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.

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