Friday, December 13, 2013

Social Presence

Finally I would like to talk about presence in online classes. Not just social presence but cognitive presence. Not just instructor but peer presence. I think a lot of the time people argue against online classes because there is a perceived notion that there is no social interaction between students and/or instructors. They see it as a person just connecting to a computer, not other people.

Certainly there are some online classes that this may be true for. But I'm not talking about those. This blog is here to point out the best strategies when teaching online classes, making them a powerful, useful tool in education. Presence is important in this aspect. The students still want to feel like they know the instructor. Students still need the chance to interact with each other. Having social presence on your online class is one of the key factors in making it successful.

There is a brief video where some experienced online teachers share their wisdom. It is called 8 Lessons Learned Teaching Online. While all 8 things are important I'd like to discuss the two things that add to social presence. First, they suggest doing a digital storytelling as an introduction to yourself as a professor. In this way the students will get to know you as a person, not just words typed on a forum telling them what to do. They can see pictures and relate to you as a person. I also think that having them create something similar as an introduction to each of them will help create peer-to-peer presence. People love telling and sharing their stories and by using something like digital storytelling, you can make that experience personal. People see who they are discussing things with and, in my opinion, makes discussion more meaningful. Indeed Lowenthal and Dunlap, the two teachers from the video, even wrote in their article here that "stories help make meaning out of experience. Experiences, and the stories created to make sense of that experience, are the key to learning." 

There are other ways to interact and encourage interaction with your online classes. Creating an online wiki that has students viewing and critiquing each other's work; video welcome messages, and collaborative learning activities are all just a few of the things Kia Bentley suggests in her paper here. She also points out that social presence "relates to comfort levels with respect to communication, perceptions of the sense of community, the acknowledgement of other's points of view, and the absence of impersonal discussions."  This is really saying that students feel more comfortable talking to and discussing topics when they can feel that they are talking to other people.

A different study on social presence in online courses showed findings that indicated "perceived presence of instructors may be a more influential factor in determining student satisfaction than the perceived presence of peers." In other words, it is more important as an instructor to have a presence in the online classroom than anyone else.

Another aspect that is just as important is cognitive presence. On Debbie Morrison's blog she equates cognitive presence with critical thinking- where the student goes through the process of leaning (constructing knowledge, inquiring, exploring, and thinking). It is up to the instructor to create opportunities for critical thinking to happen. Some of her suggestions include discussion forums and small group activities. One can see that the cognitive presence overlaps with social presence. If you have a solid foundation of social presence in place, cognitive is sure to follow. 

The argument for online learning has to include social presence. It needs to be stressed that by taking online classes students are not isolating themselves. They still have instruction-student interaction. They still have peer-to-peer interaction. They still use what's in front of them to think critically and share their thoughts with others. Everything is still in place with online learning, but only if it is done with the best practices in mind. Having social and cognitive presence, both as an instructor and encouraging peer-to-peer interactions, will only make any online classes stronger.


Bentley, Kia. (2012). The Centrality of Social Presence in Online Teaching and Learning. Understanding Change: Making the Transition to Online Teaching. Retrieved from:

Lowenthal, Patrick, Dunlap, Joanna. (2010). From Pixel on a Screen to Real Person in Your Students' Lives: Establishing Social Presence Using Digital Storytelling. Internet and Higher Education. Retrieved from:

Lowenthal, Patrick, Dunlap, Joanna. (2013). 8 Lessons Learned from Teaching Online. Educause Review Online. Retrieved from:

Morrison, Debbie. (May 2012). Critical Thinking in the Online Classroom. online learning insights. Retrieved from:

Swan, Karen, Shih, Li Fang. (2005). On the Nature and Development of Social Presence in Online Course Discussions. The Sloan Consortium. Retrieved from:

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