The debate about learner perceptions of online courses can be divided roughly into two spheres: those that argue that learner perceptions are influenced mainly by instructor quality, and those that argue that learner perceptions are more affected by course design quality (Ortiz-Rodríguez, Telg, Irani, Roberts & Rhoades, 2005). These divergent views may mirror a shift in research literature away from an instructor focus and toward a student focus – labeled as either a learner, learning, or engagement focus (Ennis-Cole & Lawhorn, 2004; Palloff & Pratt, 2007, and Rice, 2006). This also reflects emerging research (e.g., Jackson, 2007, Palloff & Pratt, 2007, and Wilson, 2007) which indicates that the instructor’s role is changing from being the sole expert responsible for designing, developing, and teaching the class – the “sage on the stage” model – toward a team-based approach where the instructor assists in designing a course with a team and acts as a facilitator for the learners – the “guide on the side” model.
There have been many studies positively correlating learner attitudes and perceptions of the online course to instructor quality. Online instructor quality has been equated to teaching presence or immediacy, or more recently, e-mmediacy. Mehrabian (1969) first identified several nonverbal communications (e.g., eye contact, gestures, smiles, and humor), which he called immediacy strategies. These are associated with subjective evaluations about the “presence” of the teacher. These are linked, in turn, to learners’ positive feelings about the course and instructor. Similar online strategies, termed “e-mmediacy” strategies by Tryon & Bishop (2005) may be equally important for increasing learners’ positive feelings. These strategies are directly tied to building online learning communities.
Researchers have successfully measured immediacy strategies by examining specific behaviors using a 14-point scale described by Gorham (1988). Some of these behaviors can be adapted to the online environment and have formed the basis of instructor communication studies in the online environment. One study of business courses identified two critical immediacy factors: (1) classroom demeanor -- the instructor’s use of personal examples, humor, and openness toward and encouragement of learner ideas and discussion; and (2) name recognition -- the extent to which the instructor addressed learners by name, and vice versa (Arbaugh, 2001). These strategies were positively correlated to the learner perception of the online course efficacy, although Arbaugh recommended additional studies in areas other than business courses to confirm this finding.
Most studies evaluating instructor quality have attempted to correlate instructor quality with the attitude and perception of the learner, but not directly to learner success. These studies (e.g., Arbaugh, 2001, Frietas, Myers & Avtgis, 1998, Gorham, 1988, and Menzel & Carrell, 1999) often conclude that learner success may be positively correlated to increased instructor quality. A representative finding of one such study (Arbaugh, 2001) concluded that learners will generally have more positive feelings about college and university Web-based courses and programs when they are led by skilled and experienced instructors who communicate effectively with learners (Arbaugh, 2001).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Synchronous: Online communication tools that allow instructors and learners to interact and effectively communicate when they are connected to the course management system at the same time. These tools allow users to text chat, conference call, video teleconference, use an online whiteboard, and view presentation materials while performing these other tasks.
Course Management System (CMS): A web-based tool that allows instructors, universities, and corporations to develop and support online education. CMS software allows instructors to manage materials distribution, assignments, communications and other aspects of instruction for their courses. An example is Blackboard.
Online Learning Community: A virtual place on the Internet that addresses the learning needs of its members through proactive and collaborative partnerships. Through social networking and computer-mediated communication, people work as a community to achieve a shared learning objective. Learning objectives may be proposed by an instructor or may arise out of discussions between participants that reflect personal interests. In an online community, people communicate via textual discussion (synchronous or asynchronous), audio, video, or other Internet-supported devices.
Immediacy Strategies: Any of several nonverbal communications, such as eye contact, gestures, smiles, and humor which are associated with subjective evaluations about the “presence” of the teacher. These are linked, in turn, to learners’ positive feelings about the course and instructor.
E-mmediacy Strategies: Any of several online communications strategies, such as name recognition or classroom demeanor, which replace non-verbal communications in the traditional classroom. These strategies are associated with subjective evaluations about the “presence” of the teacher. These are linked, in turn, to learners’ positive feelings about the course and instructor.
Asynchronous: Online communication tools that allow learners and instructors to effectively communicate regardless of whether they are connected to the course management system simultaneously. In effect, these tools allow users to leave messages for each other, which can be accesses and viewed, saved, considered, and responded to at a later time.