Online instructors, show yourself?

Last week, while helping to coordinate an online teaching workshop for faculty on campus, a colleague asked about the importance of having an instructor appear visually in a synchronous classroom space.  We had just demonstrated our institution’s online classroom tool and one of the faculty members wondered whether it was important for students to actually see the instructors who was leading the synchronous online lesson.  My first thoughts went to Mayer’s multimedia principles.  As I’ve shared before on this blog, Mayer’s multimedia principles outline ways to successfully design and incorporate multimedia in educational settings to foster student learning.  Mayer’s image principle says that incorporating an image of a speaker in a multimedia presentation has no significant influence on students’ learning of the content being presented.  Using Mayer as guide, I explained to my colleague, one could conclude that incorporating an instructor’s face in a synchronous classroom probably wouldn’t have much impact on learning.

My colleague, however, was persistent.  While student learning may not be impacted by instructor visibility, maybe there were other areas to consider?  Maybe the instructor’s image could foster more social presence in the class?  Or maybe the instructor’s image could motivate students?  Needless to say, my colleague’s questions motivated me to do a little digging and see what I could find.

I came across some research that examined the use of video tutorials with students.  Published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the study examined the impact of having an instructor’s face be visible in recorded lessons.  While not a direct match with my colleague’s questions, the results were pretty compelling.  In the first phase of the study, the researchers found that the vast majority of students preferred to see the instructor during the recorded lessons.  While 35% of the participants found the instructor’s image distracting, most would choose to have the teacher be visible in the lesson.

With this in mind, in the next phase of the study, the researchers examined whether having the instructor constantly visible or visible only during strategic times would have any impact on student learning.  In this phase, participants were placed in two groups (constantly visible and strategically visible) and a host of different factors were examined.  Researchers examined learning outcome, attrition, cognitive load, social presence and assessment taking.  For most of the areas, the researchers found no significant differences between the two groups.  For both groups, the participants completed similar numbers of assessments, watched the same amount of the videos and demonstrated similar levels of learning.  When looking at the social presence and cognitive load, however, the groups differed greatly.

Students who watched the instructors appearing strategically during the lessons reported higher levels of social presence than the students who saw the instructors who appeared constantly.  When the instructors appeared only at certain times during the lesson, the students reported feeling more connected to the class and developed a sense that the instructor was there to support their learning.  When the instructor was constantly visible, the students eventually began to ignore the teacher’s image completely.  Since they were ignoring the image of the instructor, the students didn’t report similar levels of belonging to the class and reported lower levels of social presence in the class.

Ignoring the instructor has some positive value, however. The students in the strategic group reported much higher levels of distractions than the students in the constant group.  While this self-reported “cognitive load” didn’t translate into lower assessment scores for students, the research suggests that this could create challenges for students who prefer to learn visually.

So, what does it all mean?  When instructors are visible in online spaces, they can help to foster more social presence with students.  While it won’t impact student learning or their participation in the class, being visible can help students feel more connected to classes.  Instructors should remember that this is a case of diminishing returns.  More instructor visibility in video lessons (or synchronous classrooms) doesn’t necessarily lead to more social presence.  Much like many things in life, a little can go a long way.


Kizilcec, R. F., Bailenson, J. N., & Gomez, C. J. (2015). The instructor’s face in video instruction: Evidence from two large-scale field studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 724–739.


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