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Social Presence in Online Learning - Review and analysis of literature

Page history last edited by jrkoch 11 years, 1 month ago

Social presence in online learning – review and analysis of literature


Junior Koch - Pinelopi Athanasakou


*The following text is a more detailed introduction of the topic of our presentation – Social Presence. This introductory part is also covered in the presentation. For the detailed analysis, together with the conclusion and references, please refer to the presentation (link below). 



It is safe to think that users of any media (newspapers, television, radio, etc.) feel, at least to some extent, that they are transferred to a distant or artificial environment. This mental image built on their perception, based on the information they receive, and build through their experiences in the media, over time. In the modern environment we live in, we have integrated different kinds of devices that work with visual, auditory and other types of information, in our lives (e.g., video cameras, microphones, sensors).


So, the sense of presence that one feels in an 'electronically enhanced' environment is divided into two categories: the physical sense of presence, which the user feels when physically located in or close to that environment, and the social presence. There are cases where someone can feel a sense of social presence in relation to their distant partners, while simultaneously feel limited physical presence in the environment in which it coexists with them (for example, virtual/online chat rooms). In a distance-learning environment, due to the physical distance, a sense of social presence is thus considered to be essential.


Definitions, concept and importance of social presence


Richardson & Swan (2003) conducted a qualitative study in which they found that "students perceive the presence of others in their learning experience as an essential part of that experience" (p. 77).


Social presence has been defined as the degree to which a person is ‘socially present’ when taking part in any community. (Gunawardena 2005)



Tu & McIsaac (2002) describe social presence as “a measure of the feeling of online community” experienced by learners in an online environment (p. 131).


According to Witmer and Singer (1998), “presence is a multifaceted concept”, characterised by not only involvement but also control, immersion, selective attention, perceptual and sensory factors, and genuine interactions are known to affect perceived presence by learners (p. 239).


In a traditional face-to-face learning and teaching environment, the teacher is able to observe learners’ levels of engagement with the materials and with one another through auditory, visual and behavioural cues. Some cues of active engagement are:  interaction with student and teacher, body language, rising hands etc. Though this observation is arguably a challenge in online environments, since teacher-learner and learner-learner interactions often happen through media that don’t allow for visual/auditory cues.


Social presence in online environments


"Short et al. (1976), the originators of social presence theory, argued that social presence is different depending on the kind of communication medium and ranked face-to-face communication with high social presence where as computer-based communication had comparably low social presence" (as cited in Kim et al, 2011). It is known today, however, that this is not an accurate argument and it is safe to say this is only a generalisation based on inherent characteristics of both media; high levels of perceived social presence have been observed in computer-based communication and online environments, and this presence can sometimes be perceived as higher than that of a face-to-face environment. Social presence is an essential part of the community of inquiry Model (Garrisson, Anderson 2000). The community of inquiry Model identify the quality of teaching and learning interactions in online environments.

Social presence is a concept that emerged with Distance Learning and it came out of the need to overcome the distance in communication.

Garrison and Anderson have defined social presence in an online environment , as ‘the ability of participants in a community of inquiry to project themselves socially and emotionally as ‘real’ people , through the medium of communication being used.’ (2003, p. 29)


...despite the limitations of time, distance and the medium they use, they manage to produce a real relationship with the other members of this community.


The chronological phases of social presence


The first phase is in 1970’s and researchers focused on the technical affordance of the medium (audio, visual etc).Short, Williams & Christie (1976) coined the term social presence. They perceived the social presence as the medium’s quality to which people interact to each other.


“Media having a high degree of social presence were judged as being warm, personal, sensitive, and sociable” (p. 66). Believe that different media convey different degrees of social presence. In the 1990’s we have the second phase. is the period when the constructivism has great influence, so researchers consider that not only technology but also the individual’s perspective and communication preferences have a basic role in social presence.


Definitions of social presence in this era include: the degree to which people are perceived as real in a CMC environment (Gunawardena, 1995), the degree to which a person feels socially present in a mediated situation (McIsaac & Gunawardena, 1996), the ability of students to project themselves socially and emotionally, as real people (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000), and the ability to make one’s self known in a mediated environment (Savicki & Kelley, 2000). The third phase established between mid 1990’s until present. Researchers tried to understand the social presence in online learning environments. Here the individual is still the basic factor, but scholars in this phase occupied with the interactions between individuals, for example how they project themselves both socially and emotionally in a learning community (Rourke et al., 1999) or concentrate on how individuals perceive their peers in online courses (Swan & Shih, 2005).


To sum it up, social presence evolved through years and followed the educational technology.




1st phase


Initial concept of social presence

Focus on the ability of the medium to convey information



2nd Phase

1980-early 1990’s

Emphasis on individual’s preferences and not in the medium


3rd Phase


Emphasis on online learning communities and interaction

Online learning




Link to the full presentation: http://prezi.com/tqhq6w5hikpc/social-presence-in-online-learning/

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