The Numbers

Between 2003 and 2007, online course enrollments increased by 100% (Moore & Fetzner, 2009), and despite a decrease in overall enrollments in higher education since then, online learning continues to see steady gains in the number of students enrolling each term.  A recent report revealed that there were almost 6.4 million students enrolled in distance education courses in Fall 2016 (Allen & Seaman, 2017) and that the growth rate of online learning has been consistently increasing (Muljana & Luo, 2019). Additionally, as of a 2016 Gallup study, approximately 40% of higher education faculty have now taught in an online environment (Rhode, Richter, & Miller, 2017). With these numbers in mind, it’s important for us to consider how our roles as faculty have changed and evolved to meet the needs of our students.

Faculty Presence in the Virtual Classroom Space

At Saint Leo, we believe in the power of online learning, and we advocate for our virtual classrooms to be engaging, collaborative spaces where both our students and our faculty can grow as members of a community and excel as individuals.  So how can you, as the facilitator of an online course, make the most impact? Let’s first consider your presence.

For many of you, and many others in higher ed, you may never share the same physical space as your students, so it’s important to think about virtual teaching and learning environments. Perhaps the most obvious space is the learning management system (LMS), D2L’s Brightspace, which we call Courses. When we talk about faculty presence in physical spaces, it’s easy to see how the instructor’s presence is a part of the class – the writing on the board, the slides on the screen, the physical movement around the classroom – all indicators of teaching presence. But what about online? When your students enter their virtual space, do they know “where” you are? What ways have you made your presence known? 

For many faculty, the use of an LMS is just part of online teaching, but have you considered how that space feels? What about the emotions or reactions it elicits?

What comes to mind as you think about the space of the LMS? Perhaps you picture announcements, modules, assignment folders, and icons. For now, take a moment to check in with yourself. How do those details impact teaching and learning? What reactions do you have when you see an empty course shell? Panic about what you’ll have to create? Excitement about the blank canvas and possibilities? How about when you see the interface of a new LMS that you’ve never used before? Are those reactions different than the ones you experience when you are teaching a course that has been built with attention to every detail?

Notice how your emotions, perhaps, changed as you thought about each of those spaces. And just like the learning sciences that influence physical classroom designs, online courses are also often the result of evidence-based practices, cognition and retention studies, and massive amounts of data showing student behaviors and responses to how the content is delivered.

Also like the physical classroom, sometimes there’s not too much we can change. But even if we can’t make changes to the content, it’s our presence that sets the tone of the course. If you are teaching in one of our fully-developed courses, what will you do to make it your own? How will your presence support teaching and learning in the virtual space?  

While you contemplate some of these questions, know that we’re here to support you every step (or click!) of the way. To get started, we’ve curated a few resources that offer both valuable insights for those who are new to online teaching and fresh ideas for our more experienced online faculty.


Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2017). Distance learning compass: Distance education enrollment report. Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved from https://onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/digtiallearningcompassenrollment2017.pdf

Moore, J. C., & Fetzner, M. J. (2009). The road to retention: A closer look at institutions that achieve High course completion rates. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks13(3), 3–22. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v13i3.1650

Muljana, P. S., & Luo, T. (2019). Factors contributing to student retention in online learning and recommended strategies for improvement: A systematic literature review. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research18, 19–57. https://doi.org/10.28945/4182

Rhode, J., Richter, S., & Miller, T. (2017). Designing personalized online teaching professional development through self-assessment. TechTrends61(5), 444–451. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-017-0211-3

Great Resources

Fostering Connectedness in the Asynchronous Online Environment

Three Lessons Learned: Redefining Course Preparation for Online Teaching

Enhancing Online Student Learning with Academic Library Services – Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning

Podcast: Creating a Safe, Welcoming, and Positive Environment for Your Online Students

Working Smarter, Not Harder: Setting Up an Online Course to Save Time!

The Two Best Practices for Successful Online Teaching and Learning

Crush Your Next Virtual Class

You Shouldn’t Be the Only One Talking in Your Digital Classroom

How and Why to Use Asynchronous Videos in Your Online Courses

Energize Your Online Course with Group Work

I Wanted to Know How to Better Engage My Students Online. So I Asked Them

4 Online Teaching Strategies To Promote Collaboration and Community

Increasing Student Engagement During Synchronous Online Classes

10 Best Practices to Be an Effective Online Teacher, eLearning Industry

Weekly Guidelines for Students in Asynchronous Online Courses

How to Improve and Promote Student Engagement in the Online Classroom

Exploring Online Best Practices to Implement Into Your Own Course – Podcast

Five Easy Ideas that Build Bridges to Your Online Learners

A Discussion About Online Discussion

Five Ways to Engage Students in an Online Learning Environment

Creating Magic in Your (Online) Classroom

Creating a Sense of Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom, Faculty Focus

Eight Steps for a Smoother Transition to Online Teaching

Five Tips for Switching to Online Instruction

How to Be a Better Online Teacher, The Chronicle of Higher Education

How to Quickly (and Safely) Move a Lab Course Online

Online Teaching Strategies, EDUCAUSE

Organic Online Discussions: Saving Time and Increasing Engagement

Practical Tips for Teaching Online Small-Group Discussions

Promoting Online Learners’ Social-Emotional Growth: A Montessori Perspective, Faculty Focus

Retaining Online Students: The Impact of Building Rapport

Supporting Underprepared Students in the Online Classroom

Teaching Presence in Online Education: From the Instructor’s Point-of-View, Online Learning Journal – OLC

Transforming Your Lectures into Online Videos

Syncing with Students: Valuable Qualities of Synchronous Online Teaching

Seven Things That Worked in My Online Class

6 Tips For Asynchronous Teaching From An Award-Winning Educator

How to Run a Better Discussion Board: A Template and a Response to Critics