Multiple Perspectives on Social Presence in Online Learning: A Book Panel

Concurrent Session 5
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Brief Abstract

This panel introduces a new book, Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research. Chapter authors and the book editors will explore three perspectives on social presence –and the research and implications for practice guided by these viewpoints. Audience interaction will be encouraged.


Amy Garrett Dikkers is an Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She teaches in face-to-face, hybrid, and online learning modalities with undergraduate students and current educational professionals through Master’s and doctoral programs. Her scholarship in online and blended learning spans the spectrum of Pk-20 educational organizations. To date she has over two dozen publications that examine the value of online and technology-enhanced education for diverse populations of students and the teachers who work with them.
Aimee L. Whiteside is an associate professor at the University of Tampa. Her research interests include social presence, blended and online learning, technology-enhanced learning, experiential learning, academic-community partnerships, and academic and professional writing. She co-authored and co-edited the book, Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research with Drs. Amy Garrett Dikkers and Karen Swan. Her work has been featured in several peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Interactive Online Learning (JIOL), Online Learning Journal (OLJ), International Journal of E-Learning and Distance Education (IJEDE), and EDUCAUSE Review. Additionally, she has written chapters in several books, such as Emotions, Technology, and Learning and Computer-Mediated Communication across Cultures: International Interactions in Online Environments as well as special volumes in the Advances in Research on Teaching and the New Directions in Teaching and Learning series.

Extended Abstract

This panel introduces a new book, Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research.  Panelists will include the book editors and many of the authors of idividual chapters.  The premise of this panel, and the book on which it is based, is that one way to make sense out of this variation in definitions, for practitioners and researchers alike, is to consider the point of view taken by particular scholars. The book’s sections carefully distinguish three differing perspectives—social presence as technologically-facilitated, social presence as learners’ perceptions, and social presence as a critical literacy—and bring together some of the most distinguished scholars of social presence to provide examples of how these differing viewpoints can inform research and practice. The panel will do the same. After a brief introduction to social presence and the three perspectives from which it may be viewed.  Panelists will be asked:

  • How do you conceptualize social presence and why do you think it is important?

  • How has your concept of social presence influenced your research and practice?

  • How do you think the concept of social presence will evolve moving forward?

    The session will conclude with an extended period of questions from the audience.

    The concept of social presence is central to our understanding of online learning (Benbunan-Fich, Hiltz, & Harasim, 2005; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001; Vrasidas & Glass, 2002), yet researchers in the field are still unable to pinpoint a central definition and continue to define and re-define social presence. Such definitions range on a continuum from Short et al.’s (1967) “salience of the other” and Gunawardena’s (1995) perceptions of others as “real people”, through Garrison et al.’s (2000) ability of participants to project themselves “socially and emotionally”, to Tu and McIsaac’s (2002) “feeling, perception, and reaction of being connected” and Picciano’s (2002) “sense of being in and belonging in a course”.  This session will explore multiple perspectives on the concept of social presence in an attempt to make sense of such conflicting conceptualizations.

    Social Presence as Technologically-Facilitated

    The concept of “social presence” was introduced by Short, Williams, and Christie (1976), communications researchers who were interested in how people could establish immediacy and intimacy through various telecommunications technologies. Short et al. defined social presence as the salience of the other in mediated environments and attempted to classify communications media according to their ability to convey the subtle visual and vocal cues through which they believed social presence was conveyed.  They placed communication media on a continuum ranging from high social presence (two-way video) to low social presence (computer-mediated communication) and asserted that computer-mediated communication was a poor medium for transmitting social presence. Although such a technological deterministic point of view was rejected by most educators in favor of a more learner-centered view, interestingly, there are quite a few researchers  who view technology as affecting learner perceptions of social presence.  These scholars are exploring the use of differing technologies, such as audio (Dringus, Snyder & Terrell, 2010; Ice, Curtis, Philips, & Wells, 2007), video (Lowenthal & Dunlap, 2010), social media (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009), and virtual worlds (McKerlich, Riis, Anderson, & Eastman, 2011) to enhance social presence in online classes. Contributors to this section of Social Presence in Online Learning include: Patrick Lowenthal, David Mulder and Chih-Hsiung Tu.

    Social Presence as Learners’ Perceptions

    As time progressed and technologies advanced, educators using online discussions in their courses found that student perceptions of social presence varied among participants in the same mediated conversations and that many participants perceived online discourse as more personal than traditional classroom discussion (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Richardson & Swan, 2003; Walther, 1994). Just as earlier researchers used social presence to explain why online communication was inherently impersonal, these researchers redeveloped the notion to explain how online discussion could be very personal and social. They argued that social presence was as much a matter of individual perceptions as an objective quality of the medium. Working within this frame, researchers have linked social presence to retention in courses and programs (Boston et al., 2010), student satisfaction (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Richardson & Swan, 2003; Swan & Shih, 2006), and perceived and actual learning in online classes (Joksimovic, Gasevic, Kovanovic, Riecke, & Hatala, 2015; Picciano, 2002; Richardson & Swan, 2003; Rockinson-Szapkiw, Wendt, Wighting, & Nisbet, 2016; Swan, Day, Bogle, & Matthews, 2014). They also have accordingly explored ways of enhancing the development of social presence in online courses (Akcaoglu & Lee, 2016; Lowenthal & Dunlap, 2010; Richardson et al.2012; Rogers & Lea, 2005).  Contributors to this section of the book include: Wally Boston, Jessica Gordon, Charlotte Gunawardena, Phil Ice, Melissa Layne, Patrick Lowenthal, Jennifer Richardson, and Karen Swan.

    Social Presence as a Critical Literacy

Many educators have addressed the importance of making instructors and students aware of the significance of the development of social presence in the online learning process (Garrett Dikkers, Whiteside, & Lewis, 2013; Garrison, in press; Swan & Shih, 2005; Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes, & Garrison, 2013). Two of the editors of this book make such awareness central to their understanding of social presence. In Aimee Whiteside’s Social Presence Model (2015), social presence is seen as the unifying component that synchronizes interactions among the instructor, students, academic content, media, tools, instructional strategies, and outcomes within an online learning experience. Whiteside and Garrett Dikkers (2015) contend that social presence functions as critical literacy for online learners and instructors alike in that it “engenders a new language of teaching and learning”. The authors also emphasize connectedness and community as part of the social presence construct. Contributors to this section of the book include: Amy Garrett Dikkers, Somer Lewis, and Aimee Whiteside.

Social Presence in Online Learning concludes with an examination of future directions for social presence by Jason Vickers and Peter Shea.  The panel will similarly conclude with an emphasis on audience participation.