Establishing Social Presence in the Course – Theory into Practice

What did I learn in this module that I did not know before? How will I apply what I have learned to my own course?

One of the most significant things I learnt is that online instructional design has many important processes and components which MUST be addressed. One of the key components of the process is the management of the social dynamics of the online environment.

In considering the management of social dynamics of an online classroom, I may have a clue why some online programs thrive and others fail. This has to do with how instructors manage (or mismanage) the domain of social presence in their online classrooms. After observing and experiencing what went right, I can understand better how things can go wrong in establishing social presence in the online environment. I will use the domain of social presence as a framework to discuss some of my observations and experiences on Module 2. Within this framework, I will also discuss some of the ways in which I will apply knowledge and insights I have gained.

I have heard some anecdotal accounts that suggests that one of the factors is the sense of isolation students feel when they are in an online classroom. The online classroom is, in fact, empty. I hear strange reports like, “Even the lecturers do not log on even after they are paid to do it”. I have seen graphs reporting low hits, and almost no hits in online support systems in blended learning. And everybody is asking “What’s wrong? How come the students are not logging on and participating? Where are the lecturers?!”

At this point in my learning, I am beginning to understand the situation a little bit better. I hypothesize that one of the reasons is because neither the lecturers not the students feel that the online classroom is a real classroom, with real instructors and real classmates. The environment has no evidence of human activity, and therefore no sense of community is present. It is missing one of three major elements which need to be present in an online learning environment: Social presence. Social presence in online learning has been defined as “the ability of learners to project themselves socially and emotionally, thereby being perceived as “real people” in mediated communication” (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997;  Short, Williams &Christie, 1976, cited in Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007, p.159).

In their seminal work,  Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) suggested that  social presence is one of three interacting domains that constitute an online learning environment: cognitive presence, teaching presence and social presence. Of these three, I would like to examine the concept of social presence because this is a factor that seems to loom large in explaining the isolation students have reported feeling in online environments. Affective factors related to social presence need to be addressed because “given recent findings in brain science research, emotion is a central influence in learning processes and outcomes” (Campbell & Cleveland-Innes, 2005, p.1).

Social Presence: Theory into Practice

From my observations, social presence is manifested in very concrete ways in the design of the online courses I have had the privilege to “observe” in this module. In my experience so far, I also see the theoretical underpinnings of the Community of Inquiry instructional model being put into practice.

Wording of Course Documents:

From my observation of the comments made by each of the fiver designers, I might add that social presence not only also includes the perception of their classmates as “real people”, but also the instructor. Instructors must make their presence real to their students. In the course observations and also my own experience, instructors make great efforts to address this aspect through very concrete measures.

In this course, we have, from the outset, been reminded to make our tone personal and approachable. For example, most of us have been asked to reword statements and instructions in the course documents in order to sound more personal and “people-friendly”. We were encouraged to use personal pronouns like “I” and “You”. For example, instead of saying “students will….” we were asked to rephrase it as “you will”. In order to come across as a real person, Alex has framed her expectations as “I expect you to…” instead of the more impersonal form “Students are expected to”.

Tone of Written Communication Online

Generally, it is imperative to be aware of the tone of all written communication so that they sound more conversational rather than overly academic. Some of my colleagues in my workplace, have commented that some of my modules sound distant because I tend to frame my objectives and instructions in a very academic sounding tone. This problem will be even worse online. As a person, I am a little bit introverted. But I believe that most, if not all behaviors can be learnt. The first step towards change is awareness. Now, with a greater awareness of the need to communicate in a more personal style when I am online, I will take concrete measures to improve my affective communication by considering the tone of my written communication. I have learnt from working on my course documents that will need to be more mindful of crafting my communication so that my social presence will be one which sets a more supportive and more “human” tone.

Establishing Physical and Instructional Presence to Humanize the Online Environment

  • Use of Images

One of the factors which make people feel isolated online is the absence of elements that distinguish the instructor and other students as human beings. This is why it is necessary to let students see what instructors look like and hear what they sound like in an online environment. Same goes for the students. The element of human presence has been consistently addressed by Alex in our learning environment. For example, she doesn’t just let us hear the 5 instructors speaking. She included their pictures and also asked the instructors to provide little writeup about themselves. The picture of Bill Pelz in his little sports car, with his dog, was a good move to counter the austere image of the cold, aloof professor. And Steven Zucker, with his backpack, out hiking somewhere, and Beth Harris, with her cool sunglasses, give a glimpse of real human being with interests outside of academia. This is why Alex also insisted that we upload our pictures online.

  • Use of Voice Through Audio tools

I suspect that in courses that are not well designed, a deafening silence often greets students as they enter their online classroom. It feels cold, lonely, and even eerie. Adding audio to an online classroom is a powerful measure to counteract this effect. The use of the voice humanizes the environment of the online classroom and establishes social presence.

The use of audio tools are obviously very effective because Rob Piorkowski reported that his inclusion of audio files of himself saying words worked so well and was warmly received by his students that he decided to include more. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker also reported very positive outcomes when they included soundfiles of the both of them discussing and critiquing paintings. The students loved the strategy and the both of them have since added more audio material. It is very evident that audio has a positive effect on student learning.

In our course, this principle is put into practice through concrete measures like using audio tools that allow instructor and students to hear the instructor and sometimes, themselves. From the very first moment we entered the course, social presence was immediately perceptible through the use of Voicethreads. We heard the instructor welcoming us and telling us about the course. This effectively simulated the dynamics of a face-to-face environment. I enjoyed hearing my instructor and also my classmates.

In my own course, Voicethreads will be used in my introduction section to help me establish warmth and cohesiveness in my online class. My students must feel my presence and that of other classmates.

  • Presenting Content in Audio (and Video) Formats

The use of tools like Breeze presentations also allows an instructor to create social presence in a class. Instead of just having the students read the content, to hear an instructor adds an affective element to assimilating new information. Besides adding social presence, presenting information in audio format is also a way to cater to diverse learning styles. Some students actually learn better through auditory means, as compared to visual means. Therefore presenting material in both visual and auditory formats demonstrate ways in which the instructor attempts to reach out to students, taking into account their different preferred leaning styles. And of course, the element of a teachers’ voice adds social presence to the course, thereby humanizing the material to be learnt.

Breeze is a marvelous idea in order to simulate a “mini-lecture” as in Beth Harris’ class. It is, of course, time consuming and tricky to prepare as the script needs to be written and recorded. But it is well worth the time investment, because once it’s done it can be put to good use in many other contexts. This is one of the technologies which I am excited about because of the potential for it to personalize my delivery of content in the class.

For social presence, you can’t beat Jing. It was as good as having the teacher in the class. I actually managed to set up my course documents area thanks to the Jing files embedded by Alex. I know my students will be very surprised and pleased to learn this way, considering the way I learnt how to set up my course documents. Jing is something I will most definitely use in helping me to be present to my students.

  • Use of Newsflash and other Feedback Channels

All the instructors interviewed have emphasized over and over how important it is to let students know they’re there. One effective way of doing that is through the use of the newsflash section. Steven Zucker makes sure that he updates his newsflash are every three to four days. He commented that  “If I don’t keep my newsflashes every three to four days, they feel I’m not there, even if I’m responding to (inaudible)..”. Alexandra added that “this is a social presence thing which is an immediate cue to the students that really allows them to see and feel your presence immediately when they log in to the front page of the course. This is a very good strategy”

In a further effort to establish connection with the students, Dr Zucker added that “I will send them a little message to tell them about evaluation and also to give them feedback about how they’re doing. I try to do that within the first three weeks, otherwise they will feel out at sea.” Setting up a system to enable students to ask questions is also one way of “humanizing” the course. When Bill Pelz described his system, Alex commented that “it’s like “giving them the ability to raise their hand (in a f2f class)”.

The use of Twitter in the newsflash area is an idea which is worth adopting because it also very effective in increasing social presence. According to Dunlap and Leowenthal (2009), the use of Twitter enabled students in their online class to feel the immediacy of feedback from instructors and colleagues. It also had the effect of enhancing the social dynamics of the class, which became a friendlier and warmer. This seems to have a similar effect in our class, although I noticed that not many people are using Twitter. I am not sure how to use the technology, although I know that I look forward to Alex’s tweets.

I am considering using Twitter for my newsflash, but I will need to master the technology first. I am confused by the hashtags and their functions. But I will seriously consider using Twitter because it has a nice feel of immediacy and personalized contact..

Providing Channels for Feedback

Taking feedback seriously and also acting on feedback is one of the concrete manifestations of not only social presence but also teaching presence. In the course observations, it was evident that all the designers had established mechanisms for students to provide feedback on the course. Acting on student feedback can strengthen courses, as it did Rob Piorkowski’s. He had a mid-semester feedback session where he asked the students about what activities worked and which didn’t. Students reported that they enjoyed hearing the teacher’s voice in the activities. So he included more material in which he recorded his voice. Students reported that they didn’t like repetitive activities. He did not report how he acted on that feedback but we can assume that he would have taken note and revised activities which seemed repetitive.

  • Providing an “Ask a Question” Area

Not having a good feedback system can be have a negative psychological effect on students, as Bill Pelz discovered at the early stages of implementing his online course. In the earlier years, students commented that they were having trouble getting to him “and they weren’t sure how they could get my attention easily during the course”. So he acted on the students’ feedback by developing a “Talk to the Professor” area. He acted on the feedback and now the students have an improved channel for themselves “to ask about the course or about relate materials or something they might have read or seen on television, and get the professor’s attention and discuss with the professor and other students in that section”. Social presences in terms of affective factors are addressed in this way. Students feel that their suggestions are valued and that someone is listening, taking them seriously and responding to their needs as learners.

In the design of my own course, I will take into account the importance of establishing channels for student feedback by creating “Ask a question” links in perhaps every page of material. I also intend to, like Rob Piorkowski, Steven Zucker, and the rest of the designers, have a “howzit going” evaluation at the 3rd or 4th week of the course, just to “take the temperature” of the course. A suggestions page might also be a good idea because the end-user can sometimes have a better feel if something is working or isn’t.

  • Providing Audio/Video to Personalize Student Feedback

Video feedback was a completely radical idea for me. I was completely taken aback by the video feedback Alex created about my blog and also my classmates’ blog. That, I think, is the ultimate in exploring social presence in an online environment. It was also the ultimate personal attention anyone can get from a teacher!! It was as good as, if not better than having a teacher sit beside you, doing one to one tutoring (no I am not trying to re-create my classroom, but I see how this tool can help me re-conceptualize it). And better still, was how I could hear and see the instructor’s comment to other students. This actually beats an f2f setting, where you can only get access to your own feedback.  This way, you learn from your peer’s mistakes (and strengths). So it there are 10 people in the class, you learn ten times as much from the feedback compared to what you would get f2f. And since the feedback is recorded, you can listen to it over and over to address each mistake.

Video feedback is something I have never seen until now. I know its effect and power, and I will definitely be exploring that in the design of feedback mechanisms in my course in order to personalize instruction and create a greater sense of social presence.

Affective Engagement

Sometimes, I think students will be stressed out when the course gets too serious. One way to signal them to loosen up a little bit is by introducing lighthearted elements into the course, which is what Bill Pelz did. He imaginatively introduced the element of fun into his course through crossword puzzles psychology games, while getting his students to engage with content. This way, he accomplishes two functions – de-stressing and learning. Clever! Now how can I do the same?

Summary:

Finally, from my observations of the various design elements incorporated into this course, and from the sharing of the other instructional designers, I can surmize that affective, cognitive and pedagogical factors are equally important. Affective factors often take a back seat even in f2f environments because it is perceived as hierarchically inferior to cognition. However, this belief is detrimental because reports showing reasons for failure in online courses often cite feelings of isolation as one of the main contributing factors. Angelino, Williams and Natvig (2007) have mentioned that developing learning communities can help alleviate these feelings because “Distance learners have many challenges to overcome such as physical separation, feeling of isolation, lack of support, and feeling disconnected…” (p.7).

In the design of my own course, I will be cognizant of the need to establish an online environment which takes into account affective factors of learning. I will consider how I use various tools and also pedagogical strategies to engage my students and make them feel a part of a community of inquiry made up of real human persons. Scoza (2005) said it beautifully, “I have a hunch that the ways in which students perceive the reality of their instructors is predicated upon how well they perceive their instructors perceiving them. In other words, if we can manage to show empathy, respect, compassion and consideration to our online students, not only through our course materials, course policies, and pedagogical methods, but also with respect to how we present ourselves, they will feel that they have taken a class taught by a real person and not an automaton, and consequently, the teaching and learning experience will be enhanced for everyone” (p.46).

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References:

(I had a hard time adjusting the correct APA spacing for the references, sorry this is the best I can do!)

Angelino, L. M., Keels Williams F. & Natvig, D. (2007). Strategies to engage online students and reduce attrition rates. The Journal of Educators Online, 4(2), 1-14. Retrieved from http://www.thejeo.com/Volume4Number2/Angelino%20Final.pdf

Campbell, P. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Educational presence in the community of inquiry model: A students’ viewpoint.pp.1 – 5, 21st Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from http://www.uwex.edu/disted/conference/Resource_library/proceedings/05_2024.pdf.

Dunlap, J. C. & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social
presence. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(2). Retrieved from http://www.patricklowenthal.com/publications/Using_Twitter_to_Enhance_Social_Presence.pdf.

Garrison, D. R. & Arbough, J. B. (2007). Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues, and future directions. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(3), 157-172. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2007.04.001.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105. Retrieved from http://communitiesofinquiry.com/files/Critical_Inquiry_model.pdf

Scorza, J. (2005). Do online students dream of electric teachers? Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(2), 45-52. Retrieved from http://ualbany.mrooms.net/file.php/91/readings/v9n2_scorza.pdf