“I want to say my opinion, but…”: Students’ experiences of social presence in asynchronous online discussions

Concurrent Session 4

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

How do students experience social presence within online discussions, and why should you care? Join in an engaging conversation regarding recent findings of undergraduate students’ perceptions of online discussions within a wide variety of courses.  


I am the Director of Instructional Support and Online Operations for the School of Professional Studies at Elmhurst College. I previously worked at Elmhurst College as a Curriculum Developer and have over 15 years of experience in education / teaching, from preschool kids through college students through training adults. I have an MA in sociology and received my PhD in Instructional Technology in May 2016. My research interests revolve around online and hybrid education, particularly online discussions, social presence, and visual literacy. When I am not working, writing, or (occasionally) sleeping, I enjoy cooking, travel, reading, rooting for the White Sox, and playing with my son, Cole.

Extended Abstract

Asynchronous online discussion has become a staple of many higher education courses.  However, much research has focused on graduate students and education majors.  The study being presented explored the student experience within online discussions, with an emphasis on the experiences of undergraduate students outside the field of education.  It was a case study designed to examine the experiences of five students aged 20-25 who had senior status at a four-year university in the Midwest.  Participants were interviewed and select asynchronous online discussion transcripts from previous courses were retrieved. 

The purpose of this presentation will be to share and discuss findings regarding undergraduate students’ perceptions of social presence within online discussions.  As defined by Swan (2005), social presence is “the ability of participants in online discussions both to perceive other participants as ‘real people’ and to project themselves socially and affectively into the discussion” (p. 20).  The results being presented here were part of a larger study examining students’ experiences as they develop social identities within asynchronous online discussions, knowingly or unknowingly.  Two research questions guided the study: How do students use impression management strategies to develop social identities (whether intentionally or unintentionally) within asynchronous online discussions?  What are the experiences of students developing social identities within asynchronous online discussions?

Analysis of the data revealed many examples of social presence indicators within the online discussion transcripts of all five participants.  Interactive indicators were common and interactivity was generally viewed by research participants as the purpose of online discussion.  In addition, the participants often described the affective elements of the online discussions as particularly appealing; they liked using personal expression as a cornerstone of the online discussion process.  As compared to affective and interactive indicators, there were considerably fewer cohesive indicators found in the data analyzed.  Despite the number of social presence indicators, some of the research participants stated they did not think of their classmates as people, nor did they deliberately try to project their own personalities into the online discussions.

As the participants in the current study described what they liked about the online discussions, most of their examples related to the interaction between classmates or the opportunities to incorporate personal expression.  Furthermore, in both the online discussion transcripts and the interview discussions, there was less evidence of group cohesion than of affective or interactive elements of social presence.  The finding was somewhat surprising in light of Akyol and Garrison’s (2008) assertion that group cohesion generally increases through a semester, and the participants in the current study were discussing their experiences over multiple years.  It may be the lack of cohesion that generally led participants in the current study to feel the online discussions did not build community. 

Nonetheless, all of the participants in the current study utilized affective, cohesive, and interactive strategies to build online social presence.  Participants appeared to recognize the online discussions as a social space and thus expected to communicate with others within that space.  Furthermore, the participants generally viewed online discussions more favorably when social presence strategies were used by classmates, instructors, and themselves. 

Results indicate a variety of factors that influence how the participants experience and develop social presence.  Influences include the instructor, the instructional designer who developed online discussion prompts, and/or institutional policies.  Other factors come from the students; however, it seems that instructors could affect or sometimes alter how students manage or adapt these influences.  How participants experience social presence influences their participation within the online discussions, ranging along a spectrum from avoidance to one-way participation to bi-directional interaction.

The target audience for this education session will be instructors and instructional designers in higher education who use, or are thinking about using, asynchronous online discussions.  As the session will include students’ perspectives on, and experiences within, online discussions, the information presented may be of interest to both those new to online discussions as well as individuals who have been using or researching online discussions for some time. 

The session will include a brief overview of the purpose and methodology of the study; however, the majority of the time will be spent discussing the findings and implications of the study.  More details regarding the methods will be available within digital handouts.  All session materials will be posted on the conference web site.  A final paper may also be submitted for consideration for publication within the Online Learning Journal.

The goal of this session will be an engaging conversation.  Quotations from study participants will be provided for small group discussion. Audience members will be encouraged to contribute throughout, both through whole group discussions as well as electronic means such as todaysmeet.com.


Akyol, Z., & Garrison, D. R. (2008). The development of a community of inquiry over time in an online course: Understanding the progression and integration of social, cognitive, and teaching presence. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 12(3-4), 3-22. Retrieved from http://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/online-learning-journal/

Swan, K. (2005). Social Presence and e-Learning. In IADIS Virtual Multiconference on Computer Science and Information Systems (MMCIS 2005)