Towards More Productive Online Discussions: Social Presence and the Development of Interpersonal Relations

Towards More Productive Online Discussions: Social Presence and the Development of Interpersonal Relations

Benjamin Kehrwald (Massey University, New Zealand)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-863-0.ch008
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This chapter deals with a case study into social presence in text-based online learning at the postgraduate level. The case seeks to address questions related to the social dynamics of online learning environments through a study of learner experiences with social presence. The case highlights the role and function of social presence in the development of interpersonal relations and the effects of those relations on social processes in online learning environments. The findings identify a set of social-relational mechanisms and a progression of relational states which promote understanding of social processes in text-based online environments.
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Concomitant with the emergence of Web 2.0, recent research in online learning has focused less on learning about technology itself and focused more on what learners do to learn with and through technology. Of particular interest to educators is the study of interpersonal interaction (Beuchot & Bullen, 2005; LaPointe & Gunawardena, 2004) and related social processes such as the development of relational connections (Kreijns, Kirschner, Jochems, & Van Buuren, 2004), productive collaboration (Kobbe et al., 2007; Murphy, 2004) and the development of community in online environments (Bruckman, 2004; Preece, 2001; Schwen & Hara, 2004), including learner experiences with these processes (Kehrwald, 2008; Levy, 2006; Thorpe & Godwin, 2006).

Gunawardena (1995) points out that communicative failures in online environments occur much more often at the social than at the technical level. Despite the emergence of rich media communication tools, interactions between participants in online education are predominantly text-based. The relative leanness of the textual medium limits the sociability of these environments and creates conditions which make communication in this medium potentially difficult. These limiting conditions include the lack of contextual information; significant social and psychological distance between actors created by the media (Dron, 2007); and imbalances in the sender-receiver relationship due to a lack of synchronous two-way interaction (Riva, 2002).

Paradoxically, some participants in text-based online environments cite overwhelmingly positive experiences with online learning (Rheingold, 1993; Walther, 1992). They refer to connection, depth of interactive exchanges and quality of interaction which surpass their previous experiences with other delivery modes, including face-to-face education. They cite the quality of their technology mediated relationships as indications of the power of this medium and its ability to connect people (Baym, 1998; Turkle, 1995). This experience suggests that technology mediated learning can be rich, rewarding, and indeed humane. The question that follows is: How is this positive outcome possible given the apparent limitations of the textual medium?

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