Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Social presence in online education

Students often report feeling disconnected from their peers in online or distance education courses and may feel isolated from their instructor. What some have characterized as a sense of “community,” or interconnectedness, in the online realm has been constituted as “social presence” (MacIsaac & Gunawardena, 1996), defined as the degree to which a person feels “socially present” in a mediated situation.

Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2010) provide a succinct summary of the genesis of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) theoretical framework that encompasses social, cognitive and teaching presence concepts. Caudle (2013) explored challenges associated with establishing teaching and social presence using a sociocultural theoretical perspective while Hosler (2012) examined student perceptions of cognitive and teaching presence when facilitating critical thinking in online discussions.

In the field of computer-mediated communication (CmC) and online learning, the concept of social presence appears to be associated with students’ sense of engagement and belonging in virtual communities (Kehrwald, 2010; Moody & Wieland, 2010). Three (3) conceptions of social presence (Caspi & Blau, 2008) have emerged that might help instructors plan for student support in online educational settings: a subjective quality of a medium that determines the quality of the communication and perception of others; self-projection onto the group; and identification with members of the group – i.e., group identify.

Social presence appears to be important for supporting online learning by establishing a convenient climate for interaction and collaboration. It may also “contribute to the socioemotional source of perceived learning while leaving cognitive sources unaffected” (Caspi & Blau, 2008, p. 335). Social presence may provide online students with subjectivity (Kehrwald, 2010), which may be especially critical for students from cultural or linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

Chat has emerged as an accessible synchronous tool that can increase interaction in online or web-based instruction (Hines & Pearl, 2004). Studies of chat use suggest that it can support greater development of social relationships and class culture (Im & Lee, 2003/2004). For example, Kirk (2000) found that synchronous CmC promoted development of group identify and caring amongst students.

Im & Lee (2003/2004) report that synchronous CmC may be more suitable for building social and affective elements of sense of community. Park (2007) describes the potential benefits of combing CmC forms for group support and collaboration: “Such support is realized through using interpersonal and affective communicational features to seek and build rapport, social presence and cohesion, and solidarity” (p. 152).

My own experiences with synchronous CmC reveal evidence, including analysis of a chat transcript that reveals emotional support for a student and student survey data, suggesting that use of chats may improve some students’ sense of social presence in online or hybrid courses. We use synchronous chat in online courses, for advising students in our online program, and view social development and support as a critical element of overall program quality.

Online instructors and program coordinators should consider use of both asynchronous and synchronous CmC tools to promote intellectual, or cognitive, and psychological, or affective, student development. Social presence provides a conceptual lens for exploring social elements of learning online and synchronous chat may be one tool for enhancing students' sense of community. Failure to address students' social and personal needs in online environments may negatively impact their perceptions of the overall quality of their online experiences.


Caspi, A. & Blau, I. (2008). Social presence in online discussion groups: testing three conceptions and their relations to perceived learning. Social Psychology of Education, 11(3), 323-346.
Caudle, L.A. (2013). Using a sociocultural perspective to establish teaching and social presence within a hybrid community of mentor teachers. Adult Learning, 24(3), 112-120.
Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2010). The first decade of the community of inquiry framework: A retrospective. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1-2), 5-9.
Hines, R.A., & Pearl, C.E. (2004). Increasing interaction in web-based instruction: Using synchronous chats and asynchronous discussions. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 23, 33-36.
Hosler, K.A. (2012). The importance of course design, feedback, and facilitation: Student perceptions of the relationship between teaching presence and cognitive presence. Educational Media International, 49(3), 217-229.
Im, Y., & Lee, O. (2003/2004). Pedagogical implications of online discussion for pre-service teacher training. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 36, 155-170.
Kehrwald, B. (2010). Understanding social presence in text-based online learning environments. Distance Education, 29(1), 89-106
Kirk, R. (2000). A study of the use of a private chat room to increase reflective thinking in pre-service teachers. College Student Journal, 34, 115+.
McIsaac, M. S., & Gunawardena, C. L. (1996). Distance Education. In D. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology (pp. 403–437). NewYork: Simon&Schuster.
Moody, R.A. & Wieland, R.L. (2010). Using videoconferencing to establish and maintain a social presence in online learning environments. Educational Considerations, 37(2), 18-21.
Park (2007). Interpersonal and affective communication in synchronous online discourse. Library Quarterly, 77(2), 133–155.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On adopting Quality Standards

Quality does matter

As is typical, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about quality in online courses.  It’s usually on my mind in part because it’s my job, and because I hold teaching and learning, and access to learning as integral to my philosophy. I often find myself reflecting on what I know that we do at our university and what I want us to do.  I really believe that we can do better and frequently have ideas for how.  Of course, university politics and process usually slow me down.

A few years ago our institution finally adopted the QualityMatters ™ (QM) standards for online and hybrid courses.  I advocated often for adoption, to our faculty governance council, to our administrators who influence or make these decisions, and to faculty who had more influence than I in such matters.  Now a few years later, we are members, but not much further in implementing these standards across the university.

Quality Matters is, in my thinking, the closest thing to national standards for online course development that we have.  It was created by higher education faculty members for higher education faculty members, initially as part of a FIPSE grant. Now, as a copyrighted and subscription based program, the QM organization continues to engage higher education faculty in the 3-year cycle of reviewing and updating the standards.  Most valuable to me is that they also publish the bibliography that informs each standard and sub-standard.  (Also see for this and additional documents.)

A little history

Through most of the dozen-or-so years that I’ve been an instructional designer and part-time faculty member at our institution, I’ve been one of a few leaders in what has turned out to be a mostly grass roots effort to engage faculty in the development and teaching of online courses.  At one point, I organized a group of faculty from various disciplines who were teaching online courses.  Our university’s online course offerings were still emerging and no fully online programs were offered yet.  In trying to gauge the external and internal environment, and anticipating changes in how our administration thought and how they would be influenced by cultural and economic shifts, I proactively suggested that our group, the Webslingers, develop our own guidelines for quality in online courses.

The process was worthwhile, if not a bit difficult at times.  The faculty received no acknowledgement for participating in this group, so adding one more thing to their list made it challenging to complete the process.  But we did.  We modeled it after several rubrics that were already developed and available from other colleges and universities.  I was thankful that they went before us!  What we all learned is that the essential elements of quality are consistent across institutions.  Some had elements not held by others, and some phrased similar things differently, but what all considered as integral to quality aligned with what we already promoted.  That was not a surprise, but still reassuring.

Although it took a few years longer than I anticipated, I was right about the impending interest and administrative support for online and hybrid courses. Our institution first engaged the faculty senate to consider making changes to the faculty handbook.  The changes included a process for formal approval before a course could be delivered online, and a requirement for faculty new to teaching online to complete a specific workshop that would lay the foundation for development online courses.  I was privileged to develop and facilitate this, and redevelop….and redevelop….actually, it’s an ongoing process! 

The approved additions to the faculty handbook included a charge for faculty governance to establish a council with a remit to recommend policy and review online course proposals.  Early in their formation I suggested that they consider the adoption of official standards, and presented to them the QM program.  It was too soon in their responsibilities and learning to understand what I was proposing and my suggestion was met with pessimism and was tabled for an unforeseen time.

Those of us in higher education know that sometimes the only way to get things done is to work behind-the-scenes to gain support.  I talked it up to anyone who would listen.  It took about a year, but I was finally invited back to the faculty council to discuss QM.  I presented the history, an earlier version of the full rubric that was available, and, I felt most importantly, the literature that QM provides that informs each and every standard.  By the end, we finally had consensus that this would be the formal recommendation, and shortly thereafter, we became institutional members.

Our QM rollout is, in my impatient mind, painfully slow because of the same factors that kept us from earlier adoption.  A draft of our proposed plan for a formal rollout was tabled over a year ago and has not yet been resurrected.  Where once we could see a need and simply address it, we are now bound by faculty governance approval. It is great to have administrative support for institutional adoption, but we are now also caught up in the higher education timeline for getting things done.

Responding to our implementation reality

The Instructional Design team here started by participating in the online QM training.  Each of us has completed between 1-3 QM workshops, moving towards Master Reviewer status, and eventually to Facilitator Certification.  Our attempt at moving the institution forward began with offering introductory sessions on what QM is including why we adopted it.  Our next step were Faculty Teaching Circles.  We have had a few departments request and receive grants for an Instructional Designer facilitated Teaching Circle.  We have additional requests coming forward.  The grants have so far been department specific, and this works well because of the way it builds community and mentorship from within each unit.  My attempt to offer an academic year First-Friday series has not yet been successful due to low enrollment - all from the same department.  A Teaching Circle is in the works for them. 

I hope that we will receive additional support to move forward with more of the formal opportunities that the QM membership offers.  I am, however, quite certain it will not happen in the timeframe that I want.  Higher Education operates on its own time!

Thanks for checking in,


Legon, R., & Runyon, J. (2007). Research on the impact of the Quality Matters course review process. Presentation at the 23rd Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning. Retrieved from:

Pollacia, L., Russell, J., & Russell, B. (2009). Developing an online program in computer information systems using Quality Matters standards.  MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5 (2), 304-315. Retrieved from


Friday, April 18, 2014

Program-level measurements

Continuing our exploration of measures of success in online or blended settings, an important item to add to course-specific factors (identified in my previous post) that reflects program-level success is program completion or graduation rate. Conceptions of student success will vary depending on educational level – K-12, community college, 4-year College, and post-graduate degree – as well as credentialing requirements, but completion of the courses required for graduation is a critical measure of program success.

Concerns about students’ persistence in online or blended programs surfaced shortly after institutions started offering these programs. Rovai (2003) explored research on this phenomenon and described a composite model to explain persistence and attrition in online courses and programs.   

A definition of retention that applies to online or blended programs comes from Boston, Ice and Gibson (2011): “the progressive reenrollment in college, whether continuous from one term to the next or temporarily interrupted and then resumed” ( 38). Students in online programs may not complete courses each term, based on lack of resources, changes in their profession, personal or professional commitments, etc., but should eventually complete their degree. 
A broader conception of online program success from Kuh et al. (2006) includes the following factors: “academic achievement, engagement in educationally purposeful activities, satisfaction, acquisition of desired knowledge, skills, and competencies, persistence, attainment of educational objectives, and post college performance” (p. 7). This definition reflects a more comprehensive view of student experiences and expectations in online or blended degree programs. 
A popular measurement of student satisfaction in higher education institutions are student course evaluations (SCE). An analysis of 2-years of SCE data comparing our students’ perceptions of graduate course quality resulted in NO statistically significant differences based on course format – hybrid vs online. 

As part of our evaluation of a blended and online graduate degree in educational technology, we analyzed student success, by format, along with GPA and retention, where retention includes the number of students who withdrew after the term started AND those who received a failing grade in the course. For the 2011-2014 academic years, our graduate courses had retention rates of 98.8% in online courses and 97% in hybrid courses. We are still analyzing measures of student program success and will share that information in a future posting.
Other measurements of student success in online programs include interactions and a sense of community. Interactions are often cited in the research as linked with student satisfaction in online educational experiences and we will explore conceptions of interactions in future postings. Exter et al. (2009) report on a study that measured students’ program-level sense of community and its possible link with overall success. A challenge for those implementing and supporting online programs is how to measure students’ sense of community at the program level and actions that can be taken to improve this affective element of students’ experience.  
Knowing how many students complete an online program and graduate is an important indicator of success. Identifying factors contributed to students’ failure to graduate is equally critical, especially if our goal is to improve graduation rates. This becomes especially salient as the marketplace for online courses and programs grows to include non-traditional educational institutions and stakeholders select programs based on their individual criteria. 



Boston, W.E., Ice, P., & Gibson, A.M. (2011, spring). Comprehensive assessment of student retention in online learning environments. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 14(1). Retrieved from:

Exter, M.E., Korkmaz, N., Harlin, N.M., & Bichelmeyer, B.A. (2009). Sense of community within a fully online program: Perspectives of graduate students. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 10(2), 177-194.

Kuh, G.D., Kinzie, J., Buckley, J.A., Bridges, B.K., & Hayek, J.C. (2006). What matters to student success: A review of the literature. Commissioned Report for the National Symposium on Postsecondary Student Success: Spearheading a Dialog on Student Success. Available online:

Rovai, A.P. (2002). In search of higher persistence rates in distance education online programs. The Internet and Higher Education, 6, 1-16.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Measuring student success in online or blended courses

Course-level measurements

Continuing our focus in this blog on student success in online and blended settings, we start with a clear and concise definition of what constitutes “success.” Deka & McMurry (2006) offer the following baseline definition: “Two common indices for measuring success are class grade and retention rates(p. 2). Different educational institutions and stakeholders might have additional criteria they would include in this definition, but these seem appropriate as a starting point. 

We could consider use of GPA instead of letter grade, to make the data easier to manipulate, although this will vary based on institution and educational level. A passing grade (Pass or C/D) might equate with academic success, measured as an indicator of student learning, although receiving credit with a poor grade may ultimately impact student status in a program based on a reduction in overall GPA putting them in academic jeopardy. In our institution, for example, grades below a C require graduate students to retake the course and impact their overall GPA.  
The 2nd indicator of success - retention rate - offers nuanced uses for how it is measured and what it reflects. Retention might include the number of students who originally enrolled in and completed an online or blended course, or it might exclude those who dropped the course before the term started. In either case, retention is typically measured using a ratio or % of students who successfully completed the course compared with those who did not. 
This is also referred to as persistence in the literature and should consider the number of students who fail the course along with those who do not complete it. Hart (2012), in her review of the literature on student persistence, provides a more nuanced interpretation of persistence, contrasting it with attrition – withdrawal from an online course - and identifying factors that might contribute to persistence in online programs.    
In the K-12 domain, Ronsisvalle and Watkins (2005) identified the following as measures of success in online courses and programs: academic performance (successful completion), retention (enrolling in future courses), academic achievement (performance and grade distribution), and stakeholder satisfaction (parent, student, teacher, etc.)" (p. 122). 

Ultimately, consideration of student success in online or blended courses should lead to questions about factors that influence failure or success. These might include those attributed to a student, to the instructor, and those outside the control of both – i.e., personal situations, parental support, institutional support, LMS, etc. See previous blog postings by Jason for more on identifying students who may struggle in online or blended courses or programs.

In my next post, I will explore program-level measurements of student success in online or blended education. 



Deka, T.S., & McMurry, P. (2006). Student success in face-to-face and distance telecasts environments: A matter of contact? The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 7(1), 1-15.

Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11(1), 19-42. 

Ronsisvalle, R., & Watkins, R. (2005). Student success in online K-12 education. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6(2), 117-124, 184.