Meaningful Learning: Teacher Presence & Learner Engagement in the Online Classroom

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While there is much to quality online teaching and learning, it is well known that a lack of teacher presence and interaction, i.e., teacher-learner, learner-learner, learner-content (Moore, 1989) can make or break an online course.  The power of interaction between teacher and student heavily impacts student success and  has shown to have even a  larger effect on satisfaction and perceived learning than interaction with peers (Swan, 2001). In this article, I will define teacher presence, discuss its implications, and offer suggestions for tools and strategies that promote teacher presence and meaningful learner engagement. Within this discussion of teacher presence, learning is defined as the cognitive growth and development of learners and emphasis will be placed on the importance of cognitive conflict to learning (Berlyne, 1965; Dewey, 1910; Festinger, 1957; Nussbaum & Novick, 1982).  When teachers create communities of inquiry that trigger the emergence of cognitive conflict in learners, their existing preconceptions, which can serve as barriers for learning are challenged (Hewson & Hewson, 1984), resulting in growth in perception and understanding, otherwise known as cognitive or conceptual shifts.  I believe that there is no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone—Steve Jobs.  These shifts in thinking cannot occur without challenging the learner and causing some struggle, discomfort and even emotion.

It is not uncommon for K-12 teachers and higher education faculty who are new to online learning to voice the concerns about what they perceive as the depersonalized nature of the online environment and lack of physical presence.  Questions such as, “How will I know they are learning?” or “How will I establish an academic relationship with my students if I can’t see them?” are common. In a recent training I conducted, one of the teachers stated “I’m just not sure how I’m going to create the Mr. Silva show online” referring to his personality and pizzazz as a teacher, which is a big part of how he connects with and engages his students in his classroom. This is an important question for all teachers making the transition from face-to-face to online who care about teacher presence and learner engagement. The fundamental question then, is how do we create teacher presence in the online environment?

What is teacher presence?  

One important aspect of teacher presence is how a teacher establishes his/her identity (i.e., personality, character, and style) in the online environment. As with the face-to-face environment, there is an array of ways to establish teacher presence, which serves to forge authentic relationships with students and to make that connection that is essential to learning. Teacher presence is about how we communicate who we are, what we believe about teaching and learning, how we operate, and of course that we believe in our students and are committed to their success.  Most importantly, it’s how we communicate our passion, excitement, and enthusiasm for teaching and the content we teach, which can be contagious.

Another aspect of teacher presence is tied to creating a “community of inquiry where interaction and reflection are sustained; where ideas can be explored and critiqued; and where the process of inquiry can be scaffolded and modeled” (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). This transcends social interaction and basic sharing of information.  The goal of establishing an interactive community of inquiry is to engage students in meaningful ways that stimulate their cognitive growth and development. In order to truly integrate cognitive, social and instructional elements into our instruction and the learning we create in classrooms, we have to establish communities of inquiry, which go beyond mere social interactions and lower level thinking and learning (Garrison & Anderson, 2003).

So, how do we create teacher presence in the online classroom? 

First off, there are powerful tools that are built into many learning management systems to help teachers create and cultivate a rich learning environment built on communication, collaboration, and rich interaction at all levels (teacher-learner, learner-learner, and learner-content). Additionally, there are many web 2.0 tools at our fingertips to assist in the creation of these powerful online learning environments.

Here are few of the tools that can be used to establish teacher presence and learner engagement:

Course Announcements:

An essential tool that exists in most learning management systems[1] is course announcements. I like to think of this tool as the equivalent to greeting your students at the door as they enter your classroom. There are a variety of ways to use announcements to make the connection with students. Regular announcements are essential as they communicate, “I’m here and you’re not alone.” This alleviates the “alone in cyberspace” feeling students can experience when a course is lacking in teacher presence. Some teachers post daily or weekly challenges or problems for students while others share inspirational quotes that coincide with discussions or course topics.  Announcements can also be used to remind students of upcoming events or to reinforce concepts. One way that I use announcements is to share syntheses of discussions, identifying themes, hot topics, key questions that are emerging and to share resources for students who are interested in extending their learning. Used in this manner, announcements can serve as a powerful integration tool to synthesize and expand upon learning as observed by the teacher.

Teacher Bio:

Including your bio and a picture of yourself in your online course can go a long way to establish teacher presence.  I always recommend that teachers write their bio in the first person to make it more personalized.  In addition to sharing who you are personally, an extra step that makes all the difference is sharing some things about you that communicate who you are (i.e., hobbies, passions, things that are important to you, where you are from, etc…)  To give an extra blast of teacher presence, talk about the course subject area (i.e., what you like about it, what fascinates you about it, why you think it’s important and burning questions you have).  If you can also include a video of yourself introducing yourself to the class vs. a written bio, this can be powerful as well.  Additionally, you might think about including links to your website, blogs, or share your research and publications with students. This also gives them a sense of who you are as an educator and what you are passionate about.  At the end of a blended class I taught, I shared an article I wrote with my students.  I had never done this before and the response was powerful.  They shared how this really helped them see me in a different light and gave them insights into what I believed as a teacher.  Additionally, it helped them make sense of why I approach teaching in the way that I do.  In a section of the article, I stated,

Even after 23 years in education, I still maintain a deep sense of awe of the act of teaching.  With each teaching encounter, I am humbled.  On good days, when dialogue is rich, my students are engaged and responsive, and the dynamics of the classroom seem to play out like an orchestra and I am the conductor, I feel like, “Yes!  I can do this!” On other days, I think, “Wow!  That didn’t go like I planned.  I was definitely not at the top of my game. I could’ve done much better if I had…Next time, I will…”  It is common for teachers to take a brief moment to celebrate their successes, yet the process of critique can be a long and drawn out process–teachers can be their own most difficult critics (

This excerpt really stood out for them because it revealed my struggle in striving to be a better teacher and that even the most experienced teachers still haven’t figured it all out.  No matter what age, students tend to think of their teachers as infallible. Sharing my writing with my students debunked that myth.

Think of the announcement tool as your connection with students and communicate it as such to students in your syllabus.  I always include a section in my syllabus about the tools we will be using and the purpose they will serve.  My students know that when they log in each time, they need to check announcements.


I have come to realize that discussions are a powerful and essential part of learning in the online environment.  Dialogue or student-student-teacher interaction has shown to be a crucial variable in the online learning environment (Moore, 1989).  Crafting discussion forums includes strategically creating discussion questions/prompts, establishing guidelines and expectations for discussion participation and facilitating meaningful discussion.  While discussions can be an entirely different topic of exploration, I’ll focus on the overall benefits and some general guidelines.

The major benefit of discussions is that it allows for the sharing perspectives and ideas and the questioning and critique of  such perspectives and ideas that generates the cognitive conflict and “stepping out of comfort zones” that leads to deeper more meaningful learning.  As such, teaching students how to question and critique in ways that illicit critical thinking and reflection and stimulate further meaningful and engaging dialogue is of the essence.  Again, the goal is to establish a community of inquiry where deep and meaningful learning vs. surface learning can occur.  This can be challenging because not all students are prepared to engage in critical discourse in the online environment (Angeli et al., 2003).  This is where rubrics come in that establish clear criteria for responses and participation.

Additionally, the role that the teacher plays in the discussion is critical.  The leadership role that teachers play in the online environment is “powerful in triggering discussion and facilitating high levels of thinking and knowledge construction” (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005, p. 137). Without the teacher to facilitate the discussion, the dialogue will not take students out of their comfort zones where meaningful learning can occur.  Keeping up with the dialogue, posing thoughtful questions, posting syntheses and identifying themes, and sharing additional resources with individual learners and groups of learners are all important to meaningful and engaging discussions and for triggering the cognitive conflict that leads to needed conceptual shifts. When students pose questions or communicate misconceptions about concept or theory that is the best time to facilitate growth in understanding by posing targeted questions or sharing additional resources for them to examine.  I refer to this as a “teachable moment” where you can capitalize on a student’s curiosity.  All participants in a discussion are essential players, and when they understand their roles and expectations, they are better positioned to contribute to a more critical dialogue.

Writing effective discussion questions or prompts is a craft in itself.  Questions should be open ended, yet targeted.  Additionally, because students also play a critical role in discussions, they too have to learn to ask good questions that promote critical dialogue.  I recommend the book: Thinking through quality questioning: Deepening learner engagement as a great resource of questioning strategies.  As the teacher facilitates dialogue and poses questions, this also serves as modeling effective questions for students.


I consider teaching a privilege.  As a teacher, I not only get to witness learning in my students and be a part of their learning journeys, but I also get to learn from them.  A lack of interaction between teacher and student hinders the potential learning that can occur in a classroom.  I spend a considerable amount of time reading and responding to student work.  Part of the time is spent on assessing whether the student met the criteria for the assignment, but more importantly, time is spent providing feedback that helps students to increase self-awareness and to question their own ideas and perspectives (identify biases, assumptions, misconceptions and pre-conceived notions that have the potential to inhibit learning).  The goal again, is to stimulate the cognitive conflict necessary for meaningful learning.  I pose questions, share my own thoughts and perspectives, recommend resources, and challenge my students’ philosophical and cognitive schemas.  Always guiding my feedback is modeling the importance of “seeking first to understand than to be understood” and openness to learning and, I encourage these in my students.

Deep and meaningful learning that leads to more authentic understandings of self, the world and others requires one to transcend one’s certainty to entertain possibilities that may be conflicting with one’s schema.   This requires taking students out of their comfort zones in compassionate, kind, respectful and encouraging ways.  In general, as teachers we tend to approach teaching and learning from a liberal framework, whereby we attempt to avoid conflict and stirring up emotions.  In doing so, we again, hinder potential learning. As educators, we know that emotions are important to learning.

Emotion impels what we attend to, and attention drives learning. So, one of the important things we have to do is to ensure that learners become emotionally involved in whatever we’re teaching them. If they don’t get emotionally hooked on some level, they don’t pay attention; if they don’t pay attention, they don’t learn. In fact, the more emotionally engaged a learner is, the more likely he or she is to learn (Palombo Weiss, 2000, p. 47).

In response to the feedback I provide, my students have shared statements such as, “Thank you for your feedback.  No professor has ever said much more about my work than ‘great job’ or ‘well done’.”  While I understand that teaching is demanding, I view it as privilege and believe I have a professional, ethical and moral responsibility to push my students beyond their perceived limits and to stimulate their growth.  Feedback that takes students out of their comfort zones is essential to this.

Synchronous Activities:

Interacting primarily through asynchronous tools of course has limits to the level of interaction that is essential to learning.  Whenever possible, it is powerful to offer synchronous interaction opportunities to students.  While this may seem counter intuitive to the concept of online learning that allows for individual pace and transcends time and space, when offered as an option, many students will take advantage.  I have used Skype and other web conferencing tools to meet “real time” with students to engage in dialogue above and beyond the discourse that occurs in the online classroom.  I offer this as a time to provide opportunities to discuss hot topics, emerging themes and to expand learning beyond the topics being explored.  Students always appreciate extra credit assignments, so offering these webinars for extra credit also entices the students that may not otherwise participate.  Chat and whiteboards can also be used to facilitate real time learning interactions.   And, let’s not forget the more traditional modes of communication such as phone conferencing, email and text.  I’ve learned that we need to meet students where they are at, meaning the communication tools that they are most comfortable with.

Emails/Course Messages: 

We engage in email correspondence all the time.  It has become a primary mode of communication and for some like me email is the preferred mode of communication.  I have significantly less phone conversations than I have text and email correspondence.  I prefer the text mode because it allows me to think about what I’m going to say and craft it more thoughtfully than I could verbally in real time.  However, there is power in words, how we say things, the tone we use, etc… The fact that we have to be conscientious of our text correspondence cannot be overlooked.  Simple things like addressing students by their name before crafting a response are critical. Additionally, making messages more personalized by using emoticons can help students feel more comfortable with you as a person vs. a robot somewhere out in cyberspace.   Avoiding the use of all caps or bold to make a point is also important as this can be perceived as shouting or scolding. Including an inspirational quote underneath your signature and changing it occasionally communicates more about you and what you believe in and again, further personalizes and establishes your presence.  Because I teach a course that engages students in difficult and controversial topics that stir up emotions, my ability to create and cultivate a safe environment for discourse to occur around these topics and to communicate who I am as a person (caring, compassion, passion for learning, equity and justice) is absolutely essential.

The Tip of the Iceberg

This can only scratch the surface of how we establish teacher presence, entice learner engagement, and promote the cognitive development of learners in the online environment.  Much of what I’ve learned about quality online learning has been through my experiences in an academic leadership role in the implementation of a statewide eLearning program that encompassed a supplemental virtual school and training, technical assistance and support for schools implementing online and blended learning programs.  I learned many valuable lessons in my experiences with the teachers I worked with in the design and implementation of this successful program. Additionally, through my own experience as an online teacher in higher education, I also gained some valuable insights into the importance of teacher presence. I believe teacher presence and learner engagement and interaction go hand in hand.  As we build our individual presence (identity) and establish communities of inquiry that promote deep and meaningful learning, we in turn, engage learners in our classroom. Like with anything in teaching, we discover our own ways to accomplish our goals in our classrooms that are authentic (stay true to our identity as teachers).  There are so many ways to build teacher presence in the online classroom, but this article is meant to provide teachers with some ideas and hopefully will prompt further inquiry on the topic.


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Garrison, D. R., & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. The American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 133-148.

Hewson, P., & Hewson, A. B., M.G. (1984). The role of conceptual conflict in conceptual change and the design of science instruction. Instructional Science, 13(1984), 1-13.

Moore, M. G. (1989). The types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.

Nussbaum, J., & Novick, S. (1982). Alternative frameworks, conceptual conflicts and accommodation: Toward a principled teaching strategy. Instructional Science, 11, 183-200.

Palombo Weiss, R. (2000). Emotion and Learning. Training & Development, 54(11), 44.

Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interaction: Design factors affecting student satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22(2), 306-331.


[1] The technology platform through which students’ access online courses. A LMS generally includes software for creating and editing course content, communication tools, assessment tools, and other features for managing the course. (Northwest Educational Technology Consortium, 2005).