How It Feels When an Online Instructor Is Absent

Taking classes online is probably the single most significant thing I’ve done to improve my own teaching. I wasn’t expecting this. Being an empathetic person, I thought I had done a reasonable job anticipating the student experience when I developed my own online classes. And as someone with many years of face-to-face classroom experience, both as a teacher and student, I figured I had a pretty good idea of the fundamentals.

A few years back, our benefits package changed to allow faculty to take classes for free. I had already been teaching fully online for several years at this point. I figured I’d jump in and take a class, since there were a few that I’d been interested in that I could also use for continuing education for my nutrition license.

three shocked baboons (?)

Image by Gellinger on Pixabay. Used under a CC-0 license.

The first thing I learned when the tables turned was that I had previously had no idea what it was like to be an online student. Really. None at all. I learned all kinds of other things that dramatically changed my own teaching as well, which perhaps I will elaborate upon in a different post.

Today, I want to talk to you about what it feels like from a student perspective when your online instructor really isn’t there. Had I been asked before experiencing this, I think I probably would have come up with some of these same comments. The first-hand experience, though, was quite profound and feels worth sharing.

Here's the Situation

Graduate-level class. Each week there are readings, pre-recorded lectures and a discussion board with one required post and two required follow-ups (Aaaaahhh. Will do a separate post on why I loathe this set-up.) There are also a few traditional papers peppered into the mix.

The instructor can be forgiven for this structure, as they are an adjunct and did not develop the course. What the instructor cannot be forgiven is a failure to show up as a meaningful part of the course. This person – from my perspective – swept in to the class every few weeks, graded things and left perfunctory comments, and then was not seen again for several weeks. I do not think they ever left a single public comment on any discussion board. I got no substantial feedback on any assignment, and most work was returned 3-4 weeks after it was submitted – sometimes longer.

The purpose of this post isn’t to rail against the instructor. I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes. Maybe all their energy was directed towards a few students who needed additional help. Maybe everyone else in the course got meaningful feedback, and for whatever reason I did not. Perhaps there was something going on in their personal life that prevented full engagement with the course. Or maybe they just didn’t understand the expectations for teaching online. Instead, I want to highlight how it felt to be a student in such a class. 

How It Felt

In the beginning, I was excited about the course. It covered a topic about which I knew little. I had been wanting to learn more for a while, and in my opinion this topic was an interesting one in general. I downloaded the syllabus, noted all due dates in my calendar, purchased the required texts and started in on the required reading so I could get a week ahead in case of work backups.

After a few weeks went by, it became clear that the instructor was not “with us” in any meaningful way. They hadn’t posted on the discussion board. They didn’t appear to have deeply read my posts; feedback was essentially “you followed the directions and covered the required topic.” The lectures did not match up with the readings or the topics we were supposed to be discussing.

The first thing that changed was my motivation level. What had seemed interesting now seemed like a chore. It was nice to engage with my classmates, who often had profound and interesting things to say. However, there was no one holding us to any kind of standard. No one provided any guard rails or corrections in our conversations. In some contexts, I can see this being helpful and significant. In this case, it just felt like neglect.

If no one is noticing, and I’m not feeling motivated, why am I doing this? I had plenty of other tasks requiring my attention, so I put less time and energy into this class. I stopped watching the lectures, because they weren’t adding anything to my understanding of the topic.

I also experienced some anger and even a bit of condescension toward the instructor, and to a certain degree to the course topic as well. These are not things I normally experience. My undergraduate self might have felt overjoyed to earn an easy “A” for very little effort. However, something about the feeling of being abandoned combined with an actual desire to learn and grow that wasn’t being nurtured left me feeling resentful.

By the end of the course, I was putting in the barest of effort. If anyone had been watching, they would have noticed the quality of my work slipping substantially. I don’t feel as if I learned much from taking the course that I couldn’t have gotten from reading the textbook on my own.

open book

Should have just curled up with the textbook one weekend... Image by tookapic on Pixabay. Used under a CC-0 license.

My Point

The message I hope to convey here is just how much instructor presence matters. The class structure was uninspired, and the content left much to be desired. However, with an engaged instructor I can see how the experience could have been meaningful and transformative. An opportunity slipped through the cracks. 

Faculty: your presence is essential. By sharing your own take on the content, by connecting with students and by noticing the work that is happening, you hold space in a way that a pre-populated course can’t. Your attention inspires growth and improvement; without it, online courses are hollow and mechanistic. Please show up.


Hi there. I'm Camille. I'm a professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology and pathophysiology. I'm also a licensed nutritionist and herbalist, specializing in fertility and reproductive health. Lastly but not leastly, I'm a mom, a gardener and a pretty horrible housekeeper.

  • […] about your course, you should also make sure that you are showing up in a meaningful way for them. Here is a quick post I wrote with my student hat on about what it feels like when this doesn't […]

  • Laura Farnsworth says:

    Thank you, a thousand times! With the exception of 2 undergraduate language courses & 1 graduate course, all of my learning experience has been online. I felt fully engaged, motivated, and constantly challenged with no synchronous interaction during my undergraduate program. Overall, my graduate program was quite the opposite experience. If more instructors were like you, the virtual learning environment would be amazing.

    • Camille says:

      Thanks, Laura. I’d love to hear more about what worked for you in your asynchronous undergrad program sometime. It does seem like there are many ways to do online courses well, and just as many ways to do them poorly!

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