The Importance of Social Presence and Communication in the Online Classroom as Factors of Successful Student Experiences

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What we have known in years past as traditional education—attentive students sitting in our classes studiously taking notes of every word we say from our highly compelling lecture series—is drastically changing. The proliferation of online courses and degree programs following the implementation of Web 2.0/3.0 technologies resulted in exponential growth beyond the capacity of our institutions of higher learning to adequately train faculty and staff fast enough. As a result, student experiences were inconsistent at best and ranged from “won’t do this again” to “this is the way education should be!” A whole cottage industry of course designers, IT specialist, media producers, and many others resulted from this growing need to create better virtual learning environments.

Over the last few years I have been fortunate to have studied with two pioneers in the field: Dr. Rena Palloff (of particular note in the Unites States) and Dr. Yolanda Gayol (of particular note in Latin American, specifically Mexico). Through my own experience with online learning under their mentorship as a student and a teacher, I found the most common complaints about online experiences by students were communication, communication, and communication.

Recognizing that social presence is one of many factors that create community in the online class, I believe proactive engagement from the first day is essential. The instructor can create short activities—such an extended profile or a biographical sketch—that allow students to introduce themselves. This breaks the virtual tension associated with groups of people who do not know and cannot see one another. In this way, students can begin associating their interests with those of their peers and identifying commonalities of career paths. The instructor can observe students who seem withdrawn and/or intimidated by the online experience. The instructor can then plan for private engagements with those potential at-risk students.

Beyond the first day’s activities, the instructor can use a variety of tools to keep students invested in their newly created community, but there are two elements that are important to the success of each student. First, I would encourage students to keep in contact with their class in some way each day. They could participate in a discussion, watch a video, listen to a presentation, read an article, or email someone in the class. This creates a daily habit of “checking in” with their studies. Second, I would let students know that their instructor is “there” by regularly engaging students in online discussions, by communicating through email, and by holding virtual office hours at mutually convenient times using Skype, AnyMeeting, or other videoconferencing technology.

Social presence can be maintained and greatly enhanced when students participate in collaborative exercises and projects. For example, having students group-author an article using a WIKI requires communication, collaboration, and cooperation of group members. Other student groups and the instructor can then provide feedback about the WIKI. This gives recognition to the contribution of the team effort while helping to improve the work with additional ideas and points of interest to consider from diverse perspectives.

Regardless of the format of the course or the composition of the class, social presence can be maintained and greatly improved when students and their instructor regularly have meaningful communication, collaborate to solve problems, and cooperate to create solutions. One of the lasting values of a successful online course is the creation of the social network. In essence, a new social network is created every time an online course brings together instructor and learners. The next time you have an opportunity to teach or take an online course, think in terms of more than text and pictures on a page. Connect those media assets the way you would in a social network environment to communicate with your students, create a sense of community, and allow a learning environment with multiple creators.


About the Author:

Dr. John Weidert is an independent educator, communicator, and practitioner of educational and organizational leadership, communication, and media studies.