Social Presence

Social Presence

Patrick R. Lowenthal (Regis University, USA)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 7
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-198-8.ch280
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Learning is a social process (Harasim, 2002; Swan & Shea, 2005; Tu, 2000). Discourse plays a key role in the social process of learning (Harasim, 2002). Therefore, it is extremely important that we understand how students and teachers socially interact in online courses where asynchronous computer-mediated communication (CMC) is the major form of discourse. Theories of social presence help explain how students and teachers interact and learn online.
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Short, Williams, and Christie (1976) are credited with developing the initial theory of social presence. Short et al. developed their theory of social presence to explain the effects a communication medium can have on the way people communicate. Working from previous research in psychology and communication (i.e., Argyle and Dean’s concept of intimacy and Wiener and Mehrabian’s concept of immediacy), Short et al. defined social presence as the degree of salience (i.e., quality or state of being there) between two communicators using a communication medium. They conceptualized social presence as a critical attribute of a communication medium that can determine the way people interact and communicate. Further, they posited that people perceive some communication media as having a higher degree of social presence (e.g., video) than other communication media (e.g., audio).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the popularity of CMC grew, communication researchers began to apply the theory of social presence developed by Short et al. to CMC. Many of these early researchers came to the conclusion that CMC was antisocial and impersonal because social context cues were filtered out (see Walther, 1992).

In the mid 1990s, researchers with experience using CMC for educational purposes began to question whether the attributes of a communication medium determined its social presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000; Gunawardena, 1995; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Swan, 2003b; Walther, 1996). They argued that a user’s personal perceptions of presence mattered more than the medium’s capabilities. They also illustrated that contrary to previous research, CMC can be very social and personal (Gunawardena, 1995; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997) and even hyperpersonal (Walther, 1996).


Main Focus: Social Presence

Definitions of Social Presence

There is not a clear, agreed upon, definition of social presence (Rettie, 2003; Tu, 2002). Instead, researchers continue to redefine it (Picciano, 2002). For instance, Gunawardena (1995) defined social presence as the degree to which people are perceived as “real” in CMC. Garrison et al. (2000), on the other hand, defined social presence as the ability of students “to project themselves socially and emotionally, as ‘real’ people” (p. 94). Tu and McIsaac (2002) defined social presence as “the degree of feeling, perception, and reaction of being connected by CMC” to another person (p. 140). Finally, Picciano (2002) defined social presence as student’s perceptions of being in and belonging in an online course. Nearly everyone who writes about social presence continues to define it just a little differently; therefore making it very difficult for both researchers and practitioners to come to any firm conclusions about the nature of social presence.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Immediacy: Psychological distance between communicators.

Computer-Mediated Communication: Asynchronous (e.g., email or threaded discussions) or synchronous communication (e.g., chatting) conducted via a computer.

Intimacy: A communication concept that explains how people will adjust their behavior—whether online or face-to-face—to maintain a sense of equilibrium.

Interaction: The combined or reciprocal action of two or more people or objects that have an effect on each other; in online learning environments, interaction is often understood as learner to content, learner to instructor (and instructor to learner), learner to learner, and learner to interface interactions.

Teaching Presence: The design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social process for educational purposes.

Social Presence: The degree to which a person is perceived as being real and being there in mediated communication.

Online Learning Community: Broadly defined as a group of people with shared interests who come together online to collaboratively learn together.

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