Your most important role

Finding ways to interact with and connect with your students is one of the most important things you can do to foster authentic engagement and support learning for your students. Contrary to the belief that online courses run themselves, online course facilitators tend to spend more time than in-person instructors providing support and interacting virtually with students, as well as providing support and feedback on assessments (Van de Vord, R., & Pogue, K., 2012).

Student-facilitator interaction encompasses all the many ways in which students, instructors, and TAs reach out and connect with eachother throughout an online course. How we choose to interact with our students sets the tone within the course, serving to build a sense of connection and impacting student engagement and outcomes.

These interactions, which can take many forms, help build the critical types of presence outlined in the Community of Inquiry Framework. They are thus essential to building cognitive, emotional, and behavioural engagement in online learning contexts.

Community of Inquiry with venn diagram of Social Presence, Teaching Presence, and Cognitive Presence
Community of Inquiry
  • Social presence: Social presence is about building a social learning community within your course. An important step towards establishing an authentic sense of community is to first establish your own presence, giving students a sense of who you are, your personality, and showing them that you care. Building this type of presence often involves helping students see and understand what you find so interesting and important about the course topic and/or your discipline, which helps to build student interest and emotional engagement. You might think about your social presence as the emotional or relational "hook" that can draw students in. Social presence is also facilitated by the ways in which you invite students into the course, to participate, interact with each other, and provide feedback. Showing students you care by providing feedback, support, and guidance throughout the term can really impact this type of presence and student outcomes, as we’ll discuss in a little more detail in this unit.
  • Teaching presence: Online teaching presence emerges from how a course is structured and organized, and facilitated. As an online facilitator you may have little input on the structure or organization of the course; however, a large part of teaching presence comes from what instructors and TAs do in term; how you "hold the teaching and learning space." There are often many opportunities in term to clarify guidelines and instructions that help students better see and understand the structure/organization of the course and what is expected of them. There will also be opportunities to identify where students may be struggling and find novel ways to clarify concepts and help students better understand. Your response to student confusion (or how you anticipate where students may struggle) can go a long way in alleviating student anxiety and setting them up for success in your course and beyond.
  • Cognitive presence: At its core, cognitive presence is about constructing meaning and realizing relevance. Student-facilitator interactions are an important way in which two-dimensional content and/or abstract concepts can become more meaningful and personally relevant. Student-facilitator interactions can play an important role in guiding attention, boosting intrinsic motivation, and creating the conditions for cognitive states that are ideal for learning. Facilitator presence can also play an important role in guiding and enriching student-student interactions, which is another important way we build cognitive presence.

Clarifying student-facilitator interaction

It is important to clarify that when we talk about student-facilitator interaction we are referring to an expansive repertoire of approaches and strategies that help build rapport, which fosters a sense of connection, community, and presence.

The strategies you choose to implement will vary depending on your personality, teaching style, learning outcomes, particular facilitator role (i.e., if you authored the course, are teaching alone, co-teaching, or a TA), and the individual needs of your students. If you are not comfortable video-recording yourself or hosting live, synchronous video sessions, that is okay! There are many other ways to interact with students online, giving them a sesnse of your presence and providing support. You may be skeptical that you can build social presence that is as strong as in your classroom. However, research shows that perceived social presence can actually be stronger in online courses (Bowers & Kumar, 2015).

in an education context is essentially the kind of relationship you have with your students. The qualities that constitute a good, healthy, beneficial relationship are similar for establishing good rapport, such as mutual respect, trust, integrity, credibility, reliability, and genuine interest and care.

Humanizing learning

Why is humanizing learning so important? The ways in which facilitators “show up” for their students and bring social, teaching, and cognitive presence is what breathes life into an online course, helping to humanize learning. Humanizing learning encompasses the different ways in which we are reminded of the person that is behind teaching and learning and includes practices that acknowledge and aim to take into account the student as a social being living in a particular social-political-personal landscape. It often involves seeing and acknowledging, to some extent, students as individuals, taking into account variance in student abilities, base-knowledge, strengths, areas for growth, and learning preferences. Humanizing learning often centres on building relationships and creating opportunities for students to connect and relate to you as a facilitator, to their peers, and to the content, concepts, and skills you hope they take away from the course.

Research shows that human learning is, by nature, a social process and is heavily influenced by social context and social factors that start with how we relate to other humans. In the next section we will discuss why this is particularly important in online courses, but first let’s take a moment to dive a little deeper into the social roots of human learning, which we hope will help convince you of the critical role student-facilitator interactions play in online learning.

Learning is a social process

Albert Bandura
Albert Bandura (1925- )

Psychologist Albert Bandura’s research, originating in the early 1960’s, provided insight into the critical role the social environment has on learning and the tremendous learning efficiencies that arise from this type of learning. Bandura’s social learning theory goes beyond earlier learning theories, which characterize learning as a process of conditioning that is grounded in reinforcement (rewards vs. punishment). Simply relying on punishment (e.g., grading penalties when learners do not “get it”) and rewards (e.g., gaining good grades when they “get it”) does not make the most of how humans were built to learn. According to Bandura, the extent and efficiency of human learning cannot be explained by a simple process of punishment and reward, but rather is a socially mediated process of modeling and observation. Critically, learners select a person to model, who typically is someone they can identify with. As children our parents modelled important behaviour and skills for us, but later in life peers, and teachers, and instructors take on a much stronger role as models in our life and can have greater influence on learning.

Enhancing learning through modelling

One huge strength of human learning is the rate at which we can learn vicariously through observation. Humans can learn large, complex, and difficult behaviours (e.g., critical or analytic thinking) through watching someone model behaviours, skills, and ways of understanding. Learning through modelling and observation is particularly important for more complex or process-oriented behaviours (Bandura, 1977). 


Illustration of child riding a bike

To illustrate the efficiency of learning through social processes such as modelling and observation, let’s consider an example. Think about how you learned to ride a bike or some other complex behaviour/ability that is familiar to you. Were you taught by first reading a detailed description of where to put your feet and your hands, how to coordinate you muscles to find balance, how to anticipate and correct for challenges (e.g., uneven ground, pebbles, a dog darting in front of you) or did you learn by first observing someone ride a bike and then trying it yourself? Your parent may have provided some verbal instructions or feedback to guide you, but a big part of procedural learning, like how to ride a bike, occurs through observing others and then trying it yourself.

Check and reflect

What is a skill or ability that is important to your academic discipline that you likely absorbed, at least in part, through observation (i.e., seeing that skill demonstrated)?


Take a moment to jot down some ideas before clicking to see a couple answers that come to mind for us.

One common skill and knowledge base that you have likely learned through observation is academic writing and disciplinary norms. We absorb some of the rules and practices of our disciplinary culture, such as academic writing, over time, through exposure, observation, and modelling.  You may have identified other procedural, analytic, and/or problem-solving skills that were sharpened through the kind of modelling that is common in many disciplines, where students observe instructors, TAs, and other academic mentors work through and solve problems and engage in scholarly discourse and debate.

In the following section we’ll look at the impact that online facilitator presence and student-facilitator interactions have on students’ experience, perceptions, engagement, learning, and academic success, which we hope will help inform your decisions and planning around student-facilitator interaction strategies.


Baker, C. (2010). The impact of instructor immediacy and presence for online student affective learning, cognition, and motivation. Journal of Educators Online, 7(1), n1.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (2005, October 28). Psychologist Albert Bandura 2005. Retrieved from and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Bowers, J., & Kumar, P. (2015). Students' perceptions of teaching and social presence: A comparative analysis of face-to-face and online learning environments. International Journal of Web-Based Learning and Teaching Technologies (IJWLTT), 10(1), 27-44. 

Quinlan, K. M. (2019). What triggers students’ interest during higher education lectures? Personal and situational variables associated with situational interest. Studies in Higher Education, 44(10), 1781-1792.

Theeuwes, J., & Van der Stigchel, S. (2006). Faces capture attention: Evidence from inhibition of return. Visual Cognition, 13(6), 657-665. 

Van de Vord, R., & Pogue, K. (2012). Teaching time investment: Does online really take more time than face-to-face? The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(3), 132-146.