Do we need ‘social butterflies’ in Online Learning Communities?

 Part 2 in a 3 part series on Presence in online learning communities.

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.”

students sitting in health classIn 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Encourage students to join [program/school] Facebook Page, if you don’t have one, create one.
  5. Suggest students use social tools for collaborating. Example Skype, Google Docs, Facebook or Google +Hangouts.
  6. Use discussion forums  with well crafted questions that will promote meaningful dialogue.
  7. 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.

Related Posts:
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.

8 thoughts on “Do we need ‘social butterflies’ in Online Learning Communities?

  1. Pingback: Post 2 – Online Teaching and Learning

  2. rojaennam

    The need and importance of social presence in online learning communities is very well explained in the article.

    In face-to-face setting, verbal and non-verbal cues help the people to know about each other and form the impressions. These impressions create a feel of social presence and result in sense of warmth and comfort. Usually online learning communities focus on task based contexts(assignments, course related discussions) and ignore non-task contexts. Non-task contexts have exchange of daily life and informal information, which helps people to develop a sense of community . Regarding creating social presence in the online learning community, along with the points mentioned in the above article I would say that embedding the social media like twitter in online learning communities would help in exchanging the information about daily life activities, which serves as a non-task context and would help to create social presence.

    Along with creating the social presence, twitter also can be used to keep track of due dates and assignments through a feed. Rather than using email chains to coordinate the assignments ,students can use twitter to collaborate with other students. Hash tags can be used to find more and more related and interesting concepts. The questions posted in twitter are quickly answered as people spend a lot of time on social media.


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  4. Pierre Laberge

    What I worry about, is that people are not all honest, or street smart.
    In the good old days, the Prof/Teacher actually knew something, and could actually teach. And if they chose, the students could show up, and actually learn something. You got to meet your fellow classmates. You got human interaction. You learned pretty quickly who you could trust and who you could not. You actually got to see and meet the people you were in a programme with. And the Profs/Teachs got to see who they were teaching. Often the Profs/Teachs learned a fair bit from the students.
    The Prof/Teach had some control over the class, and could “advise” or even “discipline” students about improper behaviour. In person. Which worked most of the time. Now with all this e-learning, where there is no Prof teaching and in control, well, soon, the schools will have a computer do all the work… Computers can even grade tests and assignment papers, and essays now. (It’s ok, Profs/teachers, I’m sure you can all learn to say “Do you want fries with that?”)
    But, with no one in control, and everything virtual, I can see that some evil guy will sign up for a course, and seduce some young 20-something blonde. After all, his “net persona” can be anything he wants it to be. He could even try steal your identity. And then, the lawsuits! This will, of course, destroy a few colleges or universities. (Actually, this may be a good idea, as we have far too many of them. Do a census. You will see.) Kinda like the “Penn State Thing” on acid…
    And since we are all netizens now, and few people meet each other…. We will all soon lose the ability to interact with other humans. This is a skill, a branch of knowledge you either learn when young, or never learn. Welcome to “A Brave New World”. Welcome to “When the Machine Stops”. We will go from social misfits who have some knowledge and respect for human interaction, and their fellow humans… To people who have almost none. Gee, if they ever get their hands on guns or explosives….
    Then again, with everybody writing their own textbooks now, and no standardization, this will make life interesting for business. For how can business rely that Professor H’s book, and “guidance” (Since no teaching is done, any more) are as good as Dr, J’s? And there will be some scandals. Bet on it.
    This “I wrote my own book” stuff may be great for artsy fartsy stuff like “Medieval History”, or “Art in the XX Century”, but how it will translate into practical use in “Cost Accounting”, or “Metal Stress Engineering”? Ah, well, there’s the rub.
    I am not saying that all this new stuff is wrong. But I am saying this: We may want to be more careful as to how fast we go, and and where we go, and how we go, before we go over a cliff. Somebody better think about the problems. And have answers, soon. Because we need them, now!
    In the ancient days, you might find a Plato or a Euripides to apprentice to. Or you could apprentice to some jerk…. That is why universities and colleges were founded. To gather pools of experts together. That is why large publishing firms were founded. Houston Publishers, could pick and choose and find the very best experts in Biochemistry to write a textbook. And when they put out their book, why not only one, but maybe 10 universities would review and vet it. So one knew what kind of quality one was getting out of a textbook or a prof, or a course, or a school. But we may be going back to the days of Plato. Where you might get a Plato or a jerk, and not know until it was too late. Yes, this did happen before. But usually the jerks got tossed out or moved into research.
    Also, with universities now giving away their courses, to anyone over the web… one wonders, who will pay the bills to keep the lights on…. Especially after the young Blonde 20-something sues them because she got ravished by a guy in her internet based “Pop Music Through The Ages” course?
    Me, I’d like a few answers to some of these questions. And those pesky taxpayers? Expect them to want some answers soon, too.
    Nothing wrong with the ideas above. But there are no safeguards.


  5. Pingback: Do we need ‘social butterflies’ in Online Learning Communities? | One Change a Day

    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      Hi Andrew, Excellent point – I agree LinkedIn is an essential tool for students [of all ages] to be familiar with. You also highlight another consideration – educators need to help students identify the various social tools, and the purpose of, and most effective use of each. Good to know about the discussion forums. Thanks for your input.



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