Immediacy in the online classroom: A prudent requirement before, during, and after COVID-19

Immediacy in the online classroom: A prudent requirement before, during, and after COVID-19

By Erik Bean, Ed.D.
Associate University Research Chair
Center for Leadership Studies and Organizational Research

With more than 40 years of academic classroom immediacy research, the ability to spur attentiveness and cultivate more meaningful learning is a student experience phenomenon cultivated by the faculty member that no class should ever do without. The same holds true for rigorous distance learning, the likes of synchronous and asynchronous platforms, that have and will be put in place at an unprecedented pace as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. But for K-12 or traditional academicians with little or no online experience what should they know about eliciting immediacy in the distance learning environment? What do they consciously have to do to spur it on? How does effective immediacy occur in the absence of faculty body language or fewer real-time interactions? The process starts by acknowledging and reacting to student thoughts and emotions in forum discussions, videos, emails, in grading papers, and daily or weekly feedback.

In a matter of weeks spring will turn into summer and with no end of the COVID-19 quarantine in sight, the livelihood and economics of K-12 and traditional college and university classes are at stake (Arum & Stevens, 2020). The solution is going online. But that will not guarantee a meaningful student or faculty experience, or the type that was traditionally found in on-site classrooms. The efficacy of online teaching and learning is backed by years of research and practice. Conversely, there will always be a group of people who feel learning and teaching in a traditional class is preferred. Some reticent teachers and students have seen online classes as more time consuming and more socially isolating.

While perceptions about online teaching will always exist, they are not always true. Adapting to new routines can be daunting for either faculty or student. Initially, the time needed to set up and manage a distance learning class will increase. But with practice and compliance to learning outcomes an online build can be streamlined and replicated for future class sessions. More importantly, with the proper knowledge, practice, and tools, a similar sense of immediacy can be elicited online, the type students experienced for centuries in the traditional class setting.

Many instructors who were attracted to teaching were attracted to have the opportunity to inspire and delight students and make the learning process enjoyable and memorable. Many fondly remember an instructor that inspired them in elementary or secondary school, a role model they would never forget. Most of these role models were lively, passionate presenters who did not just lecture, but got students involved, they imbued immediacy. To understand immediacy and how it is operationalized in the classroom, we need to understand the term immediacy relates to teacher behaviors, not student behaviors. Immediacy itself is defined as the psychological closeness a communicator (sender) conveys between him- or herself and the recipient of the message (Mehrabian, 1971; 2007). The bulk of teacher immediacy research entailed verbal (Carrell & Menzel, 2001; Swan & Richardson, 2003) and nonverbal (Freitas & Myers, 1998; Rocca, 2004; Chukraborty & Muyia Nafukho, 2015) instructor behaviors.

While some forms of online instruction can allow for verbal exchanges, most communication in the online asynchronous and synchronous classrooms is non-verbal dependent on written postings, pre-recorded videos, and email or chat exchanges. Consequently, for nonverbal teacher immediacy, assessing online body language is not easy; rather, written transactions between instructor and student are the primary focus. As well as making classroom materials more engaging. Conaway et al. (2005) claimed, “Strategies for increasing immediacy online include writing in a conversational tone, using students’ names in the postings, and including personal notes in the group feedback” (p. 32).

Building a successful social learning rapport in the online distance learning (ODL) environment between instructor and student is an ongoing process in the online classroom. The timeliness and frequency of written communications typically determine teacher immediacy. Even more important is the degree to which communications foster student psychological comfort. Easton and Katt (2005) stated, “Several factors such as teacher immediacy, interaction, and psychological comfort have been identified as influencing collaborative learning” (p. 179).

To ensure that teacher immediacy in the online classroom can radiate from written communications, “instructors need to be aware of the impact that their immediacy behaviors and social presence or lack thereof may have on their students’ satisfaction, motivation, and learning” (Swan & Richardson, 2003, p. 81). Thus, how an instructor personalizes communications to a student ties to student satisfaction and as Rocca (2004) noted, increased student attendance.

Thus while electronic canned feedback has its place to offer faster and more frequent consistency, and tools like that help to easily work in comments across all platforms or those specific to software such as Microsoft Word AutoCorrect that can be easily programmed to provide hundreds of professional instantly inserted comments, as shown in Rigorous Grading Using Microsoft Word, must still be complemented by personalization where applicable (Bean, 2014). This way faculty can save time by offering rigorous commentary, and students can receive the personalization in the form of immediacy they deserve.

Both faculty and student are always looking for ways to save time, but neither should sacrifce a memorable experience in the classroom. So continue to give those lectures live or record them with renewed vim and vigor. Take delight in offering the latest contemporary information that makes your class so special. Create engaging content by carefully selecting fonts, colors, and spacing to aid in the overall online experience (Bean, 2018). And if you need to add other unique engaging assignments, consider using social media to garner more class attention regardless of the subject matter (Bean & Waszak, 2014; 2015).

Immediacy in the online classroom has been and will continue to be a most prudent faculty iniative, one that can increase student attentiveness and retention. Many K-12 online initiatives as well as traditional colleges can and should learn more about scaling online without sacraficing immediacy. They can learn much about immediacy to maintain attentiveness and retention from schools like University of Phoenix and other online higher education institutes who have been successfully doing it for many years (Arum & Stevens, 2020).

Erik Bean, Ed.D is Associate University Research Chair, Center for Leadership Studies & Organizational Research (CLSOR), University of Phoenix. He has taught online since 2002. He has written several social media curriculum books to bolster the student and faculty experience and is co-author of a new book series with LauraAnn Migliore, Ph.D. on work/life decision making entitled, 20/20 Prudent Leadership.


Arum, R. & Stevens, M.L. (2020). What is a college education in the time of Coronavirus? Retrieved from

Bean, E. (2018). A review of Typography to Improve Your E-learning. Journal of Online Learning Research and Practice. doi: 10.18278/il.6.2.6

Bean, E. (2014). Rigorous grading using Microsoft Word AutoCorrect: Plus Google Docs. (Book) Westphalia Press; Washington, D.C.

Bean, E. & Waszak, E. (2015). Social media lesson plans for YouTube, Facebook, NaNoWriMo, and CreateSpace: Plus intro to blogger (Book) Westphalia Press; Washington, D.C.

Bean, E. & Waszak, E. (2014). WordPress for student writing projects. (Book) Brigantine Media: Compass Division; St. Johnsbury, VT.

Carrell, L. J., & Menzel, K. E. (2001). Variations in learning, motivation, and perceived immediacy between live and distance education classrooms. Communication Education, 50(3), 230.

Chukraborty, M. & Muyia Nafukho, F. (2015). Strategies for virtual learning environments: Focusing on teaching presence and teaching immediacy. Retrieved from

Conaway, R. N., Easton, S. S., & Schmidt, W. V. (2005). Strategies for enhancing student interaction and immediacy in online courses. Business Communication Quarterly, 68, 23-35.

Easton, S. S., & Katt, J. (2005). Online learning: Expectations and experiences. International Journal of Learning, 12(5), 177-186.

Freitas, F. A., & Myers, S. A. (1998). Student perceptions of instructor immediacy in conventional and distributed learning classrooms. Communication Education, 47, 366-372.

Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent messages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Mehrabian, A. (2007). Nonverbal communications. New Brunswick, N.J: AldineTransaction.

Rocca, K. A. (2004). College student attendance: Impact of instructor immediacy and verbal aggression. Communication Education, 53, 185-195.

Swan, K., & Richardson, J. C. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7, 68-82.


dcmcintyre's picture dcmcintyre | May 24, 2020 11:55 am MST

Nice and very relevant article. You should also check Gramzu

Bonnie Taylor's picture Bonnie Taylor | January 14, 2021 6:22 am MST

Thank you for this contribution.  From my perspective and current body of research, it appears to me there is potentially significant transferability to the 13-20 professional education environment.  

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