A Mixed Methods Examination of Instructor Social Presence in Accelerated Online Courses

A Mixed Methods Examination of Instructor Social Presence in Accelerated Online Courses

Patrick Ryan Lowenthal (Boise State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9582-5.ch006
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Social Presence theory seeks to explain how people present themselves as being “there” and “real” while using a communication medium. Most studies on social presence focus on how students present themselves and/or are perceived as being “there” and “real” in computer-mediated environments. However, to date, very few studies have focused on how instructors establish and maintain their own social presence in online learning environments. The following study explored the phenomenon of instructor social presence in accelerated online courses. The results suggest that the construct of presence is more complicated than previously thought and that future studies should employ multiple methods to further explore the concept of instructor social presence.
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Many people, faculty included, remain skeptical of online learning (Jaschik & Lederman, 2014). While most of the critics of online learning focus on whether or not students learn as much in online courses as face-to-face courses, there is a deep seated fear that online learning will eventually replace the “teacher” and that students will end up taking teacherless courses online (Shank, 2008; Wilson & Christoper, 2008). Proponents of online learning, however, have been arguing for some time that there is a successful instructor behind every high quality online course (Dunlap, 2005; Wilson, Ludwig-Hardman, Thornam, & Dunlap, 2004). High quality online courses are designed and taught by real people. However, this is often overlooked because the role of an instructor changes in online courses (Kearsley, 2000; Palloff & Pratt, 1999, 2001, 2003). Online instructors are often no longer at the center of every interaction. Instead, they often find themselves intentionally acting more as a moderator or facilitator of learning (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005)--becoming more of a “guide-on-the-side.” This approach, though, can become problematic when students begin to question an instructor’s presence in the online classroom (Smith & Taveras, 2005).

Previous research on online learning has shown that students can feel isolated and alone in the online classroom (Kilgore & Lowenthal, 2015; McInnerney & Roberts, 2004). Students need to get a firm sense that they are not alone and that there are other real people in the class with them; that is, students need to get a sense of social presence. Research on social presence has illustrated the importance of being perceived as being “there” and “real” in the online classroom (Lowenthal, 2009). For instance, researchers have shown that there is a relationship between social presence and student satisfaction (Gunawardena, 1995; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Richardson & Swan, 2003; So & Brush, 2008), social presence and the development of a community of learners (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001; Rovai, 2002), and social presence and perceived learning (Caspi & Blau, 2008; Richardson & Swan, 2003) to name a few. However, despite the growing body of research on social presence, very little research has focused specifically on the unique role of instructors and the arguably even greater need for instructors to establish their own social presence in the online classroom. Immediately establishing an instructor’s presence can be challenging because it takes time to develop presence—especially in completely text-based environments (Tidwell & Walther, 2002; Venable, 2011; Walther, 1996). Establishing social presence then becomes even more challenging in accelerated online courses that are offered in abbreviated formats (e.g., an 8-week as opposed to 16-week format). As more and more institutions begin to offer accelerated online courses—whether during the fall and spring semesters or only during the summer—instructors and instructional designers need to better understand how instructors establish their own instructor social presence in accelerated online courses. Given this, the purpose of this study was to explore the construct of instructor social presence in accelerated online courses.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Instructor Social Presence: The way an instructor establishes oneself as a “real” person and “there” using communication media while teaching.

Asynchronous Threaded Discussions: Online discussions that take place within a learning management system over time (e.g., over a given week).

Social Presence: Establishing oneself as “real” and “there” using a communication medium.

Community Of Inquiry: A framework that posits that a meaningful educational experience consists of teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence.

Mixed Methods Research: Research that employs quantitative and qualitative approaches to study a problem or phenomena.

Accelerated Online Courses: Formal for-credit online courses offered in a compressed format (e.g., a 16-week semester course is offered in an abbreviated 8-week format).

Teaching Presence: The design and facilitation of social and cognitive processes toward an educational goal.

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