MET:Social Presence

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This page was originally authored by Joy Penner Winter, 2012

"Social presence is a measure of the feeling of community that a learner experiences" (Tu & McIssac, 2002, p. 131). In a traditional face-to-face classroom, this sense of community is facilitated through body language, facial expressions, and voice inflection (Reio & Crim, 2006). With the increase of online, text-based learning environments with their move away from physical face-to-face teacher to student, and student to student interactions, it has become important to explore the topic of social presence and its implications for successful online learning.

Online learning can be an isolating experience


Distance and online learning is an increasingly popular mode of education (Leong, 2011). This method of learning provides students with flexibility of time and place, is more cost-effective than traditional education models (Reio & Crim, 2006 ), and is a viable option for adults with family or professional responsibilities (Kim, Kwon, & Cho, 2011). However, while online learning has many positive affordances, there exists some major difficulties as well. "Dropout rates for online learning courses are believed to be 10-20 % higher than for traditional courses" (Leong, 2011, p. 5). A variety of factors have been found to contribute to satisfaction within the online education experience such as instructor presence, technology, workload difficulty, technical issues, professionalism, accessibility, and interaction (Leong, 2011). Interaction with instructors and classmates, or perceived social presence, has been found to be key to successful online collaboration, the amount of learner participation, and overall satisfaction (Copley Cobb, 2009; Gunawardena & Zittle, 2009; Leong, 2011; Tu, 2000).

The Theory

Learning is not just a sterile, cognitive process that happens in a vacuum, rather it is “a “social and human activity” (Reio & Crim, 2006, p. 964). Theorist such as Piaget and Vygotsky explored the significance of collaboration and community as a vital part of the learners world (Reio & Crim, 2006). Situated learning theory and activity theory promote the importance of an actively engaged community of learners. Students learn best when they are actively engaged rather than passively fed information (Leong, 2011). Collaborative learning can easily be achieved in the face-to-face classroom, where learners can interact with each other. In the online environment, this sense of closeness and connection is easily lost. Students are physically separated, and may feel isolated. Learning can become impersonal, leading to decreased participation, and a loss of community (Reio & Crim, 2006). Designers and instructors who want to be successful and effective in their course offerings, need to carefully plan their environment with social presence in mind (Reio & Crim, 2006).

Implications for Designers and Instructors

Since isolation has been shown to lead to dissatisfaction and higher attrition rates in online learning, (Joyce & Brown, 2009) it is imperative that designers and instructors focus not just on delivering excellent content, but on building a sense of community (Reio & Crim, 2006). The following three areas are key considerations: students' perspectives, instructor immediacy, and collaboration.

Students' Perspectives

Because social presence is a "perception" (Reio and Crim, 2009, p. 965) and as such it is a viewed differently by each individual student, it is difficult to create a sense of community in which every student can thrive. However there are positive steps that designers and instructors can take to ensure as many

Social needs follow basic and safety needs

students as possible feel comfortable in the environment. In his study, Wegerif (2008) found that students’ success in online learning depended largely on whether they were able to move from "feeling like outsiders to feeling like insiders"(p. 48). Designers and instructors need to make it their goal that all students will consider themselves insiders by the end of the course. In his hierarchy of needs that lead to motivation, Maslow placed social needs third highest on the list, after physiological and safety needs. Supporting or scaffolding learners is a key component to creating this community and can be achieved according to Joyce & Brown (2009) by incorporating social software communication tools, which are well-suited to helping students achieve the status of insiders.

Instructor Presence and Immediacy

Teachers in the physical classrooms know well that they must create a community, and find out what their students know in order for learning to occur.  Most teachers dedicate a significant portion of time at the beginning of the year to allowing the class to get to know each through various activities.  This is all easily done in the physical classroom where learners can see each other and interact face-to-face, but may break down in an online setting that tends to isolate. In the online course environment, it is the instructor who leads the way in setting the tone for the community. Speaking to online learning instructors,  Anderson (2008) advises them to "make time at the commencement of their learning interactions to provide incentive and opportunity for students to share their understandings, their culture, and the unique aspects of themselves" (p. 48). After the initial phase, ongoing, timely contact is vital in order to maintain and grow the sense of community. In ""Building Instructor and Social Presence"" one in a series of videos primers on e-Teaching and e-Learning, Professor Curt Bonk of Indiana University, Bloomington gives the following suggestions for instructors:

  • Introduce yourself
  • Recap events
  • Announce next steps
  • Be available - give hours of availability, and contact info
  • Use video to show a visual of yourself/ embed your voice in various places
  • Give personal information, but not too much
  • Contribute to discussion
  • Use student's names
  • Follow up on struggling students
  • Reply to questions, concerns promptly
  • Learn about social presence/subscribe to a group such as Ning
  • Integrate technology
File:Join Our Team.jpg
Collaboration enhances a sense of community


While it is key in online learning to build up social presence, it is not the only goal. The ultimate goal is a rich learning environment, and requires more than just student introductions and instructor welcome messages (Kim, Kwon, & Cho, 2011). Even with interaction built in such as the ubiquitous online discussion forum, students may still feel like outsiders (Reio and Crim, 2006). Establishing social presence sets the stage for interaction which when built upon, leads to collaboration (Murphy, 2004). True collaboration occurs when students work together towards the goal of creating a tangible, "shared artefact" (Murphy, 2004, p. 423). The opportunity to collaborate in a small group further enhances the student's sense of community, and provides a platform for deeper learning.

Tools and Activities to Enhance Social Presence

File:Social Media Landscape.jpg
A variety of social networking tools can enhance social presence[1]

A variety of activities and tools are available to enhance social presence in an online learning forum. Many of these tools are available within the Learning Management Systems (LMS) that schools already use such as Desire2Learn, Blackboard Learn, or Moodle. Others can be found on the Internet and may be integrated or used alongside the existing platform. Using tools that students are already familiar with, will likely result in a greater willingness to participate (Joyce & Brown, 2009) and will enhance social presence. Kesim and Agaoglu (2007) suggest some key affordances of social networking tools:

  • delivers communication between groups
  • has new tools for creation of knowledge
  • enables communication between many students
  • provides sharing resources

The following table highlights some activities, their affordance for social presence, and examples of tools.

Activity Affordance Example
  • Students learn about instructors through personal or professional websites
  • Place for group members to collaborate
  • Connecting with instructor
  • Connecting with individuals and groups
  • Skype
  • Email- personal or within LMS (Can be enhanced with YackPack)
  • Text
  • Twitter
  • Phone Calls
  • Instructors can get to know students better
Introductory Activities
  • Provides a way for everyone to get to know each other
Sychronous meetings
  • adds a human touch of presence
  • voice adds a further dimension
  • Skype -chat or voice
  • online chat with course management system
Discussion Forums
  • allows collaboration and interaction for instructors and students
  • asynchronous nature allows students time to formulate their thoughts ahead of time
Podcasts and Video Stream
  • Allows students to see or hear the instructor adding another dimension to the predominantly text environment
  • Students an use it for various activities allowing others to see the voice and face behind the name
Social Bookmarking
  • Builds the knowledge base for the course through pertinent and timely information
  • Enables students to have contact in a platform outside of the course
  • Collaboration

See Also

  • Fabri, M., Moore, D., and Hobbs, D. (2004). Mediating the expression of emotion in educational collaborative virtual environments: An experimental study. International Journal of Virtual Reality, 7(2) 66-81. Retrieved from

Stop motion video

Video by Elske Ammenwerth: Social presence (5').


  • Cobb, S. (2009). Social presence and online learning: A current view from a research perspective. Journal Of Interactive Online Learning, 8(3), 241-254. Retrieved from
  • Gunawardena, C. & Zittle, F. (1997). Social presence as a predictor of satisfaction within a computer‐mediated conferencing environment
. American Journal of Distance Education, 11 (3). Retrieved from
  • Joyce, K. M., & Brown, A. (Winter, 2009). Enhancing social presence in online learning: Mediation strategies applied to social networking tools. Online Journal Of Distance Learning Administration, 12(4). Retrieved from
  • Murphy, E. (July, 2004). Recognising and promoting collaboration in an online asynchronous discussion. British Journal of Technology, 35(4), 421-431. DOI: 10.1111/j.0007-1013.2004.00401.x
  • Schutt, M., Allen, B. S., & Laumakis, M. A. (2009). The Effects of Instructor Immediacy Behaviors in Online Learning Environments. Quarterly Review Of Distance Education, 10(2), 135-148. Retrieved from
  • Tu, C., & McIsaac, M. (2002). The Relationship of Social Presence and Interaction in Online Classes. American Journal Of Distance Education, 16(3), 131-50. Retrieved from
  • Tu, C.H. (2000). Strategies to increase interaction in online social learning environments. In D. Willis et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education. International Conference 2000 (pp. 1662-1667). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
 Retrieved from

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