The role of the instructor in creating social presence: Research and practice in K12 and higher education

Concurrent Session 6
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Brief Abstract

Our research in online and blended learning centers on social presence as context-driven and combining five aspects (Affective Association, Community Cohesion, Instructor Involvement, Interaction Intensity, Knowledge and Experience). Instructor Involvement in the process of community-building has been seen as key. We discuss the instructor’s role in building social presence.


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


For fifteen years, our research team members have been exploring social presence, or the level of connectedness among students and instructors. Our research is across online and blended learning, K12 and higher education levels, and varying contexts, including virtual public schools, specific programs serving at-risk students, blended learning high schools, graduate programs in education, undergraduate and graduate programs across disciplines. Our qualitative and mixed methods research endeavors have centered on exploring students and teachers’ experiences, identifying pedagogical practices and instructional activities utilized to build social presence, and understanding benefits, challenges, and necessary supports for students and teachers.

Throughout this period of research, a Social Presence Model emerged and has been refined, one that combines five aspects that together influence and guide individuals’ meaning-making processes in online and blended learning (Whiteside, 2016). The five aspects are: Affective Association, Community Cohesion, Instructor Involvement, Interaction Intensity, and Knowledge and Experience. We believe the context-driven integration and intersection of these five aspects is a critical literacy for students and teachers in online and blended learning environments (Whiteside, 2017; Whiteside & Garrett Dikkers, 2015). However, it is interesting to note that across the bulk of our studies regarding Social Presence, Instructor Involvement in the process of community-building has been seen as very important, more so than any other element.


This presentation explores that key finding, presenting the voices of student and teacher stakeholders in various online and blended learning contexts to illuminate the following research questions:

  1. To what extent do students and teachers identify Instructor Involvement as central to their sense of social presence in their online or blended learning environment?
  2. What practices do instructors utilize to build social presence in their online and blended teaching?
  3. What suggestions do instructors have for others who wish to build social presence into their online and blended courses?

In this extended abstract, we present a sample of findings for each research question. The presentation will:

a) present an overview of the Social Presence Model, specifically focusing on Instructor Involvement as a construct;

b) detail brief context for multiple studies in the body of work and the importance of Instructor Involvement in the development of social presence (research question one);

c) utilize a social media platform to engage the audience in explaining their own practices as instructors to build social presence and ascertaining alignment with the practices outlined in the research (research question two); and

d) discuss practices and suggestions identified by research participants across multiple contexts (research question two).

The Social Presence Model and Instructor Involvement

The Social Presence Model (SPM) emerged from research conducted on a graduate-level certificate program designed to help K-12 educational leaders integrate technology into their schools and districts, discussed in detail elsewhere (Whiteside, 2016). Specifically, the initial study examined face-to-face observation notes for several courses, interview transcriptions, and students’ online discussion messages using the pre-established Social Presence Coding Scheme developed by Rourke, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (1999) and extended by Swan (2002). Twenty-six months of data were coded across face-to-face and online courses for two cohorts of students. Data analysis determined two key components of social presence emerging that were missing from the Coding Scheme – Knowledge and Experience and Instructor Involvement (Whiteside, 2016). The SPM centers on five integrated elements (Affective Association, Community Cohesion, Instructor Involvement, Interaction Intensity, and Knowledge and Experience) that together determine a participant’s motivation to take an active role in their own and their peers’ meaning-making processes (Whiteside, 2016).


               Our qualitative and mixed methods research utilizes large-scale surveys, with a mix of demographic, Likert-scale, and open-ended questions in order to reach large populations of instructors (Babbie, 1973). In almost every case, these surveys are paired with in-depth interview or focus groups with research participants in order to gain further insight or explore interesting findings in the survey responses, often through sequential explanatory mixed methods design (Creswell, 2009). Additionally, we have utilized case study methodology in multiple studies to gain a robust understanding of a unique context, including observations, online course review, and document analysis (Merriam, 1998; Yin, 2003).



Instructors and students have consistently indicated Instructor Involvement as important or very important to social presence in the course, more so than any other aspect of the Social Presence Model. The list below provides brief context for the studies conducted and the percentage identifying Instructor Involvement in social presence as Very Important or Important.


North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) – Teachers - N = 44 - 98% (n = 43)

North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) – Students – N = 1024 - 80% (n = 819)

Regional Public University – Online faculty – N = 73 – 96% (n = 70)

Huntley High School blended learning program – Students – N = 212 – 90% (n = 191)

District Summer School program* - Students – N =27 – 81% (n = 22)

Performance Learning Centers - Alternative high schools* - Students – N = 56 – 89% (n = 50)


*Due to a lack of space in the proposal, these program findings are not discussed in detail but will be included in the presentation.


               Open-ended survey responses and focus group/interview transcriptions reveal further explanation from participants regarding the importance of instructor-driven practices to build social presence. Several quotes and examples from multiple research studies are provided here. More examples and discussion will be part of the presentation.

Context One: North Carolina Virtual Public School

In a large scale survey of NCVPS teachers, several responses aligned with greater awareness from teachers about the importance of building connections with their students. One teacher mentioned s/he was “more aware of the need to build and maintain positive relationships with students.” Another explained: “Since teaching online, I have come to understand the barriers that students believe exist between themselves and their teachers. I now distribute my cell phone # for text messages from face-to-face students . . . . On snow days or when they are sick or just need a quick question asked, they can ping me and it is just great.”

Although teachers were intrigued by all areas of the SPM, they saw themselves (and Instructor Involvement) as key to their students’ learning. One teacher suggested, “I think it is very important for students to recognize that the instructor is a real person that cares about their success in the course. They want to know that I am working as hard toward their success as they are.” Additionally, teachers identified the importance of cultivating a relationship with their students and how important those relationships are in the learning process (Garrett Dikkers, Whiteside, & Lewis, 2013).

Context Two: Higher Education Faculty across content areas

Purposeful design of online and blended learning classroom spaces in higher education institutions can also help students develop more productive relationships with their instructors in which they see them as aiding their academic growth and development. With simple and inexpensive tools and strategies, instructors introduce new ideas for reflection online that can continue to build connections among students. For example, with webcams and software, instructors create video explanations of course content or review materials discussed in a face-to-face class, continuing to build community. Or, they create space for flexible face-to-face or virtual office hours and contribute to the course community through participation in icebreakers, forums, and community-building activities they initially develop for student-to-student interaction.

Context Three: High School Blended Learning Initiative

School administrators, teachers, parents, and students in the Huntley Blended Learning Initiative identified Instructor Involvement as essential (Garrett Dikkers, Whiteside, & Lewis, 2017). There were a multitude of responses that discussed the instructor’s role in building community and making connections with students in order to make them more comfortable within the blended environment, and more able to focus on their learning than the modality. One administrator explained: “Blended teachers are saying that it's making them a better educator, and the students are echoing this. They feel a closer more productive relationship with the students in a blended class, because they actually communicate with them one-on-one more, because they don't see them every single day." This effect is a surprise to some who expect the students to be less connected to their teachers since they do not see them daily. (Garrett Dikkers, Whiteside, & Lewis, 2014).

Conclusions and Discussion

Our key finding over the years is that social presence embodies an essential literacy for cultivating emotions and relationships that enhance the overall learning experience (Whiteside, 2017; Whiteside & Garrett Dikkers, 2015). This literacy is akin to any influential literacy, such as technological literacy, rhetorical literacy, and digital literacy. Social presence through the Social Presence Model represents an emotive quality that is essential to successful, meaningful online or blended learning experiences. Our research demonstrates the essential nature of Instructor Involvement in the development of this literacy and provides a glimpse into effective practices utilized by instructors in a variety of settings and with varied groups of students.