Social Presence in My Online Course: How Am I Doing?

What thoughts do you have about moving from theory (social, cognitive and teaching presence) to practice (building it into your online course)?

I came across a checklist in this article which provides a simple by sufficiently comprehensive framework for evaluating my course for social presence. The framework is by Aragon (2003) but has been adapted by Lowenthal (date unavailable, in press).

Lowenthal (p. 2) quotes the following writers on their definition of “social presence”.

“Gunawardena (1995) defined social presence as the degree to which people are perceived as “real” in CMC.

Garrison et al. (2000)…defined social presence as the ability of students “to project themselves socially and emotionally, as ‘real’ people” (p. 94).

Tu and McIsaac (2002) defined social presence as “the degree of feeling, perception, and reaction of being connected by CMC” to another person (p. 140)”.

I will use the checklist I mentioned above to evaluate the measures I have taken/not taken to establish social presence in my course. In my evaluation, I will incorporate related items from Alex’s course development checklist as well.

Strategies to Establish and Maintain Social Presence (Aragon, 2003, cited in Lowenthal, in press)

  • Welcome Messages

I have developed welcome messages in both text and audio. For audio, I used Voki. I tried to make my avatar warm, friendly and informal. Those zany glasses are something I will never be caught alive in, but it adds to the approachable persona I want to project. I want my students to look at the avatar and be delighted and surprised, in the same way I was when I saw and heard Alex’s avatar. I used a red frame to give my site a dash of colour so that the visual atmosphere is lively, bright and inviting.” In the welcoming message, I also attempted to come across as accessible and interested. This will set the tone that I intend to keep throughout the course. In keeping with the friendly mood, the Voki background is a swimming pool with palm trees! I have attempted to set a welcoming atmosphere in my course.

I think a welcoming online environment is vital, not only at the beginning of the course. It should permeate the entire course. It is established by the instructors tone. In Alex’s checklist, she listed four items which I tried to address. I did attempt to create a personal, interesting and inviting tone through the course. In terms of language, I framed my instructions using pronouns like “you” in order to speak directly to the students. I eliminated structures like “students will” in favour of “you will”. I also used “we” many times throughout the course to give the students a sense of community.

I will re-examine the tone of the language because I suspect that some of the instructions sound a little bit curt. It is difficult to balance between being precise and being warm.

  • Incorporate audio

When I reviewed my course, I found it very silent – like a library at 8.00 pm in summer. It felt like there was no one there. The environment lacked presence. This is the surest way to induce a feeling of transactional distance between the students and myself. As soon as I became aware of it, I immediately set out to do something about. I decided that for each module, I will introduce at least one personalized audio file, either in the form of a Voki, a voicethread or a screencast. According to Joyce & Brown (2009), “an increased sense of presence leads to a better perception of social connection”.  So far, I have either audio or video in every module except for the last module. I plan to record something soon, although I am not sure what it will be.

Multimedia Web 2.0 tools have been a boon for my class in terms of enhancing social presence. However, some of the tools I used were not interactive, but rather presentation tools like One True Media and Jing. However, they still play a vital role in creating a sense that there is a human teacher present. This presence is essential in helping students to feel they are that communicating with people instead of objects (Short, Williams, and Christie, 1976, cited in Joyce & Brown, 2009). Other Web 2.0 communication tools which I have used to promote interaction and communication are blogs, voicethread and diigo (social bookmarking). These tools have proven to be remarkable effective in my present course and I am convinced that their inclusion in my own program will yield encouraging results, provided I manage the pedagogy well.

Mutimedia tools have also provided me with a channel for personalizing my course, thus enhancing social presence. I have attempted to create little multimedia pieces through Jing and also One True Media (with Audacity) as a way of showing my students that I am personally invested and interested in the course. I have put in extra personal effort because I want to demonstrate to them that they have a serious teacher who is genuinely interested in getting them to learn something. And to love what they are learning.

And, of course, I want the little pieces of multimedia to communicate to the students that “I love this stuff. I love doing this!” I want them to be enthusiastic, and I truly believe that enthusiasm is caught, not taught (ie. Alex). And of course, these little pieces communicate “there is a teacher here”.

Here is an incomplete sample I created as part of a Jing tutorial on using an online video tool.

  • Include student profiles

This was something I forgot about until I went through this list. So, I added a reminder in the ice-breaking area for students to update their profile with a recent, informal picture, and a little write-up about themselves. I personalized the reminder by ending with my signature in a flash pink shade. Nice!

  • Limit class size

This isn’t usually a problem for me, but I will keep this in mind when I set student numbers in my future courses. I am wondering what the optimal class size is. 10 to 12 students? In my face to face classes I usually manage 24 students. Obviously, in an online class, this is too many.

  • Structure collaborative learning activities

There is no group work, but I have structured collaboration into the discussion forum and also the publishing of written work. In the discussion rubric, I reminded students that even as they learn, they will collaborate by being teachers to one another. I have considered social presence in the publishing of written work. The viewing and commenting on written products are a deliberate measure to create a sense of community among my learners.

  • Use emoticons

Strangely, I used an emoticon only once – in the reminder to edit the student profiles. I guess I will use it more when I am interacting with students.

  • Allow students options for addressing the instructor

In the contact information, I listed various ways I can be contacted – through Moodle mail, and also by phone for emergencies. I have also placed an “Ask a question link” in each module and in every page, so that the students know that I am accessible. They must feel that that the teacher is present and will respond to them in the same way a teacher would in a f2f environment.

The author also provided other items which I cannot address at this moment because my course has not gone live.  I look forward to adding to this list when I actually begin interacting with my students.

In conclusion, I am really happy that some of the things I planned at the beginning have become real. At some points as I was building the course, I was mechanically fitting in measures to improve the social presence in without much reflection. I think it was only in the last week, when I checked for social presence, that the lack of it became very apparent. This writing exercise was useful in that it has foregrounded the theoretical aspect of social presence, after I had been doing the practical, hands-on building in the last week or so.

I began with theory, I did the practice, and now I am revisiting the theory with a new understanding. How exciting things will be when this goes live. There will be new dimensions added to my understanding of social presence in an online course.


Joyce, K. M. & Brown, A. (2009). Enhancing social presence in online learning: Mediation strategies applied to social networking tools. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(4).

Lowenthal, P. R. (in Press). Social presence. In P. Rogers, G. Berg, J. Boettcher, C. Howard, L. Justice, & K. Schenk (Eds.), Encyclopedia of distance and online learning (2nd ed.). Information Science Reference.


2 thoughts on “Social Presence in My Online Course: How Am I Doing?

  1. Joy this is so pretty! You should add more to it! My students have to do a multimedia project, do you think onetruemedia will be easy for them to use?


  2. I Fully recognise what your position in this topic is. Though I could disagree on a number of the smaller details, I believe you did an incredible job outlining it. Certainly beats needing to study it on my own. Many thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *