assigned to each criterion.  This is a rubric at its simplest.  However, rubrics are also measures of performance that can be used by students to self-assess their own progress, and help them become “more thoughtful judges” of their own work (

And that last point also provides an answer to the question “why use rubrics?”  Another answer, from an instructor standpoint, is that rubrics help communicate expectations (meaning that it’s less likely students will go “off track” if they have a rubric/list of criteria guiding them along), help ensure consistency of grading (for example, if you are grading papers over a period of time, or if you have TAs assisting you), and save you time (since you will have your list of criteria ready and in front of you as you grade).

Now, some people prefer not calling rubrics “scoring guides”, but for the purposes of this post, I am not going to worry too much about the nitty-gritty distinctions.  For more information on the distinctions, however, you can go to:

As for when to use rubrics, and how to use them, well I would say that grading criteria should always be provided for any graded assessment.  How extensive the criteria is really depends on the assessment and on your teaching style.  Providing rubrics does, at least in my experience, reduce the confusion around and number of questions about assignment assessment from students, and can reduce the time you spend grading assignments.  So those may be reasons enough to spend some time creating them as you develop your course.  But don’t take my word for it!  Here are a couple of links to websites that also provide some insights into the why’s and how’s of rubrics:

As for what rubrics typically look like?  Here are a couple of links to websites that provide examples of rubrics for some typical assessments:

  • – This website, from the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education, contains sample rubrics for a wide variety of subject areas and assessment types.  You can get a really good idea of the various formats that people use for rubrics, and you will also get a good sense of the different levels of detail for the grading and criteria.
  • – This website, from the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon, also provides links to example rubrics for paper assignments, projects, oral presentations, and class participation.  These rubrics are all linked as WORD documents.

If you have examples of rubrics from your own courses that you would like to share, or questions about rubrics and how to use them, please add your comments below!

Next week I will be writing a post on giving feedback beyond the grade.  And this post will lead me into a series of posts on assessment – the how’s and why’s of assessing participation, discussions, groups work, etc.

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