Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cognitive Presence, Social Presence, Teaching Presence

I have taught online for the past three summers,  and this summer it has felt like a welcome respite to take courses online instead of teaching them. It is good for me to be in the student's seat, and to think about online teaching and learning from the learner's perspective. It is interesting for me to be learning about teaching in an online setting. Since I already have some first-hand knowledge--I have taught five or six courses online now--one might think I have expertise in online teaching. And I suppose I do, to a point, but the things I have learned have mostly come through trial and error so far. This course has been a fantastic way to rethink not only what I am doing as an online instructor, but why I am doing it that way.

Specifically, one of the things I have been wondering about is how to build teaching presence in an online course. Since the courses I teach have been mostly asynchronous (we rarely have meetings in which we all are logged in at the same time to share in realtime), it has been a challenge for me to try to replicate what I do in face-to-face courses.

Image by Phil Norton [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Stavredes (2011) discussed different elements of online engagement, and identifies cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence as unique, but related aspects:
  • Cognitive presence is the ability of learners to construct knowledge together as they engage in interactions.
  • Social presence establishes learners as individuals and helps build interpersonal relationships that can have a positive impact on engagement in learning activities.
  • Teaching presence includes how you facilitate the learning activities to support social and cognitive presence to support learners in achieving the course outcomes. (p. 168)
Stavredes (2011) also indicated that social presence affects cognitive presence (p. 151), and this has me thinking about how to better develop social presence  both between my students, and between me and my students. Because the courses I have taught are asynchronous, I am thinking a lot about how to strengthen connections.

It seems that text-base interactions (e.g., discussion boards) can definitely play a role in this (see Stavredes, 2011, pp. 132-141), but I think that media such as images, audio, and video may provide greater social presence than text alone. At a personal level, I find seeing a picture of my classmates next to their posts in a discussion forum helpful for developing a connection. I think even this small step can help in building social presence--I picture the person making the comment. But beyond simply adding images, Ko and Rossen (2010) urge online instructors to consider the role of audio and video in their courses. Audio and video can provide a stronger personal connection between instructors and students (Ko & Rossen, 2010, p. 258 & 267).

I was glad to read this, because in the last two courses I taught online I began using video as a strategy for creating more teaching presence. I created brief (usually ~5 minute) introductory videos for each module of my courses. These are basically just me talking to the webcam, recapping what we learned in the previous module, and making connections to the new material.

Students have commented in their end of course evaluations how much they appreciate these videos, and how they help them feel like they get to know me as their instructor. As I reflect on the readings from this module's work, it's no wonder why they feel this way. Ko and Rossen (2010) specifically mention personal introduction videos as a way to "make a personal connection with your students," as well as creating transitions between modules (p. 267). To me, this is a clear way to build teaching presence in an online course; students feel more connected to you as the instructor. And, as Stavredes (2011) reminds us, "Instructor-to-learner interaction is a critical component of learner satisfaction" (p. 151). Further, Stavredes suggested that social presence affects cognitive presence in the course, and so our interactions with students should be "a blend of facilitation and knowledge sharing" (p. 154). While this can certainly be done through text-based interaction, short video clips seem perfectly suited for fostering this sort of interaction.

Also, I appreciated Ko and Rossen's (2010) endorsement of VoiceThread as a way of building social presence (see pp. 154-155). Being able to see and/or hear classmates in discussion seems like an obvious way to build greater social presence than a text-only discussion!

Overall, I found much of the work this week to be affirming to the decisions I have made as an instructor. I have been challenged to rethink "just discussion" (Ko & Rossen, 2010, p. 201) and continue to explore alternatives that will provide greater cognitive, social, and teaching presence in my online classroom.


Ko, S. & Rossen, S. (2010). Teaching online: A practical guide. New York, NY: Routledge.

Stavredes, T. (2011). Effective online teaching: Foundations and strategies for student success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


  1. Yeah! I'm using Voice thread instead of discussion forums this summer. We should talk -- lots of pluses, but also a few unanticipated minuses.

  2. Pat, I'd love to hear more about what you're doing with VoiceThread. I used it some this spring for the course I taught, but I have a few other ideas as well. Maybe an action research project in the making? :-)

  3. Very good and illuminating piece