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Improving Social Presence in Online Learning

ETOMI recently attended the Educational Technology Organization of Michigan (ETOM) Fall Conference held at Mid Michigan Community College in Mt. Pleasant. The keynote speaker was Dr. Karen Swan, the Stukel Professor of Educational Research and a Research Associate in the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service (COLRS) at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Dr. Swan is a highly-regarded, oft-cited expert on the topic of social presence in online learning, the subject of her keynote. (Presentation slides and a video of her keynote are below.) She offered a few definitions of social presence including the following:

” … the degree to which a person is perceived as a ‘real person’ in mediated communication”¬†(qtd. in Swan, slide 9).

” … the ability of participants in a virtual community of inquiry to project themselves socially and emotionally, and to perceive each other as ‘real people'” (qtd. in Swan, slide 11).

I’m terribly fascinated by this topic because I’ve just started teaching online, and in my experience so far it’s most definitely harder to create social presence online than it is face-to-face. When I see warm bodies in chairs in the classroom, it’s easy for me to project just how charismatic, intelligent, funny, supportive and humble I am. Online, it’s a different story.

Dr. Swan advocated three ways to measure social presence in an online course. They are as follows (and I’m paraphrasing from her slides):

  • Affective expression:
    • using emoticons and punctuation to express emotion.
    • using descriptive words to indicate feelings.
    • expressing personal values and beliefs.
    • using humor.
    • sharing/disclosing personal information; being vulnerable
  • Group cohesion:¬†
    • using greetings and closures for messages.
    • addressing classmates and students by name.
    • using collective pronouns like “we”, “us”, “our”.
    • offering opportunities to reflect on the course and offer feedback.
  • Open communication:
    • acknowledging/referring to others’ posts/messages.
    • agreeing/disagreeing with others’ posts/messages.
    • approving ideas, offering praise and encouragement.
    • inviting responses.
    • offering advice.

I found these to be very helpful. It’s given me three different ways to frame the way I’m communicating and offering feedback online. If you’re interested in this topic feel free to leave a comment below or reach out to discuss.

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