The community of inquiry framework for online learning indicates that three themes are essential for effective education. There must be a social presence, a cognitive presence, and a teaching presence. Each piece is required for a successful online experience. How those presences balance each other is determined by the designer of that experience. The teaching presence can show up as the designer, but also a facilitator of dialogue.
In Stodel, Thompson and MacDonald’s article from 2006, they discuss what appears to be missing from online learning. The themes they uncovered include robustness of online dialogue, spontaneity and improvisation, perceiving and being perceived by the other, getting to know others, and learning to be an online learner. Online dialogue can be frustrating if the balance of social/cognitive/teaching is out of whack. Students often feel that they are writing into a void. I have seen this in action in a startling manner. One student, uncomfortable with independent ideas, made a habit of copying discussion posts from other students. It would not have been so noticable perhaps, except they would copy even personal experiences. The student managed to continue this practice for over a year before any of her instructors caught on. Other students, however, warned each other. It was only the comments from students that brought this behavior to light. This is a demonstration of out-of-balance teaching presence. While this example is extreme, anyone who has taken on an online course could probably speak about unresponsiveness on the part of faculty or other students.
Face to face education includes body language that makes dialogue richer and more evocative. Online dialogue misses the physical element, the embodiment of meaning. Too often, online dialogue requires the use of emoticons or overly praise-ful responses, when in face to face interactions the conversation would be more organic and admit of disagreement.