Does it matter if students are social in an online learning community? Should we be concerned if students lurk in the background, not participate, be a [virtual] wall flower? At first blush you might think so. Isn’t this a benefit of online, letting learners choose their level of participation? I’ll take a stand on this – not OK. It’s not beneficial to learn in a vacuum, though in the ‘virtual’ world this is exactly what can [and does] happen. In one of the MOOC‘s I participated in (for a short stint that is), I remember reading a post of one of the participants who said she much preferred learning online because she could fade into the background, and participate minimally or not at all, and not be called out.
This may be preferred by some, yet much research contradicts – it appears that students want social connection – in fact one study by Swan and Shih discovered that learners who perceived a strong social presence recorded higher scores of perceived learning, and cited learning from their peers as a benefit (2005). Another study, conducted in an online community [albeit within a social gaming platform as opposed to a learning community], examined the effectiveness of member’s engagement and repeat visits in a group gaming environment. Results revealed that when there was visual representation of group member, in other words a profile picture, the study participants exhibited higher levels of engagement [return visits to the site] and longer participation times. (Gaytan & McEwen,2007). The implications for learning environments are profound, by one [seemingly] simple action, a learner uploading an image of him or her self in the learning platform, a sense of social presence is supported.
What does social Presence look like?
Social presence in the online community is more abstract, intangible than instructor presence [as discussed in my last post], yet social presence, one of the three dimensions of presence required for complete learning is the most difficult to describe and create, and is further complicated because it is out of the instructors control. Social presence is felt by learners, yet is created by the course design and participation of other learners, in contrast to instructor presence which is mainly driven by instructor behaviours and participation. Hence the challenge.
And though social presence is a much discussed topic in literature about online learning, there are numerous [sometimes vague] definitions – the one I believe to be most fitting is:
“the sense where the learner feels part of the community, by demonstrating willingness to engage in communication exchanges, perceives learners and instructor to be real people, and is able to project him or herself in the online environment confidently.”
In face-to-face environments, there is a stark contrast as to how to gauge, visualize and describe social presence. In the nearby illustration, we see that the learner is present and the instructor can read the body language, make eye contact (or lack there of), identify facial expressions of learners – read the visual cues.
Why is building social presence necessary?
Social presence allows the learner to feel ‘connected’ with an emotional and personal connection to the group in order that they can express themselves socially, and eventually cognitively which ultimately leads to engagement with content and concepts. This is described in Garrison’s Community of Inquiry model, where the 3 presence dimensions are required for meaningful and effective learning to take place. It is not only this model which emphasizes the social component, Kellar’s ARCS model of motivation design for learning builds on similar principles in the Attention dimension [the 'A' in ARCS].
In years past, when I was in training and development and conducted day long [f2f] seminars, I thought that ‘social presence’ was an extra, the nice-to-have, not the need- to-have. In this context social presence, was created by the ‘rapport’ building exercises, also known as ice-breaker activities. These activities, in a sense did build social presence, and did help facilitate learning. Also I had the 3-dimensional advantage, where I could recognize when learners were bored [this happened more often than I'd like to admit], lost focus or would need to be drawn out. This is not so easy to do online. In fact, what is most interesting about creating social presence in online learning, is that activities and actions must be considered and planned for within the course design – built into the fabric of the course, and throughout the course. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty.
How to Create Social Presence Online Community?
There are a few things we have done at my workplace with our online courses to support building social presence
- Encourage learners to upload a picture or avatar to his or her profile (we use Moodle). Though we make this voluntary, about 75% of students do so.
- Create Orientation Activities just prior to classes starting. In our online program, we give students access to their course home page(s), 4 or 5 days prior to official start date of class, and among other activities we have students participate in introduction forum where they post a bio and introduce themselves and share their interests etc.
- Design learning activities which encourage group interaction (ideally small group activities). This will vary from course to course depending upon learning content and objectives, but each course has unique small group activities where groups work on a project together, conduct peer reviews and share work samples, or engage in small group discussion.
- Encourage students to join [program/school] Facebook Page, if you don’t have one, create one.
- Suggest students use social tools for collaborating. Example Skype, Google Docs, Facebook or Google +Hangouts.
- Use discussion forums with well crafted questions that will promote meaningful dialogue.
- Post discussion forum etiquette. Create and post guidelines for posting to discussion forums.
Above are only a few suggestions. There are many great resources available on the Web. I’ve included a slide share below which includes some helpful tips, and also refers to the Community of Inquiry model. Further resources listed below.
Part I: Instructor Presence in the Online Class: Key to Learner Success, Click here
Gaytan, J., & McEwen, B. C. (2007). Effective online instructional and assessment strategies. American Journal Of Distance Education, 21(3), 117-132.
Swan, K. & Shih, L.F. (2005, October). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9 (3), 115-136.