• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

Creating a Sense of Presence

And Other Nuances of Online Teaching

© Maria Dolinova

Maria Dolinova
Practicing psychologist, HSE alumna (Master’s Programme ‘Counselling Psychology. Personality Studies’)

Many colleagues—experienced colleagues!—have never taught an online class in their lives. Tomorrow (or, rather, today), many will be having to work through a bunch of technical issues: camera, sound, methodology, managing their audience’s attention. How do you stay sane at a time like this?

It so happens I have been a practicing psychologist that since 2013 and, for the last two years, I have not met with clients in person at all. I have long been conducting all my work online—both consultations and training sessions.

Video calls are my main work tool, so I’ve gained some experience with it. In light of our current situation, I have decided to put all the things I’ve learned down on ‘paper’, and, if you are figuring out online instruction for the first time, it may be worth it for you to give them a read.

These are all my personal views and tricks. I didn’t learn them from a book but from real experience.

Organising your Workspace


The key idea here is that students and/or clients should not be getting distracted or spending time looking at what is behind you while watching you on their computers of smartphones.

I came to the conclusion that if you are teaching or consulting from home, the best backdrop to give yourself is a plain white wall. A light-coloured wall also works, though it is not ideal since it may cast a coloured reflection on your face and give you a sickly pallor.

A dark or black background is also a great solution. It creates a very dramatic and stylish picture.

If you already have a white wall without any furniture, perfect. Arrange your desktop so that your webcam records you against this backdrop.

If not, you can buy a roller window blind (the best ones are thick vinyl, light blocking, pure white, or black, and at least 160 cm wide). You can buy these at IKEA for a reasonable price. A white curtain gives the look of a projector screen. You can hang it on a wall or a bookcase—just hang it up when you’re getting ready to teach, and put it away when you’re finished for the day.

Another good backdrop is a bookcase (but keep in mind that, in this case, people will be studying its contents rather than listening to what you’re saying for the first 40 minutes).

A backdrop that I do not recommend is your ceiling. When your desktop set up against a wall and you are sitting at it, you may find yourself trying to teach against a backdrop that is shared with your chandelier, and it will compete with you for your students’ attention.


In addition to backdrop, lighting is very important.

Make sure that the overhead light in your room is bright (if possible, replace your ceiling light bulbs with ones that have a brighter, warmer daylight hue).

However, just making sure you have good overhead lighting is insufficient. Without additional lighting, your face will be very dark. The darker it is, the less you will be able to hold your students’ attention. Your face needs to be brightly lit, and it is quite simple to do this with two lamps.

I use simple clipper lamps from IKEA—as you can see from the photo of me for this piece, my workspace is well lit.

These kinds of lamps will suffice, but if you have access to professional photo shoot lamps, those are even better.

Drinking Water

Working in an unfamiliar format causes additional stress, and your throat can get dry. Make sure you have a cup of tea or some water next at hand. Keep in mind that students will see the bottom of your cup up close when you take a drink.

Camera Location

If you are recording or streaming from a smartphone, attach it to a tripod. If from a laptop, then the angle of your screen (where your video camera is mounted) greatly affects the proportions of your face in the frame. Find the optimal angle at which you generally like your how your face looks on camera.

Comfortable Chair

When it comes to using the right chair, the important thing is to make sure if provides support for your back, has armrests (if desired), and that the back is not higher than your head (otherwise there will be a distracting ‘halo’ above your head from the back of the chair). Also make sure it does not creak and that it is soft enough. Ideally, your seat should not be visible in the frame (low armrests and a low, not too wide backrest).


This is a must. Otherwise your online session will indeed suffer—100%. If you are unable to sound proof your workspace, perhaps you should rent an office at an hourly rate that has good internet, and conduct your classes from there.

Family members at home need to understand that you are at work and not distract you. If there are children in the family, someone should look after them during your class. The same goes for pets.

(However, if your kids end up crashing your session for a moment, do not distress. This is life. Your students will understand.)

Looking the Part

During face-to-face instruction, we use many techniques to command our students’ attention—our location in the room, our movements, body language, posture, gestures, and eye contact with specific people in the audience.

All of these things make us more effective in person. But we do not feel very confident when we have to move to an online format and lose these tools to which we are accustomed.

What Can I Do Instead?

  • Wear bold colours. It is better to wear a shirt or blouse that is one colour, thereby giving you a clear silhouette. This will help you hold your students’ attention.
  • The camera is ruthless when it comes to imperfections. Female colleagues, even if you do not wear makeup in everyday life, I have found in my own experience that foundation, powder, and lipstick can help you feel more confident on camera. Especially blurring powder (but make sure not to go too light with the colour). A brighter face holds people’s attention more effectively (there are a lot videos online about how to apply makeup or use cosmetics for photoshoots and video).
  • Sit in front of the camera so that your hands are visible when you gesture.
  • Increase your emotional expression and facial expressions a little. And straighten your shoulders. Now your face, neck, and shoulders will have to verbally express the nuances that you usually convey to your audience with your whole body.

Being slightly negligent with your hair might look cute in person. But on camera it’s a different story. In the end, I came to the conclusion that looking like a talking head—including your hair—is important for a successful online session.

To understand what you will look like on camera, turn on your lamps, sit at your desktop, and turn on the built-in camera. This is the same camera that will broadcast. Take a few photos and carefully consider them: Do your clothes look OK? What shows up in the frame? Etc. Choose an appropriate angle.


Students will be more engaged if you work to create the sense that everyone is present.

Here are simple ways to achieve this:

  1. Take more time to greet your students than you otherwise would teaching face to face. The usual ‘Hello, let’s get started’ may not be enough. Tell you students that you are happy to see them. Look at how many students have joined the stream and note the number. ‘There are sixteen of us now. Let’s begin.’
  2. Make a point of acknowledging attendance, even if it is not part of your grading rubric. For example, you might say, ‘As we begin, I’d like to ask everyone who came on time to enter a plus sign in their chat field.’ As the pluses appear, you can comment on them. ‘Okay, I see Ivan, Elena, Igor, Dasha… Great! Everyone else will be considered tardy. Be sure to join us on time next time.’ This ensure that participants feel part of a group rather than mere spectators of a screen.
  3. In the middle of your class, you should conduct this kind of roll call again by asking a question and requiring that everyone provide a short answer. For example, ‘Who agrees with this? Write “yes” in your chat box if you agree, or “no” if you don’t agree. If you’re not sure, type “no answer”.’ As the answers appear in the chat box, count them (if the group is small), and if someone didn’t answer, you can say, ‘I see only a few responses. Is the rest of the class still here or have they signed off to do other things?’ This will signal to the students that they should pay attention.
  4. Provide a running commentary on what you are doing. For example, sometimes you need to switch a slide to show it on the monitor. Or you need to turn on some of the participants’ sound to ask about something. If you do this without any explanation, then it could make things awkward and increase the sense of remoteness. To the contrary, we need to create a sense of presence. You can comment on your technical actions. For example, you might explain, ‘I’m going to take a second to count how many people in the chat answered “yes” and how many answered “no”.’ Or, ‘Wait a minute, I'll turn on Anna's sound. Anna, you are on the air, we can hear you loud and clear. Now tell us what you think about ...’
  5. For inspiration, you can read or re-read Comenius’s The Great Didactic. This ancient text reminds us that our familiar lecture-seminar and classroom formats were just as innovative as our online classroom now is. At one time, it was really hard for people to imagine why students should be divided into classes, etc.

Being Mindful of Yourself and Keeping your Audience’s Attention

Be prepared for the new format to feel tedious at first.

If possible, do not conduct two classes in a row without a break. If you can’t avoid this, be sure to relax a bit during the short break, even if it's only for 10 minutes.

Autotraining exercises can help you relax quickly. They can be easily found online and are easy to learn. Master the basic exercises in a week, and this will already be a very good help. Without getting some relaxation in between classes, it will be difficult to get the hang of working remotely at first.

It is useful to put something beautiful and pleasing to the eye next to the monitor: it will not be visible to students, but it will be visible to you. I put flowers, a burning candle (carefully! Not near the appliances), or a photograph of a loved one. When we look at objects like these, we smile — and this is very important when working online.

The nature of the remote format is such that people often seem a little more severe, fussy, inhospitable, or tense when they’re on camera. To maintain a comfortable atmosphere in the classroom, you should keep this in mind.

During your first time teaching online, it may be useful to place a mirror next to your computer monitor. As you look at yourself, you may notice that you are frowning. 

Unlike a face-to-face meeting, students have few opportunities to correctly recognize your non-verbal signals. You can frown due to technical difficulties, and students may take it personally and tense up — and this will immediately reduce their productivity and engagement.

Technical Details

If you have a laptop, then you probably won’t need a webcam at first, or a loop-microphone, or headphones. But lighting equipment will definitely come in handy.

A very reliable and fast Internet connection is a must. Skype is suitable for individual work, but for group work, Zoom is much better.

Zoom Pro is only $15 a month. If you sign up for the basic package for free, your call can last only up to 40 minutes, after which you will have to reconnect. This causes confusion and is not worth the money you have saved.

Zoom allows you to mute all the microphones of your participants except for yours. I recommend using this function, but ask your students to turn their cameras on. Then you can see their faces and their reactions to what you are saying.

When you need to let someone talk, you can turn on that person’s microphone for the duration of their remarks.


I highly recommend that you not only look to your colleagues who conduct online courses (and with your new perspective, view them on camera), but also observe TV anchors or watch how good journalists behave during interviews. These are professionals who are used to the camera—in their behaviour, you may glimpse something that will be useful to you with your virtual audience.

How to Learn All This

Online teaching and online counselling are new professional areas. There are no uniform standards of professionalism; they are being formed right before our eyes.

The whole quarantine story, it seems to me, will now lead to an explosive increase in the number of professionals involved in online work, and this is generally good for this new industry.

Since there are few training programmes for online teaching and online counselling, we learn from practice.

How Can I Speed up the Learning Process?

  1. Do a debriefing. Be sure to keep a video of your lectures and seminars (warning your students, of course). This will help you not only prepare a full-fledged online course in the future, but also provide an opportunity to see your methodological errors when you review the recording. It is better to correct them as soon as possible and form new habits.
  2. Discuss with your colleagues the methodological and technical aspects of working in an online format. Assemble a master group of colleagues so you can talk about it.
  3. Study successful examples on Coursera and webinars or video lectures of colleagues. Seek out effective tactics.
  4. Consult with photographers and videographers about any technical questions.
  5. Search online for tips and materials. Share them with colleagues.

Source: Facebook of Maria Dolinova

March 20