As the physical distance increases between you and your students, so can the psychological and emotional space. Here are some tips that can help.

In the 1960s—long before the advent of online learning—Michael G. Moore, an economist, pondered how he could help rural farmers in East Africa develop business management skills. He envisioned teaching in-person courses to help them learn modern farming techniques or set up a community-based credit union. But there was a major obstacle: The farmers he wanted to teach lived in remote villages with poor roads and no telephones. The idea wasn’t scalable.

So Moore came up with an innovative solution: Noticing that radios were relatively cheap and ubiquitous, he developed courses that could be broadcast from the local radio station. He quickly realized, though, that it wasn’t the same as giving a lecture in front of students. He could no longer chat informally with the farmers, answer their pressing questions, or walk around the farm with them looking for ways to improve productivity. Distance learning felt—at least initially—less personal and less effective to Moore, so much that he dedicated his career to understanding how it could be made more human.

“In all forms of distance teaching, the ability to humanize the relationship with distant learners is important,” Moore writes in Distance Education: A Systems View of Online Learning, echoing the conclusions of other visionaries in the field, like Khan Academy founder Salman Khan. While teachers new to online instruction may focus on delivering content—a sensible first step given the abrupt shift forced by the pandemic—it’s also important to get familiar with your tech tools so that you can connect with your students, build trust, organize your virtual classroom for ease of use, and ensure that your technology is serving human-centered ends.

Doing that will improve a key facet of your virtual classroom: your teaching presence. “With separation there is a psychological and communications space to be crossed,” Moore writes in a 1997 essay. To close that gap, it takes more than an engaging speaking style. In fact, some of the changes to your approach may be unexpected.

The sudden shift to online learning in the spring brought the need to establish strong connections with students into sharper focus. That’s hard to do in an online environment.

In a physical classroom, teachers can rely on nonverbal methods of communication, such as facial expressions and tone of voice, which “help guide facilitation of student learning,” explains Samford University professor Lisa Gurley in a 2018 study. But establishing a strong teaching presence for blended and online learning environments differs markedly from doing so in a face-to-face classroom, Gurley says.

According to Kathleen Sheridan and Melissa Kelly, researchers at National Louis University in Chicago, that may be because in online environments, students perceive teaching presence more broadly. In a study of online classrooms, they discovered that students viewed teaching presence through the lens of all interaction they had with their teacher—from emails to announcements and assignments to much subtler, background signals, like the way the course itself was organized. The digital tools that you use become extensions of your teaching, in other words, blurring the lines between your physical and virtual personae.

“While the students generally placed high value on communication and the instructor’s responsiveness, they did not place as much importance on synchronous or face-to-face communication,” write Sheridan and Kelly, adding that “being able to see or hear the instructor received surprisingly low ratings relative to some of the other indicators in the study.”

It’s not your real-time presence that matters as much in the world of online learning. So when teaching online, you should try to focus on asynchronous lessons and communications: Have you established clear channels and rules of online communication with your students? Have you considered a “hotline”—a quick way to reach you if there’s a crucial question? Are you getting back to students reasonably quickly when they have questions?

Your presence as a teacher doesn’t begin in the classroom—it begins long before, as you plan the flow and sequencing of your lessons for an upcoming class. “What we know from research is that effective online learning results from careful instructional design and planning,” Charles Hodges, professor of instructional technology at Georgia Southern University, and his colleagues write.

“Struggling to find files, links, or browser tabs can cause your stress level to rise, which students will feel and mirror. Close any programs that you won’t be using, and print out your agenda so that you don’t need to frantically search for it on your screen,” recommends Annie O'Shaughnessy, a community college teacher in Vermont.

Before you arrive in the classroom, practice moving through a lesson until you feel more familiar with the logistics of toggling between windows, for example, or changing the settings of your tools on the fly as circumstances require. You won’t be perfect, and you shouldn’t expect to be, but you’ll be more confident.

In a 2015 analysis of nearly 50 studies on teacher clarity, researchers found that “higher levels of clarity are associated with higher levels of student learning.” Clarity wasn’t limited to a clear explanation of ideas: The researchers distinguish between content clarity—“My teacher is clear when presenting content”—and process clarity—“My teacher communicates clear expectations for the assignment.”

Communication, however, is more likely to break down in distance learning, particularly as classrooms become increasingly asynchronous and are mediated through a learning management system (LMS), online documents, email, and other digital forms of communication.

It’s easy to forget that online classrooms, like real ones, must also be navigable and easy to understand—and that your online teaching presence is often communicated not by posture and tone, for example, but by your virtual classroom's organization and clarity. Having a strong teaching presence online might mean, for example, that you spend time setting up your LMS so that there’s a central hub where the resources are gathered—students won’t get lost as frequently—or that you walk students through common tasks like how and where to submit assignments, where to ask questions, and how to use the suite of tech tools you’ve settled on.

Your online teaching presence won’t arrive fully formed—it’ll be a work in progress. In a 2019 study, researchers found that successful online instructors frequently collected student feedback “to identify what was working or not.”

“An important element in the development of an award-winning course was the way in which instructors had collected data on the course or engaged with existing evaluation data, reflected on how to improve the course, and made improvements,” explain the authors of the study.

If you want to improve your online teaching presence, you should communicate to students that their opinions matter. After surveying the literature, here are six questions we recommend that you ask your students:

  • On a scale from 1 to 5, how comfortable do you feel using technology in our virtual classroom?
  • Have you encountered any technical issues, such as not being able to hear me, or not being able to connect to the internet?
  • Are my lessons well-organized and my assignments clear?
  • Can you easily find what you need?⁣
  • Do you feel like your voice is heard?
  • What can I do to improve our online classroom?

“To offset the isolating effects of an online class, teachers can strive to communicate more regularly and more informally with students,” writes Jason Dockter, a professor of English at Lincoln Land Community College, in a 2016 study. The point here is not responsiveness to an academic issue, but the need to demonstrate to kids “that the teacher is personally interested and invested in each student.”

There are dozens of ways to create a sense of human connection in your online classroom. John Thomas, an elementary school teacher in New Hampshire, starts every day with an informal morning meeting. While it can be done synchronously—with all students participating at the same time—Thomas uses the digital app Seesaw to record and share a video greeting students can respond to on their own time.

“Every day in the classroom, we notice little details as our students come in—we keep a finger on the pulse of our learning community,” Thomas explains. “But from miles away it isn’t easy to know how students are truly doing.”

Simple yet effective strategies—like greeting students at the door; doing a rose and thorn check-in; or asking students to share an appreciation, apology, or aha!—can make the difference between students feeling alienated or welcomed into your virtual classroom.

Above all, teacher presence is about connecting with your students: If they know you, they are far more likely to trust you and to feel that you’re there for them. For Sarah Schroeder, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, it’s important for teachers to remember that during the pandemic, some students may struggle academically and emotionally. That can be isolating.

“A common concern is feeling disconnected in online learning. We don’t want learners to feel like they are engaging with a computer. They are engaging with each other. With you. With content,” writes Schroeder.