The most interesting session I attended at the 2012 Distance Teaching and Learning Conference in Madison, WI, was about instructor dispositions in online courses. This is a concept I think is really important but is often overlooked, so I was excited to find research on the topic. The presenter was Kathleen Sheridan from National Louis University in Chicago. She published on this topic back in 2010 and recently performed a follow-up study which was the topic of this session. I don't believe it is published yet.
Dispositions are "qualities that characterize a person as an individual." Dr. Sheridan explained appropriate dispositions for online instructors include kindness, having a sense of humor, dependableness, honesty, empathy, and having a positive view of the students. Dispositions make up online presence, which is different from simply being present. She described that the students get a feeling of who the instructor is when the are demonstrating the right disposition for online teaching. It isn't just the instructor sharing personal information about him/herself - actually, they found the students mostly care about what the instructor has to say about them rather than what the instructor shares about him/herself (i.e., they want personalized feedback). They also aren't that interested in synchronous communication, phone conversations, being able to see and hear the instructor, or the instructor having a personal website. I was surprised that being able to hear and see the instructor wasn't rated highly.
Dr. Sheridan gave an example of an instructor who did an excellent job designing the course but was receiving very poor student evaluations and occasional outright complaints from students. Turns out the instructor responded to discussions as if she was texting: very abruptly with no salutation. She didn't provide any personalized feedback or individualized acknowledgements of the students. In addition, she didn't check her email over the weekend but didn't tell the students when she'd be checking email or what her response time would be in general, so they felt that she was taking too long to respond. When the instructor learned to attend to these aspects, her evals were much better. She had increased her presence in the course and showed the right dispositions.
Here is a picture I took of one of her slides that sums up things online instructors can do to be more successful in creating online presence. My favorite is "Participate in discussions or don't assign them!" Her specific suggestion for students who aren't in the class is to say "We miss you in class and would like to hear what you have to say." Interestingly, she found that if you start off the class really focusing on communication and presence, it is ok to back off later in the class because you've set the right stage.