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Social presence and learner-learner interaction - by R Donald, R Gallahad, S Kamal

Page history last edited by Rolf Donald 8 years, 1 month ago

Social presence and learner-learner interaction:

their role in fostering deep learning in online education 

By Rolf Donald, Richard Gallahad and Suzanne Kamal





The notion that students need to participate and interact on some level in order to succeed in educational goals is clearly uncontested.  Much has been written about how learning is a social process and therefore interaction of some sort is necessary. In fact it has been argued that by encouraging different types of learner interaction through different online tools, “two key facets vital to the process of education, [namely] the building of a community within a group and the deep understanding of ideas and issues, can be facilitated” (Motteram 2001, p.131). Thus the focus for this assignment is the role of social presence and learner-learner interaction in facilitating deeper learning.


Firstly, we need to establish what we mean by social presence and interaction.


Social presence is considered in the present time both in terms of the technology and the participants, or of “the medium and the communicators’ perceptions of presence in a sequence of interactions” (Richardson & Swan, 2003). Contemporary thought differentiates social presence from interaction, although both concepts are mutually nurturing (Belderrain, 2006). There is no single, universally accepted definition, and almost all who use the term give a slightly different definition (Lowenthal, 2009). We will explore various definitions in section one of this essay.


Moore’s definition of online interaction, written over two decades ago (1989), is still cited by many today. He identifies three kinds of interaction that influence learning in distance education:  there is an interplay between learner, content, and teacher, as seen in figure 1 below. Garrison and Shale (1990) even state that the interaction between these three components are essentially the definition of education. Hillman et al (1994) later added another type of interaction between learner and interface.


Figure 1


As we will examine in section two, interaction between these components has become much more complex in recent years with new online learning technologies and this has become a huge area of interest among educational researchers.  In their often quoted research on online interaction, Garrison et al declare that learning occurs when there is interaction in three core elements which take place in a collaborative process within a community of inquiry (2001).  This is defined as an “environment in which students can take responsibility and control of their learning through negotiating meaning, diagnosing misconceptions and challenging accepted beliefs - essential ingredients for deep and meaningful outcomes” (Garrison 2011, p.22).  The three core elements of interaction needed are social presence - which will receive further examination in the course of this essay - cognitive presence, defined as “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse” (Garrison, Anderson and Archer, 2001, p.11) and teaching presence.  The latter relates to the design and facilitation of tasks and processes which will further cognitive understanding.


Of course, these elements are vast and deserve attention individually in their own right  For the purposes of this assignment, we are focussing on learner-learner interaction as this touches all elements of the above model.  We are particularly interested in how inter-learner interaction impacts deep levels of learning.  As we examine this, we will consider the following questions:


1.  What is the importance of social presence in fostering deep learning?

2.  Is interaction between learners important in attaining deep learning?

3.  How do online synchronous and asynchronous tools affect social presence and learner - learner interaction?


1.  What is the importance of social presence in fostering deep learning?


Distance education originated with correspondence courses in the 18th century, in which passive media were utilised to allow asynchronous communications between a tutor and a learner. With the introduction of the Web in 1994, allowing increased public access to digital resources, the opportunities for online education opened up. Technological developments opened various possibilities for interaction, virtual learning communities were enabled to move beyond only web-based activities (Schrum & Hong, 2002), and interaction began to be viewed as an essential element in online courses.


Now, education has been regarded as a social practice, and consequently it was considered that any formal learning environment should provide for the social practice and process of learning. However, in the case of asynchronous text-based environments, computer mediated communication (CMC) was soon criticised from the perspective that the loss of cues normally used in social interaction would interfere with learning (Lowenthal, 2009), and that the lack of face-to-face interaction in web-based learning made it less effective than traditional classroom learning (Richardson and Swan, 2003).


Therefore, it became a focus of enquiry as to how online education can cater for the social requirement, and research began on how online course participants interact. Garrison (2011) regards this as the best place to begin thinking about e-learning, due to the medium’s ability to support levels of interactivity at a high level. As research began on interactions in e-learning, questions arose as to the degree to which social cues being filtered out in CMC determined how participants interact socially and are perceived as “being there” and able to come across as being “real” when communicating online (Lowenthal, 2009).


Cui et al (2012) suggest that among the many factors that affect the online learning experience, social presence is worthy of extended study in terms of the asynchronous nature of web-based education and the communication issues that it raises. Social presence is arguably the most popular theory used to evaluate how participants socially interact in virtual learning environments (VLE). According to Cui et al (2012) social presence is an essential starting point for research on how students feel about their online experience, primarily in consideration of “students’ frustration, dissatisfaction, less participation or even higher dropout rates” that may result from asynchronous learning environments. Social presence should also be considered with regard to the effectiveness of online instruction.


So, we must ask, what is meant by social presence? There is no single, universally accepted definition, and almost all who use the term give a slightly different definition (Lowenthal, 2009). Social presence has been variously defined as:


  • the degree to which individuals perceive intimacy, immediacy, and their particular role in a relationship (Short, Williams, and Christie, 1976)
  •  the feeling of contact obtained across various communication media (Williams, 1978)
  •  the degree of feeling, perception, and reaction of being connected by CMC to another intellectual entity through a text-based encounter (Tu & McIsaac, 2002)
  •  a student’s sense of being in and belonging in a course and the ability to interact with other students and an instructor (Picciano, 2002)
  •  the ability of participants to identify with a group, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop personal and affective relationships progressively by way of projecting their individual personalities (Garrison, 2009)


(cited in Lowenthal, 2009)


Lowenthal highlights that the various definitions tend to fall on a continuum, on one end of which social presence is conceptualised as the degree to which a participant is perceived as being “real” and being “there”. The focus of these definitions is on whether people can project themselves as being “real” in an online environment. At the other end of the continuum the focus is not only on whether someone is perceived as being “real”, but on whether there is a positive “interpersonal emotional connection” between participants. Lowenthal concludes that most researchers fall in the middle of the continuum.


Cui et al (2012) trace social presence to concepts of ‘immediacy’ and ‘intimacy’, but note that modern researchers agree that the concept of social presence was officially introduced by Short, Williams, and Christie in 1976. Short et al applied the term in the context of the psychology of telecommunications, and social presence theory developed through the study of efficiency and satisfaction related to telecommunications media (Belderrain, 2006; Cui et al, 2012). Short et al argued that the degree of social presence of the medium affects the degree of intimacy that individuals can convey, and further defined the term as “the degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships.”


This early research conveyed social presence as an attribute of the technology being applied, however the focus changed in later years. In 1995, Gunawardena redefined social presence as “the degree to which a person is perceived as a ‘real person’ in mediated communication”, while also distinguishing social presence from interaction and arguing that interactivity is potentially a quality of communication, but depends upon the realisation of its users. Therefore participants using CMC need to be made aware of the social aspect of technology use (Cui et al, 2012).


Figure 2: The History of Social Presence Theory


We shall look at interaction between learners and how interaction is affected by choices in technology presently. First we shall explore why social presence is not only important, but a “critical factor of a communication medium” (Richardson & Swan, 2003).


Social presence can be demonstrated to be of importance on two levels, both of which are essential in community building and guiding learner – learner interaction to deeper levels of understanding, which Motteram (2011) perceives as being vital in the educational process.


Salmon (2011) applies the term ‘socialisation’ to the second stage of her five-step model of the online learning experience (see figure 3) , and this can be related to the first level of social presence. We have previously considered social presence in terms of presenting ourselves as being “real”, and this extends to perceiving other participants as being “real” and “there” also, to the point that relationships can be formed. Salmon presents her second stage as one of “individual participants establishing their online identities and then finding others with whom to interact.”


Figure 3: Salmon’s Five Stage Model


Therefore it has been advised that online tutors begin their courses by encouraging students to share general, personal information, and Anderson (2004) suggests that this is best achieved through the use of virtual icebreakers. These activities enable participants to “project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real’ people (Cui et al, 2012) and making all feel that they belong to the group. “This sense of belonging or presence’ enables students to interact comfortably with peers as well as instructors” (Belderrain, 2006).


Now, these directions toward a social experience extend beyond that of simply creating a friendly atmosphere such that participants enjoy a course and form new friendships (although these are important motivating factors). Socialisation is not employed blindly to facilitate chat, but exists as a developmental stage towards deeper interaction for pedagogical reasons. Salmon’s model indicates that successful socialisation (stage 2) leads participants on to information exchange (stage 3) and knowledge construction (stage 4), which takes us beyond surface communications to more critical discourse. The view that interaction doesn’t guarantee cognitive engagement is supported by Garrison (2005, p.134), as we shall consider presently.


The idea of social presence reducing personal risk and increasing acceptance becomes particularly important in critical discourse as, according to Garrison and Anderson (2011), the establishment of social presence also enhances and sustains cognitive presence. Garrison and Anderson argue that a successful education depends upon a balance of social, cognitive and instructor presence as a foundation for a critical and creative ‘community of inquiry, which is a requisite for higher learning. 


Figure 4: Garrison & Anderson’s Community of Inquiry


Such a “true learning community”, according to Belderrain (2006) places student interaction “at the heart of learner-centred constructivist” practice, “fostering student interaction” and “promoting collaboration”. Lowenthal (2009) adds that the community of inquiry model is “based on assumptions about participation,” stemming from “evidence of learners reaching higher levels of cognitive engagement as they work with others in their community, supported by teacher activity which enhances the conditions for such interaction.”


So, this focus on a community again highlights the importance of social presence in developing interaction and collaboration, and indicates that the quality and quantity of interaction can be moulded by the degree of social presence (Belderrain, 2006). The community-centred approach allows for the inclusion of a critical social component and permits us to investigate how learners can create new knowledge collaboratively, which is at the heart of social constructivism.


In summary, social presence entails establishing a community of practice in which members “support and challenge each other, leading to effective knowledge construction” (Anderson, 2004), and “successful e-learning depends on the ability of the educator to create learning environments that motivate students and facilitate meaningful and worthwhile learning activities” (Garrison & Anderson, 2011). Social presence “[empowers] participants to actively construct their knowledge rather than passively receiving information, through participation in reflective dialogue in a trusting, familiar, informal and empathic community” (Chapman et al, 2005).


2.  Is interaction between learners important in attaining deep learning?


So, we have established a critical need for creating community, and discussed how social presence helps to develop interaction and collaboration.  In this section, we will examine the impact of learner-learner interaction on deeper levels of knowledge construction, and indeed, whether inter-learner interaction is necessary in online learning.


Firstly, a brief word about the changing nature of online interaction.  Moore’s definition of the components of distance education (or indeed any type of education) have largely remained unchanged since he wrote his article in 1989.  Education is still an interaction between content, learner and teacher.  However, technology has radically altered in the ensuing period and since the advent of Web 2.0 tools, the interaction between the three has become much more complex.  Now, the idea of content is much more fluid as web tools such as wikis, blogs and forums allow students to create content as well as read it, which has changed the role of students and teachers.  Also, the plethora of synchronous and asynchronous platforms allow students and teachers to interact in new ways. Interaction is now quite complex and open to many possibilities of who or what to interact with and how.  The diagram below (figure 5) highlights some of the complexities and possibilities in online education courses.  The fast paced changes to interaction in online courses has thus received a great deal of interest and has become the focus of many studies.


Figure 5: Anderson’s Model (2004)


As already illustrated by an examination of Salmon’s e-moderating model in the previous section, collaboration between learners is essential in online courses.  After initial stages of setting up access to the course and establishing social connections with other learners, Salmon states that participants need to play a role in exchanging thoughts and ideas with the direction of the e-moderator.  According to this model, stage four concentrates on knowledge construction and this is where participants begin to interact with each other in more exposed and participative ways to reach a deeper level of learning.  Perhaps before this stage, students may have responded to online asynchronous tasks by posting messages on forums, but were not necessarily interacting with each other in a meaningful way.  At stage four, there is more critical participation between learners rather than simply responding to the material, and students begin to read and respond to each other’s messages, sharing different responses and deepening understanding by engaging in debate.  Salmon shows that at this stage, interaction between students is heightened and ideas are shaped and reshaped by a communal constructivism (2011, p.48).  This view is shared by other researchers.  Garrison and Anderson (2011, p.21) agree that collaboration is needed to achieve higher order learning; Bereiter (1992 cited in Garrison & Anderson, 2011, p.20) believes that deeper levels of learning require “a considerable amount of discourse”, and John Dewey (1938 cited in Garrison, 2011, p.20) defines interaction as a force which “unifies the subjective (personal) and objective (social) worlds” and becomes a place where ideas are generated.


Indeed, much research confirms the link between interaction and perceived learning.  Swan’s investigation (2002, p.33) into the connections between course design and student perceptions examined four areas:  student satisfaction in the course, perceived learning, perceived interaction with the instructor and perceived interaction with peers.  The results highlighted a strong correlation between levels of interaction and course satisfaction.  Also, students who rated their levels of activity as high also reported significantly higher levels of perceived learning.  It seems that learners who contribute to online discussions believe that they benefit more from the course.  Picciano (2002) reached similar conclusions.  He noticed a relationship between student perceptions of their interactions and their perceptions of the quality and quantity of learning.  When analysing assessment scores and the number of student interactions, Picciano found that learners with a high level of interaction scored significantly better on written assignments.  However, there was no real difference in exam results of students who had high, medium or low levels of interaction.  Perhaps the impact of interaction on written assignments can be explained by the fact that involvement in forums helped students to develop a sensitivity to different points of view, and also gave students the opportunity to practise shaping and articulating their thoughts, which had a positive impact on written work.  This reinforces Garrison’s notion that in an educational context, knowledge is created in a space where there is a joining of reflective and collaborative practices within a community of learners (2011, p.20).


Some writers, however, question the importance of learner-learner interaction, or perhaps the emphasis placed on it.  Sutton (2001),  for example, introduced the notion of a new mode of interaction which she labelled ‘vicarious interaction’.  A vicarious interactor, she believes, is a student who “actively observes and processes both sides of a direct interaction between two other students or between another student and the instructor”. Sutton goes on further to say that vicarious interaction takes place when a learner absorbs and synthesizes an interaction they have observed between others, suggesting that direct interaction may not be necessary for a deep level of learning to take place.  It is possible for students to observe interactions between others, internalise their own reactions to this and construct knowledge on their own.  They may mentally plan a response to the content in their heads in an internal dialogue, but not physically put it into words.  Sutton suggests that this may be beneficial for students who are shy or hesitant, and allow them to enjoy the same benefits as active direct interactors.  This does, though, have its limitations.  There is a benefit in translating thoughts into words and vicarious interactors do not gain this advantage. Also, they do not benefit from the cognitive reprocessing that takes place when learners reformulate and review ideas for public view. Drafting posts for asynchronous forums may be time consuming, yet it is in the process of writing and editing messages, and in trying to find the words to articulate thought processes, that deep learning can occur.  Yet Sutton concludes that although there are some limitations to this type of interaction, vicarious learners can still engage in deep levels of learning in a quiet way.


Beaudoin’s research (2002) certainly confirms Sutton’s work.  He studied the responses to questionnaires of a group of students who had been identified as having low levels of participation in an online course.  These learners gave many reasons for the limited interaction in the asynchronous online course.  Many simply preferred reading to writing.  Others found that they formulated their ideas mentally, but when they logged on to the discussion board, another student had posted similar thoughts.  Some students’ lack of in-depth knowledge prevented them from participating in discussions.  Yet, despite this lack of interaction with other students, these learners still spent a significant amount of time interacting with content through reading material, other people’s comments and writing assignments.  Clearly, a deep level of learning was taking place, albeit quietly, as seen in the course results.  Beaudoin’s research showed that students who had high levels of interaction achieved the best scores.  However, the group with the lowest level of online participation scored higher on written assignments than the group with average levels of interaction.  Beaudoin shares an iceberg analogy.  With this type of learner, we only see a small part of the learning processes taking place (2002, p.154), and as Kearsley (1995 cited in Beaudoin, 2002, p.154) suggests, perhaps the more autonomous learners require less stimulation from their peers.


Garrison also questions the emphasis placed on inter-learner interaction.  It is true that in his collaboration with Anderson (2011) he is very positive about peer interactions and their impact on grades.  However, in his earlier work with Cleveland-Innes (2005, p.134), he clearly states that interaction is not enough in an online learning environment.  According to Garrison, interaction does not necessarily mean that learners are cognitively engaged.  It is possible to post on forums but not participate in the process of inquiry at a deep level.  He states that of course it is important to spend time at the beginning of the course developing meaningful relationships and establishing social presence through communication and interaction, but this must be followed by a meaningful learning experience, and therefore, after this initial stage, interaction needs to become more than communication.  Again, this echoes ideas of Salmon's model as previously discussed. Socialisation is important for establishing identity and forming relationships, and then student interaction must develop into deeper engagement in order to achieve higher levels of learning"  Garrison calls for qualitative measures of interaction, not simply quantitative.  Too many studies simply measured interaction as the number of posts made, but not necessarily the depth of the ideas communicated or the level of learning occurring. Garrison’s paper outlines three different approaches to learning: 


  1. deep learning embraces content and digests it in the search for meaning;
  2.  surface learning describes when learners exert the minimum effort in order to reach learning outcomes;
  3.  an achievement approach focusses on the external reward for demonstrating learning, so learners spend time on activities that will result in the highest marks.  


Garrison’s research into different courses shows a shift in how students approached their study was strongly influenced not by interaction, but by the design of the course and the teaching approach.  Courses which had a significant teaching approach demonstrated a move towards deeper levels of learning. Garrison concludes that it is the quality of the interaction that is important, and although interaction between learners can shape social presence, teaching presence is essential if students are to move to deeper approaches to learning.  Knowledge construction between peers is an important part of the learning process, but it takes teaching presence to transition from social to cognitive presence.  There needs to be facilitation to move away from monologues in forum messages to a place of connecting the dots.  Of course, one could argue that the role of facilitation in teaching presence could be taken by learners as well as e-moderators but Garrison’s research suggests that the significant presence of a teacher can help to move learners towards more profound levels of learning.


A further aspect of teacher presence, which is also crucial to fostering deeper learning, is the interface that the e-moderator chooses as a platform for interaction. This can have a significant impact on the collaboration and cognitive presence that emerge, thus we shall now consider how the choice of online tools affects learner interaction.


3.  How do online synchronous and asynchronous tools affect social presence and learner - learner interaction?


As highlighted in various descriptions of interaction (Hillman et al., 1994; Ally, 2004), a particularity of online learning is the fact that learners need to interact with an interface. Learner-interface interaction, interaction “with the technological medium” (Hillman et al., 1994, p.33), is essential in an online setting “in order to interact with the content, instructor and other learners.” A learner will develop perceptions of an interface based on personal experience of it, and this in turn will impact on their social presence, learner interaction and levels of learning. 


Therefore, it is necessary to consider the current provision of synchronous and asynchronous tools for supporting online learning. We must also take into account learner perception of these tools, and debate how, when and why to use them effectively. Our examination must be based on an understanding of their effect on social presence and learner-learner interaction.


As mentioned in section 2, the range of communication tools for supporting online communities has expanded greatly. While tools such as discussion forums, email, wikis and blogs are often described as asynchronous (i.e. participants interact at different times) and tools such as chat rooms, instant messaging and videoconferencing systems as synchronous (i.e. participants interact in real time), Kear (2011) and Hrastinski (2008) argue that this description is over-simplistic as “many communication tools can be used either synchronously or asynchronously” (Kear, 2011, p.31). Kear gives the example of using Twitter as a microblogging tool or an instant messaging system. As ultimately “the users decide how to use a medium” (Hrastinski, 2008, p.52) learner perceptions of the benefits and limitations of these tools need to be considered as a first step to establishing their effect on social presence and learner-learner interaction and ultimately their role in facilitating deeper learning.


The following perceived benefits of asynchronous and synchronous online tools are highlighted in the literature:


  • Usability,  flexibility:  Kear (2011) reports that ease of use and the ability to customise the software were highlighted by students, while learners taking part in synchronous peer critique meetings using Adobe Connect highlighted the flexibility of the interface as the multiple channels of input enabled them “to receive more information from seeing, hearing and communicating with peers” (Park and Bonk 2007, p.254).
  • Immediacy, similarity to face-to-face communication and social presence: Hrastinki’s (2008) interviews with learners reveal that synchronous chat was perceived to be “more like talking” (p.54), and consequently beneficial, as was receiving an immediate reply. One learner remarked: “I write so to speak to the person directly and get an immediate answer” (p.54). Kear (2011, p.47) reports that the immediacy of the chat facility in the collaboration tool ‘FirstClass’ was perceived as motivational “particularly when carrying out group work.” Martins et al. (2012) also report that the private chat option in a videoconferencing system was viewed favourably, presumably as this enabled immediate private interaction. The ability to avoid ambiguity and the importance of social presence are highlighted in the following comments: “[in] synchronous communication there is little doubt as to what the other person needs, wants or means”, and “I’m looking forward to some chats so that I can feel connected again” (Park and Bonk, 2007, p.251).
  • Reflection, permanence and the ability to process – Vonderwell (2003) and Hammond (1999) both highlight the perceived benefit of an asynchronous medium for reflection and having a permanent record of contributions. Hrastinski (2008, p.53) highlights another perceived advantage, namely the ability to process information. “In the [asynchronous discussions] it is easier to find some more facts, maybe have a look in a book and do more thorough postings.”


What is clear from the literature reporting learner perceptions, is that for every perceived beneficial characteristic of a tool, there is often a perceived limitation.


  • Flexibility and  permanence – Learners reported that the flexibility of asynchronous discussion made it easier to opt out as the debate may have moved on before they had framed a reply (Hammond, 1999, p.357). This flexibility can also result in “problems related to dealing with large complex bodies of textual discussion” with students “finding it difficult to follow the discussions” (McConnell, 2006). The flexibility of multiple channels in web conferencing systems brings with it added technological complexity and the potential for communication breakdown. One report states: “It was difficult for me to follow what was being said because there was terrible echo” (Park and Bonk, 2007, p.258). The permanency of a written record can result in feelings of anxiety (Hammond, 1999) as reflected in Motteram (2001), in which a learner tells us: “I felt very insecure in knowing that my comments were going to be in writing and permanently on record. I wanted everything I said or asked to be perfect or even profound.” Here it is not only the permanency of the written word, but the perception that it needs to be of value and meaningful that creates anxiety.
  • Immediacy, lack of immediacy, impersonality and isolation – Hrastinski (2008, p.54) highlights the emphasis on quantity rather than quality in synchronous chat with the comment: “I try to write something quickly because otherwise someone else will say what I was going to say.” The immediacy of synchronous communication brings with it time constraints which are also perceived to impact on quality. There is “not enough time for everyone to think and respond effectively” (Park and Bonk, 2007, p.257). On the other hand, lack of immediacy can result in negative perceptions of an asynchronous medium. “It is a cold medium. Unlike face-to-face communication you get no instant feedback. You don’t know how people respond to your comments; they just go out into silence. This feels isolating and unnerving” (Wegerif, 1998, p.38). Vonderwell (2003, pp.83-84) found that students’ perceptions of the impersonality of the asynchronous online environment are given as a reason for not engaging in dialogue with fellow learners. “It is not like a person to person interaction. It’s more like computer to computer interaction.”


What emerges from these perceptions is that it is clearly important for learners and instructors to be aware of the different types of inter-learner interaction that may occur when using different online tools, and their potential role in facilitating deeper learning. Without this knowledge, negative perceptions of these tools may result in learners avoiding the very platforms that  best support  the  creation of social presence or facilitate the type of interaction that leads to deeper learning.


Our focus here is limited to studies comparing textual analyses of learner-learner interaction in online courses where both synchronous and asynchronous tools were used, as this is becoming much more commonplace. The findings of these studies also reflect other comparative studies in the literature as reported in Hrastinski (2008b). The tools used were: asynchronous discussion forums and synchronous chat (Chou, 2002; Hrastinski, 2008), and an asynchronous discussion forum and synchronous private messaging system in the same learning environment (Oztok et al., 2013). All three sought to establish whether the use of the tools resulted in different learner-learner interaction. Chou’s content analysis of the conference transcripts involved classifying the interactions according to whether they were task or social-emotional oriented. Hrastinki classified the language in the synchronous and asynchronous discussions according to Haythornthwaite’s (2002) three types of communication for building and sustaining e-learning communities:  content-related communication, planning of tasks and social support. Oztok et al. used  Coxhead’s Academic Word List (AWL) (2000), the Flesch reading ease score and LIWC software (Pennebaker et al., 2007) containing dictionaries focusing on the following linguistic-based categories: social processes, affective processes and cognitive processes.


What is striking about all three studies is how similar their findings were. Hrastinki’s analysis of 2 different groups reveals that between 93% and 99% of the discussion in the asynchronous tool was content-related. While this can be viewed as extremely positive, as it suggests that deeper and meaningful learning may have been taking place, it can also be viewed as worrying as only 2% of the interaction was classified as social support. “The students might feel isolated and not part of learning communities which is essential for collaboration in learning” (Hrastinski, 2008, p.53). In the synchronous discussion groups 58% was content-related, 29-34% involved planning of tasks and 13-18 % involved social support. In Chou’s study 8% of the asynchronous discussion was devoted to social-emotional content with 92% to task-oriented content. In synchronous discussion, social-emotional content accounted for 33% and task-oriented content for 67%. Chou’s study also revealed that the discussions in asynchronous communication were mostly one-way with students making comments that did not require further clarification or responses, whereas “in the synchronous communication mode, there was more spontaneous communication going back and forth” (Chou, 2002, p.6). In comparing ‘asynchronous notes’ and ‘synchronous messages’ Oztok et al. (2013) not only found that the messages were easier to read but on analysis established that they contained a larger proportion of social words. In contrast, the asynchronous notes were more difficult to read and not only contained greater use of AWL words, but also a larger proportion of words indicating cognitive processing.


These findings are particularly valuable as they not only point to the predominantly content-related nature of asynchronous discussion but also the fact that it tends to be more complex and cognitively challenging, requiring more processing on the part of learners.


Hrastinski (2008; 2008b), in seeking to establish the type of inter-learner interaction and learning supported by synchronous and asynchronous communication , draws on Robert and Dennis’s cognitive model of media choice (MMC) (2005), and Koch’s media naturalness hypothesis (MNH) (2005). Significantly both complement each other. MNH argues that asynchronous communication “leads to increased cognitive effort” (Koch, p.117), while MMC argues that it “increases the ability to process information” (Robert and Dennis, p.10). Moreover, MNH predicts that synchronous communication leads “to increased psychological arousal” ( p.117), while MMC argues that it “induces increased motivation” (p.10). While it is the user that ultimately determines whether synchronous or asynchronous communication occurs, these theories do provide a potential theoretical lens to explain some of the main learner perceptions of asynchronous and synchronous communication highlighted earlier. Hrastinki suggests that “synchronous communication makes it possible to monitor the receiver’s reaction to a message, making the receiver feel more committed and motivated to read it” (Hrastinski, 2008, p.54) and the sender is also likely to be more “psychologically aroused and motivated because he or she knows a response is likely,” whereas in asynchronous communication “the receiver has more time to comprehend the message since the sender does not expect an immediate answer” increasing the ability to process information which is likely to be more complex and cognitively challenging as highlighted earlier . While one might have expected a greater degree of cognitive processing to take place in a synchronous environment as the potential ease  and immediacy of communication enables participants to negotiate meaning through debate, this research clearly highlights that cognitive processing is best supported by asynchronous learning. 


Hrastinski’s concepts of personal participation and cognitive participation, as seen below (figure 6), support Oztok et al.’s arguments (2013, p.92) that asynchronous and synchronous online learning may complement each other.


Figure 6


Although the popularity of online courses is ultimately due to their asynchronous nature, there is a strong argument for a combination of these types of learning in supporting different types of learner-learner interaction and ultimately in facilitating deeper learning. “For the discussion of less complex issues, getting acquainted and planning tasks” synchronous communication tools should be considered. “However, when discussing complex issues in which time for reflection is needed it seems preferable to switch to asynchronous learning” (Hrastinski, 2008, p.54).




In this paper, we have shown that social presence and interaction are important components of the online learning process.  Research shows that learners who perceive that they have a strong social presence and high levels of interaction are more satisfied with their learning in online environments.  Social presence, a sense of ‘being there’ certainly fosters relationships which in turn facilitates collaboration and the possibility for deeper learning.  However, as Garrison warns, high levels of interaction do not necessarily equal profound learning.  It is possible to interact with others regularly but not engage in deeper levels of thinking.  Referring back to Salmon’s model, it is possible for learners to engage in a great deal of interaction at Stages two and three, but they need to interact in more participative and open ways in order to achieve knowledge construction.  Also, we have seen that the choice of interface can profoundly impact on the levels of interaction.  Learners’ perceptions of online platforms will impact if and how they utilise those tools.  Furthermore, there are different benefits to synchronous and asynchronous tools and perhaps, in course design, tutors need to be mindful of the fact that different tools can foster social presence and deeper levels of learning.  However ultimately, it is the learner who decides if and how they will interact  in an online environment.  Some will decide not to engage with other learners, perhaps because of their perceptions of the tools, or due to their learning styles.  Our findings in this paper suggest that although some students’ lack of learner interaction may exasperate the tutor (and other learners), course participants who do not visibly participate can still reach deeper levels of learning. Indeed, returning to Motteram’s (2001) quote in the introduction, building a community within a group is a key facet vital to the process of education, yet it must be accepted that some students on a course will not participate in that community by choosing not to manifest social presence or interact with other learners in synchronous or asynchronous mediums. Despite this, as suggested by Anderson  (2004), providing there is interaction on some level, whether with content or teacher, deeper levels of learning can be present.  




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