Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Characteristics of Successful Online Instructors

In 2005, Dr. John Savery of the University of Akron published a model for describing effective online instruction. The VOCAL approach summarizes the key characteristics that an instructor utilizes to be effective in an online environment. His initial paper has been cited dozens of times since then, and has become a standard model for describing an ideal online instructor.

Despite the name, VOCAL does not mean that instructors should talk a lot. Instead, it is an acronym made up of the terms Visible, Organized, Compassionate, Analytical, and Leader-by-Example. Let’s take a look at each of these characteristics to see what makes an excellent online instructor.


Students need to know that the instructor is available, present, and attentive. While many online courses – MOOCs and other self-paced courses, for example – are fairly “hands-off” once they are started, instructors nevertheless need to make their presence known to the students. An online classroom is nothing like a face-to-face classroom. There is little or no interaction, little or no feedback, and the silence can be deafening (and scary!). If a student believes that he or she is alone, and no one cares about his or her success, there is little incentive to take an active role in their learning.

Suggestions for instructors:
  • Have a Web page or content item with personal and professional information about yourself.
  • Provide regular and timely comments to posts in the discussion forum
  • Message the class regularly through e-mail, announcements, or social media
  • Update the calendar with regular activities ("Tuesday Trivia”) as well as due dates. 


Students need to know that their instructor is well organized and experienced. Students taking an online course are trying to fit it into an already crowded schedule. They need a course that is well organized with clear requirements and objectives. Besides guiding the students through the expected outcomes, this has a side-benefit of helping the students themselves become better time-managers and more self-directed.

Suggestions for instructors:
  • Prepare your syllabus carefully
  • Provide due dates early
  • Clearly explain expectations
  • Keep discussion forum organized, including space for non-course related topics
  • Be consistent with online resources and label clearly (download vs link, format)
  • Have clear and detailed policies


Students need to know that the instructor is attentive to the needs of the online learner. Many have chosen to take an online course because of a specific set of conditions they face in their lives, which often make the option of a face-to-face course difficult or impossible. These same conditions can offer challenges even in an online class. When you add in the possibility of technical difficulties, participation in an online course becomes even more challenging.

Suggestions for instructors:
  • Create a dedicated discussion forum for students to share personal information
  • Give students permission to contact you directly when emergencies arise
  • Respond to emergencies compassionately but fairly and consistently


Instructors should use available resources and statistics to ensure all students are participating and understand the material. Depending on the learning environment, instructors can have a large amount of information that they can use to monitor learner progress and provide critical feedback to the students. Most LMS environments will include information on frequency of access, types of activity, past due assignments, and participation in the message board. The instructor should monitor this information and use it to support timely interventions when students are struggling or slacking.

Suggestions for instructors:
  • Use the CMS/LMS systems for monitoring student activity
  • Provide short, frequent assessments to check for understanding
  • Provide opportunities for students to evaluate the course and their progress
  • Provide clear guidelines for assessing participation


The instructor sets the tone for the course from the very first day and maintains it until the final class. Everything the instructor does is a model for participation, engagement, and instruction. In all of the prior areas – Visibility, Organization, Compassion, Analysis – student behavior will reflect that of the instructor. If it is clear that the instructor is just going through the motions, the students will not put in their best effort.

Suggestions for instructors:
  • Follow through on promises made (grading, posting resources)
  • Model appropriate communication in discussion forum
  • Be aware of student drop-off and support consistent participation
  • Plan for closure activities at end of course 

Savery, J. R. (Fall, 2005). BE VOCAL: Characteristics of Successful Online Instructors. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 4, 2. p. 141-153. Retrieved Sept 3, 2014 from

No comments:

Post a Comment