Social Presence in an Online Learning Environment

Social Presence in an Online Learning Environment

Susan J. Crim (University of Tennessee, USA) and Thomas G. Reio (Jr., Florida International University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-906-0.ch039
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Limited studies on social presence in online learning do not lend themselves to understanding its effects on student learning. Research indicates a heightened need for examining the relationship between social presence and perceived learning and satisfaction as well as retention in online courses. Incorporating social presence into online courses might promote better learning. Further research on learning in an online environment is necessary to guide educators in delivering the best educational environment.
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Social Presence in an Online Learning Environment

As learning is a social and human activity (Vygotsky, 1986), the ability of individuals to communicate and work together in groups is a vital interest of online educators. Social presence has emerged as an important factor in the field of distance education as online learning is sometimes considered as a medium for social isolation and thus a detriment to group interaction (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Wheeler, 2005, 2009). Social presence refers to an individual’s perception of the quantity and quality of interpersonal communication in an online learning environment. Perceptions of low social presence are linked to feelings of disconnectedness and poorer group interactions; on the other hand, high social presence enhances group engagement and learning (Wheeler, 2005). Individual perceptions then are an important consideration for designers and instructors when making decisions about the selection of technologies and pedagogies employed in course design.

Two-way communication is crucial for a successful educational transaction to occur (Garrison, 1996). The ability to express and share ideas among learners and with the instructor promotes collaboration and deepens the learning experience. Ostensibly, deep and meaningful learning is the central goal of higher education and in the corporate learning context. More specifically, it is important to understand how social presence can make the nature of online learning more interactive, appealing, engaging, and intrinsically rewarding leading to an increase in academic and social integration that results in increased persistence and course completion.

Providing online educational environments that best meet the needs of learners is a critical concern for educators. As technology in and of itself does not promote or ensure a successful learning experience, it is important for educators to know how to develop and plan learning opportunities and strategies in online courses that would be most effective in meeting the learner’s needs. If sustaining interactions in which collaborative construction of meaning among learners is an objective, then it is essential that a learning environment be most adept at meeting the learners’ needs regarding not only cognitive development, but also social presence and collaborative learning at a distance. The objective of this chapter will be to explore the links between online learning and social presence.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Presence: A sense of intimacy and immediacy or the salience of the other in a mediated communication leading to increased enjoyment, involvement, task performance, and socio-emotional interaction. In other words, a student’s sense of belonging in a course or group and the ability to interact with others, although physical contact is not available.

Learning Community: The term is often applied to online courses in which the instructor attempts to encourage class participation, discussion, and a high level of learner-learner interaction.

Asynchronous: A communication method that does not require that the sender and receiver be present simultaneously at their computers for communication, such as email and discussion board. This is a time- and place-independent communication method.

Online Learning: The use of computer technology in delivering instruction primarily through the World Wide Web (WWW). Online courses typically use Web-based courseware or a combination of Web and email communication. It is also referred to as computer-mediated communication/instruction. Interaction between the instructors and learners and among the learners in this study is asynchronous.

Immediacy: The extent to which selected communicative behaviors enhances physical or psychological closeness in interpersonal communication. Such immediacy-producing behaviors include both verbal and nonverbal communication.

Distance Education: In general, distance education is defined as teaching and learning activities that occur with technology when the learners and the instructors are separated at a distance. It is an educational environment where (a) the instructor and student are separated during the main mode of instructional delivery so there is limited regular contact between instructor and students; (b) various media (print, audio, video, or computer) can be used to transmit content; (c) there is some provision for two-way communication in the educational-instructional process; (d) people tend to receive instruction individually or in small groups.

Intimacy: The sense of close connection one feels in a relationship.

Interaction: The communication that occurs between the learner and content, the learner and instructor, and the learner and learner.

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