Social Presence Online: An Experiment in Discussion-Based Learning

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Between 2015-2018, we ran an experiment offering online class to alumni, focused on intense asynchronous discussion on a social platform instead of a traditional LMS. In this session, we will share our findings according to the CoI model and engage the audience in a discussion of social collaborative learning.


At UChicago, Emily works on a variety of teaching and learning projects, primarily online and for adult learners. These projects span alumni engagement online learning, continuing education offerings, and digital learning applications in on-campus classes. Emily holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of Michigan and is a video game designer in her free time.

Extended Abstract

In 2015, the University of Chicago began an experiment to offer inquiry-based learning online to alumni through a platform called AlumniU in response to a presidential priority for digital alumni engagement. Our unit, the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, as the home of online learning and learning innovation on campus, partnered with the UChicago Alumni Association to implement and direct this experiment in the hopes of developing models for bringing the inquiry-based learning that characterizes the in-person student experience at the University into a primarily asynchronous online environment. The program took the form of four fully-online classes, each lasting six-weeks, designed for an alumni-exclusive audience and containing no formal assessments. Our approach involved two main innovative design choices intended to elevate the social experience of our learners and minimize the hierarchical divide between teacher and student in the hopes of furthering debate and inquiry. We will discuss those design choices, the theoretical framework we applied, and the findings from this experiment.

The first significant design innovation was our choice of platform. Instead of a standard LMS like Blackboard or Canvas, we chose to offer our learning opportunities on Jive, a platform typically used for social collaboration communities on corporate intranets. Unlike traditional LMS platforms, which are typically designed from a content-first perspective, Jive is built with social collaboration as its guiding design principle. As we were trying to develop a student experience built around discourse and inquiry, we thought that a platform designed for social interaction and conversation would help us cultivate meaningful social interactions to support learning. In addition, we hoped that the digital interactions themselves (e.g., liking, commenting) and the activity feed organization of content would be familiar to our users from other social networks and thus implicitly encourage similar behaviors.

Our second design innovation was focused on content and the role of the instructor. Unlike traditional classes, which center on pre-loaded content and assessment, our classes were designed so that the learners would grapple collaboratively with a problem through discussion, while the content itself was minimal and secondary. As such, in many classes a single piece of primary content serving as context for the main question was the only content in the class. While the instructor posed the initial question, their role otherwise was to nurture conversation, participate in the discussion, and clarify any points of confusion. The majority of the interaction between instructor and learner was of the second kind, where they were simply another participant in the process of inquiry.

Framework and findings

 Our general framework for how students would think and learn collaboratively was the Community of Inquiry model first developed by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, and it will be through this framework that we discuss our findings. The CoI model discusses learning experiences according to three presences: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence.

Our two design innovations were closely connected to social presence and teaching presence respectively. Our interests lay in understanding what effect elevating social presence and minimizing teaching presence would have on the cognitive presence of these classes. Our findings however showed that our learners had the best experience when social activity was led and modeled by the instructor. Despite the familiarity of the social interactions and the minimal hierarchy of the virtual classroom, learners did not actually form strong connections among each other, but rather behaved as typical in more structured and formalized class settings. In fact, the choice of non-traditional LMS made some aspects of communication more difficult due to its treatment of common functions like announcements and private messages.

    Our attempt to minimize teaching presence met with greater success. Learners responded well to a focus on inquiry-driven discourse around a central question, and the quality of comments and interactions was consistently high. Despite the lack of grades and formal assessments, our learners showed a high level of motivation to respond to main questions and write reflections in longer blog form. Although the separation between learner and instructor was minimal, it was still important that the instructor maintain a high level of participation in the class. Learners were more motivated in classes with instructor participation in discussions, despite the lack of formal assessment. In effect, the presence of the instructor was the primary motivating force, despite the instructor’s activities being social in nature.

    In this talk, we look forward to sharing our findings and relevant data, as well as engaging our audience in their similar experiences and possible questions. We plan to center the audience discussion primarily on the social presence aspect of this experiment by asking specific questions related to their understanding and experience of social presence in the classroom throughout the presentation. We will hope to present our experiment and findings as just one possible way to think about maximizing social presence in the classroom, while eliciting feedback and suggestions from the audience that they can then put into practice at their home institutions.