Feature Article

Creating immediacy in online learning

An instructor of online gerontology courses shares his practices for enhancing students' experience in the virtual classroom.

By Paul P. Falkowski, PhD

It is no secret that the rapid technological advances in computer hardware and software have significantly changed the landscape of how we interact with one another. The classroom is no exception. With the introduction of the virtual meeting places such as Facebook, My Space, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., the predictable progression of those advances has led to the creation of the virtual classroom. Students are no longer constrained to attending face-to-face classrooms to participate in the educational process. Online courses are being offered by schools large and small around the globe. New technologies are emerging more rapidly than one instructor can fully comprehend. How do these new vehicles of learning impact instructor-student pedagogies? What is the impact on well-known and accepted theories of teacher and student immediacy behaviors on affective and cognitive learning in this virtual classroom? Which of these emerging technologies are most effective for online learning?

I began teaching online courses in gerontology several years ago, and the first time through, that experience can be somewhat overwhelming. However, with time, as with most things, I learned how to navigate the system, organize the material in such a manner that it is not confusing to the student and finally add the technologies that enhance the learning experience. Here are two ideas I have found to be effective and not work intensive.

As teachers, we know that creating immediacy in the classroom is critical to student learning. Arbaugh (2010) examined the behaviors of online instructors — both formal (teaching presence) and informal (immediacy). Both were revealed to be positively related to student perceived learning and student satisfaction with the online environment. Results indicated that both teaching presence and instructor immediacy were associated with perceived learning. Student participation in online courses, teaching presence and instructor immediacy were all strong predicators of student satisfaction with delivery medium. But how does the online instructor create immediacy? Baker (2004) examined the impact of instructor immediacy behaviors in an online learning environment. Immediacy behaviors appear to influence the experience in all settings. The results of this study were consistent with like studies of traditional face-to-face courses. About 60 percent of communication is nonverbal. Similarly, verbal communication behaviors increase the sense of closeness or immediacy.

With that said, short video clips are now fairly easy to create and post in the online environment. I use two methods. First, I post a weekly update, commenting on previous week's assignments and quizzes, and then close with a look at what activities and assignments are coming due for the week or reminders about long-term projects. Student evaluations clearly show that students appreciate the videos as one student commented: “I appreciate the professor's weekly video clips. It gives me a sense that I'm actually in a classroom.” Second, I have tested the use of videos where I and one other student have a discussion using a combination of Skype and screen capture software. I present ideas from the week's lesson to the student and then ask for the student's feedback. The audience (i.e., the remaining students watching the dialogue) is engaged in the interaction and, once again, immediacy is created. The distance between learner and instructor in the online environment leads to psychological and communication gaps that must be overcome by appropriate teaching procedures (Dennen, Darabi, & Smith, 2007). It has been my experience that these methods help to overcome those gaps. Tone of voice and gestures are elements of communication that may be missing from the online experience. The videos add those elements back to the online experience.

In the same vein of thought, I have incorporated wikis into my online courses to encourage communication among the students. At the beginning of each semester, I create a wiki entitled: “Let's Get Acquainted” and then create a wiki page for each student. On the homepage of the wiki, I post instructions that includes a general outline for the students to follow. I add a few bonus points to encourage them to participate. Students will post pictures, videos, along with text giving some of their background, why they are taking the course and what they hope to learn. They share pictures of themselves, their pets and even children. I have my own page as well where I share, albeit with a little more caution, but I do share my passion for working with older adults, my expertise working with future care providers and my own interests. Although the interactions are not synchronous, they do provide another layer of immediacy that would otherwise not be present, thus creating a sense of community as well. Other than the initial burden of creating the wiki, which takes less than a minute, and creating pages for each of the students (I do this for uniformity), the wikis are not difficult to manage. I am also using the wikis for assignments. Students visit a service provider, interview the director, take pictures as permitted by the agency, and then create a wiki page detailing what they learned about the agency, again using a variety of media and text. Student reactions have been positive, stating it was a departure from the routine of writing a paper and that they enjoyed the opportunity to view their classmates' work.


Arbaugh, J. (2010). Sage, guide, both, or even more? An examination of instructor activity in online MBA courses. Computers & Education , 55 (3), 1234-1244.

Baker, J. (2004). An investigation of relationships among instructor immediacy and affective and cognitive learning in the online classroom. Internet & Higher Education , 7 (1), 1.

Dennen, V., Darabi, A., & Smith, L. (2007). Instructor-learner interaction in online courses: The relative perceived importance of particular instructor actions on performance and satisfaction. Distance Education , 28 (1), 65-79.