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Literature review_Social Presence_David Berresford

Page history last edited by David Berresford 8 years, 10 months ago

Analysing the Relationship Between Social Presence and Effective Online Learning


David Berresford (7182518)



Generations of distance education technology


As the number of technological tools available for online education has grown,  the pedagogy associated with online learning environments has progressed. Based on the ever growing range of technologies, we are moving through so-called generations of online learning (Salmon 2004; Garrison & Anderson 2003). According to both Salmon (2004) and  Garrison & Anderson (2003) we are currently in the third generation, which includes both synchronous and asynchronous communication. Both authors suggest that we are moving towards the fourth, and possibly fifth generations, which will include virtual reality and mobility. As we have progressed through these generations, the focus on interaction has increasingly gained importance. Garrison & Anderson (2003) state that the key components of a quality e-learning experience are both human and non-human interactions.  



Phases of social presence


Given the growing importance of online interactions, it is probably no surprise that social presence has gained the attention of many authors in the literature of online learning (e.g. Tu 2000; Tu & McIsaac 2002; Lowenthal 2010). Garrison & Anderson (2003, p.49) define social presence 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'. Coinciding with the generations mentioned above, social presence theory has also gone through similar stages, and has been divided into three phases (Lowenthal 2010). According to Lowenthal (2010), we are now in the third phase of social presence research, which focuses on online learning environments. This essay will analyse the relationship between social presence and effective online learning.



Challenges with online social presence


Garrison & Anderson (2003) developed a framework called the community of inquiry which identified three key elements for an effective e-learning experience, including; social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence. They believe that social presence is of significant importance because the medium of communication is written text, which leads to a non-verbal community.  However, the very nature of a non-verbal community brings about challenges itself, including  immediacy and intimacy (Tu 2001). Tu (2010, p. 47) defines immediacy as, 'the psychological distance between a communicator and the recipient of the communication'. Non-verbally, these are typically generated by facial expression, formality of dress and physical proximity. Meanwhile, intimacy is a function of eye contact, topic of conversation, and smiling (Cui, Lockee & Meng 2012).


There are also issues with defining social presence itself, where the vast differences in how researchers have defined the term has had significant consequences on how people perceive social presence. Lowenthal (2010) suggested that these definitions tend to fall on a continuum. According to Lowenthal (2010), at one end of the continuum, social presence is defined as when a person is perceived as being there and being real. At the other end of the scale, emotion features in the definition, where people may experience interpersonal connections. Similarly, Biocca, Harms & Burgoon (2003) also argued that a simple here-or-not-here definition cannot accurately define social presence and that it exists along a continuum. It is these challenges that led Cui (2013) to question exactly what we are supposed to measure, when looking at social presence.



Degree of social presence


Based on the scope of theories of social presence, Tu (2000) argued that social presence is a dynamic variable, and used the term 'degree of social presence', which is based on user's perception and characteristics of the medium.  The emphasis was on different media, and the fact that people display different levels of social presence depending on the media. This led Tu (2000) to develop what he called 'three dimensions of social presence', which included; social context, online communication and interactivity. Social context is concerned with the task types, privacy issues and topics, while online communication is attributed to online language. Finally, interactivity focuses on communication styles and CMC activities.


An interesting component of social context that Tu (2001) researched was the issue of privacy. Tu (2001) states that the degree of social presence is affected by the perception of privacy. A more private setting leads to an increased perception of social presence by users. Privacy concerns could be more of an issue in certain contexts than others. For example, Tu (2001) in his study on Chinese students, found that they are concerned that their messages may be visible in online public areas. For Chinese students, this could be significant, as they may worry about saving face and prefer to avoid confrontations (Tu 2001). Therefore, for effective online learning to take place in contexts where privacy is an important consideration, the instructor may take caution to maintain students' online privacy (Tu 2001). Simple measures could be taken to prevent this from being a potential problem, such as not forwarding messages to multiple recipients, or not using videoconferencing as a medium of communication (Tu & McIsaac 2002).



A non verbal community


Anderson & Garrison (2003) pointed out that the shift towards asynchronous text-based means of communication has resulted in a non-verbal community  According to them, trying to create a social environment and community of inquiry presents special challenges. The effect of the lack of non-verbal cues on communication has been widely researched by communication theorists. One of the early researchers to review this were Short, Williams & Christie (1976, cited in Cui, Lockee & Meng, 2012), who suggested that social presence is based on the quality of the medium itself. Anderson & Garrison (2003, p.49) thus rightly questioned whether, 'cues such as body language and verbal intonation can have a profound effect on how a message is interpreted'.  However, they concluded that due to the nature of text-based communication being a relatively lean form of communication, this may not be a serious limitation, as initially thought.  They also highlighted the affordances of a text-based medium, such as being reflective, explicit and precise. How online participants interact with, and use the text-based medium could depend on the student characteristics or the nature of the task. It is here where Garrison & Anderson's (2003) Community of Inquiry model brings in other elements which seemingly support and enhance social presence, with the potential of bringing about effective online learning. One of these elements is teacher presence, and as Garrison & Anderson (2003, p.50) comment, 'appropriate teaching presence can be a very effective medium'. Richardson (2003) also examined the link between social presence and the instructor. In her study, she found that there was a relatively strong link between perceived social presence and satisfaction with the instructor. This essay will now consider the role of the instructor in helping to establish social presence and create a more effective online learning environment.



Role of the instructor


Garrison & Anderson (2003) created three categories of social presence, including affective responses, open communication and cohesive responses. Affective responses include emotions, use of humour and self-disclosure. However, Garrison & Anderson (2003) warn that certain components of affective responses, such as humour, should be used sparingly, to not isolate some students. Affective responses like this are something that could be dictated by the instructor, to some extent. The teacher may wish to introduce humour to his / her messages or thread posts gradually, keeping an eye on how well they are received, and if it encourages participants to express their own sense of humour is subsequent threads. The instructor could also start to introduce and use emoticons, which has been shown to be a good way of expressing emotions in the absence of verbal cues (Tu & McIsaac 2002). Similarly, the instructor may need to bear in mind that using too many emoticons, especially less familiar ones, too quickly in a course may create a barrier for certain students with different backgrounds. For example, Tu & McIsaac (2002) noted that Chinese students tend to ignore emoticons, as they often claimed to be able to understand the sender's emotions based on the written text alone. Therefore, Tu & McIsaac (2002) make a good recommendation that students could be provided with information on the most widely used emoticons and paralanguage at the start of the course.


Similarly, self-disclosure is another area the instructor may need to promote in order to develop students' social presence. Garrison & Anderson (2003) state that self-disclosure, such as presenting details of life outside class, is a good way of establishing relationships. However, this requires some degree of trust which will need to be built up over time. Tu (2000) suggests that text-based communications should begin with introductions. These introductions should invite students to share something about their culture, especially when there is a mix of certain cultures (Tu 2001).  Following Salmon's (2004) model of teaching and learning online, stage two of the model is where this trust is built based on mutual respect. Salmon (2004) recommends that the instructor sets up some induction activities which create opportunities for socialisation into the online group. Ideally, a unique group culture will begin to take shape at this stage where participants will feel part of the group. According to Salmon (2004) when opportunities for induction are created and are taken, participants report positive effects to their later online learning.


A final important factor of online presence for instructors to consider is the degree of open communication. Garrison & Anderson (2003), state that open communication is a direct result of positive trust and acceptance within the learning environment. They further explain that open communication encourages critical reflection and discourse. Some indicators of social presence include continuing a thread, asking questions and agreeing with others. An important consideration for instructors is whether  trust can be built quickly, or whether it's something that is nurtured over time, and what role the instructor can play to speed up the process. Again, this may change from context to context. For example, Tu (2001) notes that Chinese learners easily get nervous when they have limited time to compose a message, and they are normally cautious when communicating with their instructor, as they perceive teachers as having absolute authority and believe they must show respect. Spontaneous synchronous chat initiated by their instructor sometimes added to their anxiety, meaning that it's unlikely they will open up. In order to remove this barrier, the teacher may need to give certain learners plenty of warning about holding a synchronous discussion. Additionally, the teacher may start the course by having asynchronous discussions so that their students get to know him / her before moving towards synchronous modes of communication. On the other hand, Garrison & Anderson's (2003) present the notion that initial face-to-face meetings will boost social presence. This may be more effective in contexts where the teacher needs to gain respect of the students, not necessarily be liked.





This essay has considered the growing significance of online social presence, and how it is an area that needs more attention as we move into the third and fourth generations of distance education technologies. Moreover, the very nature of a non-verbal community has brought about new issues relating to social presence. Having looked at the various degrees of social presence, this essay has highlighted that the importance of the instructor in establishing online social presence. By considering Garrison & Anderson's (2003) three categories of social presence, the instructor can decide how various elements can be introduced in the course to establish the optimum level of social presence. By setting a good example early in the course, the instructor can make students feel welcome and build a trust, which will develop online social presence. It is when the elements of social presence and teaching presence are balanced, a quality learning environment is created (Garrison & Anderson 2003). Similarly, a balance of technologies should be considered to promote social presence. Different technologies should be introduced and used at different times to keep the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous modes. This way, there is less chance that learners struggle to keep up with the pace of the course and avoid becoming alienated. Salmon's (2004) five stage model of teaching and learning online highlights the importance of scaffolding technology and online socialisation, and is perhaps one that should be followed when considering social presence.





Biocca, F., Harms, C. & Burgoon, J. 2003, 'Toward a More Robust Theory and Measure of Social Presence: Review and Suggested Criteria', Presence: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments, vol. 12, no. 5, pp. 456-480.


Cui, G. 2013, 'Evaluating Online Social Presence: An Overview of Social Presence Assessment', Journal of Education Technology Development & Exchange, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 13-30.


Cui, G., Lockee B. & Meng, C. 2012,  'Building Modern Online Social Presence: A Review of Social Presence Theory and its Instructional Design Implications for Future Trends', Education and Information Technologies, vol. 18, pp. 661 - 685.


Garrison, DR. & Anderson, T. 2003, E-learning in the 21st Century A Framework for Research and Practice, Taylor & Francis, Oxon.


Lowenthal, PR. 2009, 'The Evolution and Influence of Social Presence Theory on Online Learning', in Kidd, TT (ed), Online Education and Adult Learning: New Frontiers for Teaching Practices (pp. 124-139), Hershey, PA: IGI Global.


Richardson, JC. 2003, 'Examining Social Presence in Online Courses in Relation to Students' Perceived Learning and Satisfaction', Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 68-88.


Salmon, G. 2004, E-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online, 2nd edn, Taylor & Francis, Oxon.


Tu, CH. 2000, 'On-line Theory Migration: From Social Learning Theory to Social Presence theory in a CMC environment', Journal of Network and Computer Applications, vol. 23, pp. 27-37.


Tu, CH. 2001, 'How Chinese Perceive Social Presence: An Examination of Interaction in Online Learning Environment', Education Media International, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 45-60.


Tu, CH. & McIsaac, M. 2010, 'The Relationship of Social Presence and Interaction in Online Classes', American Journal of Distance Education, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 131-150.


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