Building your online instructor persona

Last Updated: December 11, 2023
A woman looks thoughtfully at her laptop while typing

How this will help:

Explore what it means to be a person and instructor in an online environment.
Identify activities to increase instructor presence in the online classroom.

The basics

One of the most frequent concerns of new online instructors is whether or not they will be able to “get to know” their students and vice versa. Presenting yourself as an instructor and as a person is just as possible in online courses as it is in the face to face setting.  Through the use of learning platform tools and some creative activities, you will be able to let your students get to know you without meeting in person.

In your face to face classroom, you have most likely shown your personality in many informal ways like body language, tone, physical appearance, and management style. You may have shared a passion or hobby with students during lecture breaks or before or after class. You may develop a rapport with students as they develop an understanding of your unique teaching style. Casual questions asked before or after class may have shaped a future presentation. 

There are many ways that your presence as an instructor manifests in a class. One way is through the way you teach. The style of assessments you prefer, your communication style, the types of media/readings you choose, and the structure of the course all play into how students view you as an instructor. Another way is how you interact with the class as individuals. This might take place through feedback or coaching that you might provide, or engaging with students on a course topic to promote deeper learning. A third way is informal and social interactions. But there is also the informal – your excitement for a particular topic in class, the casual comments about your cat, the mention of a hobby you engaged in over the weekend, or perhaps something you saw in the news that interested you. These aspects of you are still very important. Even in an online space, students appreciate knowing there is a complex human on the other side of the screen – complete with a life outside of class. 

In the online world, being yourself may feel challenging and profoundly different. As academics, we typically use writing for formal conversations. For many of us, being on camera is another source of stress and may not feel as natural. 

This is also why it is so critical to create a presence in your classroom. Students frequently report feelings of isolation in an online class. In contrast, the best online classes find ways to build connections between students, as well as between students and the instructor.  Building a community by showing multiple dimensions of yourself as a human makes for a more connected class.

But how do you connect with students when it feels so foreign?

Start by thinking about what makes you a good teacher

This is a great time to reflect on what you bring to the classroom. Do you have a particular passion for the topic? Do you spend a lot of time personally getting to know your students? Do you like to integrate current events into lectures? Do you use the Socratic method for understanding what your students’ understanding? These are all things that can still be done online, if they are important to your teaching style. 

What are you comfortable sharing about your personality?

Sometimes, revealing pieces of yourself can make you feel vulnerable. Think about what aspects of yourself you are comfortable revealing. For example, if you aren’t comfortable sharing pictures of family members, that’s fine. A picture or short video of yourself though can go a long way. Share things as you would if you were in a face-to-face class. For example, if you are a person who enjoys embedding popular memes or humor into your classroom, do this online as well! 

Establish communication early

Students look for structure and consistency in an online course, including in communication.  They are also looking for you as the instructor to establish the tone for the course. Showing your personality and welcoming the participants at the start of the course are best practices for building a foundation for instructor presence.  Start the class with a welcome email, including a brief introduction to the class, to yourself, and perhaps an early link to the syllabus sets the tone for the importance of communication between the instructor and students while humanizing yourself as the instructor. Consider mentioning what excites you about the content and what you look forward to working on during the semester.

Keep up communication throughout the course

Communication with students does not stop after the introduction week. In an online space, we have to consciously create spaces to allow for social interaction. In the discussion board, create a thread for “What’s fun this week” or “Off-topic.” Not only encourage students to post on these threads, but occasionally jump in yourself to keep the conversation going.

We generally recommend sending some kind of communication to students each week. Definitely include some kind of introduction to the topic, perhaps a connection to the previous week’s content. But don’t stop there, add in a brief personal reflection on the topic as well or maybe something how it relates to current events. If you have a story to tell, post it in one of the social spaces (mentioned above) and refer students to that space. 

There are also some small things that can help you build your presence in the class. During the course, try to address students by their names in the discussion board or in a videoconference. Holding regular meeting times sends a powerful message to students that you are available to them and care about their progress. The goal is to build a community where learners feel connected and facilitate in ways that content is deliverable and thought-provoking.

Practical tips

If you aren’t feeling immediately comfortable building community, these suggestions may help you along.  

  • Welcome email or video Include a brief overview of the course, contact information, recommended activities prior to the beginning of the course. Consider including personal information that you may feel comfortable sharing with the group. Anything from favorite books or movies, hobbies, past travels, etc. will help create a more fully formed person on the other side of the computer.
  • Post an introduction assignment that is less about content, more about the person. Not only will you help build community, but students will become more familiar with the technologies being used!
    • Create and post a google slide or virtual poster that represents you and ask students to do the same
    • Discussion board posting with a quick description of who the participants are, why they are taking the course, and what they hope to learn
  • Hold a weekly synchronous office hours session to connect with students
  • Keep track of student progress. Pay attention if a student suddenly seems “absent” from class. Reach out first with an email, and then perhaps with a phone call. If a student feels isolated, they may not even realize that they are missed.
  • Include your own reflections when discussing content.  You are modeling your thought process and giving students insight into how an expert thinks about content.
  • Ask students for feedback on the course.  Create a google survey to get feedback on what the students think is going well, and what would they like to see more of.
  • Don’t be afraid to use humor, but use it carefully. Set group norms about what is appropriate in the classroom environment.
  • Get creative with your assignments. Instead of doing a formal discussion post, have students make a meme that directly relates to course content. Have them reflect in video or in poetry rather than narrative. Have a theme week – one instructor had a different “hair band” theme from the 80s each week of the course.


University of Michigan

CRLT- How does your “online identify” impact classroom climate?

Other Resources

John Hopkins- Establishing an online presence

Online learning insights- Instructor presence in an online class – key to learner success


Phillips, W. (2008). A study of instructor persona in the online environment. 168.

Dzubinski, Leanne M. (2014). Teaching presence: Co-creating a multi-national online learning community in an asynchronous classroom. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, 18(2), 97. Online Learning Consortium.