The importance of ‘Presence’
The fundamental difference between being present, having presence and how you can apply it to your teaching.

Universities are closed.

March 2020 presented a challenge that had not been seen in Higher Education. Universities around the world closed their doors and shutdown their physical estates and, in a moment, transformed into institutions that existed almost wholly in the online space.

However, this notion of universities completely shutting up shop (although widely reported) is simply untrue and is an unjustified description of actions undertaken by all of those who work in the sector. In reality, every role in higher education became invested in the continuity of an industry that simply cannot be shut down.

For many, the immediate actions taken sought to maintain contact hours and preserved the structure to which we were accustomed, swapping out the teaching in spaces surrounded by bricks and mortar for the online alternatives – Zoom, Teams, and the like.

But as we quickly learned – an hour of teaching online simply doesn’t feel the same as an hour teaching in our physical spaces. This notion of materiality is something David White explores in his provocation: “The Desituated Art School”. We’ve attempted to replicate hallmarks of traditional ‘presence’ – like richness of gesture and expression – online. But in so doing, have we overlooked the opportunities to cultivate presence in other ways, beyond those rooted in the physical space?


David White, PFHEA – Head of Digital Learning, University of the Arts London

Introducing the Hybrid School

As a School, we’ve collaborated across our community and refined our approaches within this online space. Physical and digital have been thought of as mutually supportive spaces and we’ve focused less on the location of our teaching and more on our student’s ability to learn, engage and interact.

As we interrogate Hybrid School further, we focus more on how to actively design a sense of presence into the learning experience. As David discusses, presence is inherent to the physical space, but consider for a moment how presence manifests itself in the online realm. How successful are we in presenting and promoting our personality within the knowledge we share?

As an educator, you see every action you take to support your students, but an equally important reflection is to consider how those same students perceive you in return.


Presence beyond the physical paradigm

The way in which you engage your students and the interactions with them is what defines your presence. These things are far more obvious and tangible when they’re seen in the ‘real-world’. When teaching goes online the distinction between your teaching in the synchronous space and your presence become less clear.

The same can be said for student engagement; just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. In that same sense, we need to broaden the opportunities for engagement and in doing so we create opportunities to be present. These opportunities to interact are opportunities for students to know that they are seen, that they are being challenged to learn and that they are being supported.

Drawing again on David’s provocation: we’re a business school that creates opportunities to interact, to engage and to communicate. But we’re also not beholden to the cultural image of being ‘open’, the idea that the institution is only operating when the doors are open, and students roam the corridors and classrooms. We might be desituated, but we’re not disembodied.


Creating opportunities for presence

So, how do you create presence? Below are just 3 of the approaches you could take to generate presence without relying on your own physicality.

Introduce yourself

How do you introduce yourself to your students? An email? The first day of class? Consider recording an introductory video for your course. This is an opportunity for you to let students know who you are and for them to see you and hear you when you write responses to them during the course.

Everything you do indicates something about your presence. Take a look at the Learning Technology pages on Video to see what options are available to you.

Communicate clearly, communicate often

Communication is a key component of teaching online. It’s at the top of the list with your content, your tools and your methods.

Dr Alexandra Mihai has provided a series of excellent tips to help educators manage communication online.

  • Know and utilise your communication channels. Find your voice and be authentic.
  • Canvas – the School’s VLE. It’s one of the main contact points for students and can help you manage your communications with students.
  • Be clear and explicit in your language.
  • Routine – be consistent in your communications. These are opportunities to connect with your students and provide the scaffolding that will enable them to succeed.

Continue the discussion

Participation and engagement are at the heart of teaching and learning at the School. Discussion forums enable you continue these interactions beyond the classroom. They have their own unique benefits:

  • They’re permanent – students tend to be a bit more critical in their input
  • They’re reflective - it’s an opportunity to input into the discussion after pondering thoughts and arguments
  • They’re flexible – our students are all around the globe. Forums provide an opportunity to participate in their own time.
  • They’re equitable – all students have a voice and they can be heard.

Take a look at our guidance on how to enable effective Discussions in your course.


If you only take one thing away…

Online presence does not mean being online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Set expectations with your students as well as with yourself:

  • What are you asking students to do, and by what date?
  • What are you going to do, and by what date?

Engage with your students in a way that is meaningful, yet manageable. Pick up on key themes and provide feedback to the group. Correct misconceptions for everyone to hear. Chances are, someone else will need the help.

Whatever you do, be clear with your students and establish presence, outside of being present.  

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash