Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Reflecting on Social Presence

Those who regularly read my blog know that I am currently in a doctoral program, and I'm conducting my studies at Boise State University in the online Ed.D. program, studying Educational Technology.  Most of our work is asynchronous (we don't all login at the same time to interact), and while it is high-level, interactive, collaborative work, it is online, distance learning, which can be isolating.

But it doesn't have to be.

Since I'm studying online, I don't have the opportunity to have "hallway conversations" with my classmates as you might before or after a face-to-face class. But that doesn't mean we don't still interact outside of the discussion forums and VoiceThreads. In fact, our cohort does a really great job of keeping in touch using tools like Google Hangouts and TodaysMeet and Twitter. How much each of my classmates gets involved in these communication channels varies--not all of us have the same level of wanting to be in touch, I think--but I have personally benefitted greatly through this. I have built real friendships with people scattered across the globe.

If you've never experienced this kind of relationship-building, you might be skeptical about the level of friendship that can actually develop using only online tools. But I recently had an experience that confirmed it for me.

Last week I had the joy of meeting up face-to-face with members of my cohort and several of my professors at the Association for Educational Communications and Technology conference. (My field is Educational Technology, and this was a meeting of "my people." It was a lovely nerdfest...) :-) Throughout the week, we ate together, laughed together, and enjoyed sharing the things we had learned in various sessions at the conference. It was a great time of just spending time together outside of the "school" context. And while "school" is what initially brought us together, I count these people as real friends. We had already built a friendship through our interactions online, and we just continued them naturally when we met up face-to-face.

Members of my cohort and several of our professors meeting up at AECT.
(Good grief, I am freakishly tall.)

This has prompted a lot of reflection for me on the idea of social presence. One of my professors--who has a research interest in social presence in online courses--described social presence as the "ability of participants to project personal characteristics into the community; to show others that they are real people."

This happens in online learning all the time, of course. Unless the course is completely run as a text-only correspondence course between instructor and student, there is a continuum of presence:

  • Text-only communication might have the least social presence, but it is effective and efficient for communicating ideas.
  • Audio communication provides greater social presence, because you can hear more nuance and tone in the message being conveyed.
  • Asynchronous video (recorded and viewed later) can provide even more social presence, because you can see and hear the other person/people.
  • Synchronous video (live video, such as a GoogleHangout or Skype or FaceTime) is almost like being there.
  • Face-to-face meet-ups, of course, have the highest level of social presence, since you are actually present. :-)
There are tradeoffs, of course. Text-only is convenient and efficient, but there is more "distance" between the communicators. Face-to-face dramatically lowers this "distance," but the downside is that you actually have travel to be in the same place. The others in between demonstrate different levels of this trade-off between convenience and presence. For example, while I love having a GoogleHangout with a group of my classmates, we actually have to find a time when we can all get together, taking into account our work, school, and family situations as well as different timezones. Yes, there is greater social presence that way, but it is less convenient.

I have had a few people ask me over the past year and a half of my graduate studies if I like taking classes online. My answer is an enthusiastic, "yes!" I'm not sure it is for everyone, but it has been a very good fit for me. The fact that I am part of a cohort is key; because we are a relatively small group (about 20) and we continue to interact in class over time, I have really been able to get to know these folks as individuals. Add to this the fact that many of us are looking to connect, encourage, and support each other outside of class as well: these people aren't just classmates. They are my friends.


  1. Hello!

    My name is Kathryn Ortmann and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am studying to be an English teacher and am currently taking a class on how to use technology in a classroom. I have been keeping up with your blog for a while now and I really appreciate this post. I know that as a teacher, I am going to have to remember that my fellow staff is there to help me, and I am going to have to communicate with them. I can imagine how difficult it is to take online classes and talk virtually to people, but never end up meeting them. I'm so glad you finally did and were able to put a face to a name! I love your blog, and thanks for talking about what you do.

    EDM310 Blog

    1. Hi Kathryn,
      It's great to "meet" you! Thanks for taking the time to comment, and I'm grateful for the feedback on the blog. I generally write "for me"...but I hope my rambling is beneficial for others as well, so thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Peace to you,