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22st Annual OLC International Conference
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Social Presence Online: Three Research Lenses

Karen Swan (University of Illinois Springfield, USA)
Amy Garrett Dikkers (University of North Carolina at Wilmington, USA)
Aimee Whiteside (University of Tampa, USA)
Phil Ice (American Public University System, USA)
Jennifer Richardson (Purdue University, USA)
Patrick R. Lowenthal (Boise State University, USA)
Wally Boston (American Public University System, USA)
Session Information
October 16, 2015 - 9:30am
Learning Effectiveness
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Theory/Conceptual Framework
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Asia 4
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 9
Virtual Session

This interactive presentation addresses three distinct lenses through which researchers view social presence in online and blended learning: Technology-Determined, Participant-Driven, and Literacy-Oriented Lenses.

Extended Abstract

In this presentation, we address social presence across three different schools of thought, addressing how, why, and if our lenses have changed over time and how each offers an important view of social presence. This session engages the audience with an interactive poll where they define social presence to the best of their ability, indicate its level of importance in the learning experience, and indicate their rationale for that decision. In the second half of the presentation, we also collect questions from audience members for the presenters.

Although the specific definitions of social presence vary greatly, learning scholars generally accept that social presence relates to the level of connectedness among instructors and students, often in a technology-enhanced environment. Perceptions of social presence have evolved over time and generally fall into the following three major schools of thought:

1. Technology-Driven Lens. Research that focuses largely on technologies and participant behaviors. This school of thought views social presence as intimately related to communication technologies.

2. Participant-Driven Lens. Research that views social presence as resulting from student perceptions of other participants in online environments. This approach focuses on deep and meaningful social learning experiences often employing the Community of Inquiry (COI) framework.

3. Literacy-Oriented Lens. Research that views social presence as an overarching literacy for teaching and learning experiences. This approach often employs Whiteside's Social Presence Model (2007; 2015).
Each of these philosophies offers a unique lens in which to explore learning experiences.

The technology-driven focus draws from the telecommunication era of the late 1960s and 1970s when organizations began investing more time, money, and infrastructure into teleconferencing. In this era, computer-mediated communication (CMC) researchers viewed social presence as that which was lost or missing from the communicative experience. This philosophy derives from the ground-breaking work of Short, Williams, and Christie where researchers perceived social presence as the "degree of salience of the other person in a mediated communication and the consequent salience of their interpersonal interactions" (1976, p. 65). As various interactive and other communication media evolved, such as social media, video streaming, Web conferencing, and learning management systems, social presence research began to revisit the effects of differing technologies on learner perceptions of social presence. Many of these studies have been grounded in the Community of Inquiry framework but move beyond it to again consider technological effects (Nippard, & Murphy, 2007; Ice, Curtis, Phillips, & Wells, 2008; Dunlap, & Lowenthal, 2009; Lowenthal, & Dunlap, 2010; Nagel, & Kotze, 2010; Daspit, & D'Souza, 2012; Dunlap, & Lowenthal, 2014).

Participant Driven
The notion that social presence was a function of media, however, was challenged by researchers in the field who showed that perceived social presence in online interactions varies among participants in the same mediated conversations (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1996), and indeed that many participants perceived online discourse as more personal than traditional classroom discussion (Walther 1994; Wegeriff, 1998). They thus argued that social presence was as much a matter of individual perceptions as an objective quality of the medium. This sense of social presence was adopted by the scholars who created the Commuity of Inquiry (CoI) framework which describes learning processes in online environments. Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000; 2010) explain learning online as supported by the interconnection of three presences social presence, teacher presence, and cognitive presence. Since the COI's inception in the late 1990s, researchers have employed the COI framework widely in dozens of studies across various institutions, subject areas, and student populations worldwide (Richardson, & Swan, 2003; Wise, Chang, Duffy, & del Valle, 2004; Arbaugh, 2005; Garrison, & Cleveland-Innes, 2005; Swan, & Shih, 2005; Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006; Lomicka, & Lord, 2007; Shea & Bidjerano, 2009; Garrison, & Akyol, 2012; Boston et al; 2009; Cleveland-Innes, & Campbell, 2012; Cleveland-Innes, Ally, Wark, & Fung, 2013; ; ).

The final category is still emerging in many ways. This school of thought views social presence as overarching concept as a literacy in its own right. Social presence in this view, is not the extension of participants in a learning environment or a small part of an educational experience. Instead, social presence serves at the center of a dynamic interplay of instructors, students, instructional designers, instructional strategies, technology, media, and norms coming together to determine the learning outcomes. Researchers who embody this philosophy often employ the Social Presence Model (SPM) (Whiteside, 2007, 2015) with the following five interconnected components: Affective Association, Community Cohesion, Instructor Involvement, Interaction Intensity, and Knowledge and Experience (Garrett Dikkers & Whiteside, 2008, 2013; Garrett Dikkers, Whiteside, & Lewis, 2012, 2013; Whiteside & Garrett Dikkers, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012; Whiteside, Garrett Dikkers, & Lewis, 2014; Whiteside, Hughes, & McLeod, 2005). The SPM views social presence as a "master conductor that synchronizes the instructor, students, norms, academic content, learning management system (LMS), media and tools, instructional strategies, and outcomes within a learning experience" (Whiteside, 2015).

The common ground among all these social presence philosophies that they all suggest that learning is more than a mere passive transmission-based process, certainly more than what Paulo Friere identifies as the Banking Concept of Education. We urge educators and learners to be more aware of their effect on levels of social presence within academic contexts.

Lead Presenter

Karen Swan is the James J. Stukel Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership and a Research Associate in the Center for Online Learning, Research, & Service (COLRS) at the University of Illinois Springfield. Karen’s research has been in the general area of electronic media and learning for the 25 years since she received her doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her current research interests center on online learning Karen has authored over 125 journal articles and book chapters, produced several hypermedia programs, and co-edited two books on educational technology topics. She has directed projects funded by the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Education and the New York City Board of Education, as well as several corporate foundations, and is currently involved in WCET’s Predictive Analytics Reporting Project and ACE’s MOOCs as Game Changers Projects. Karen is the Special Issues Editor for the Journal of Educational Computing Research, and serves on the review boards and/or steering committees for many educational technology journals and conferences, and is the Chair of the American Educational Research Association’s Special Interest Group on Online Teaching and Learning. She is on the OLC Board of Directors and the steering committees for the Blended Learning and Online Learning conferences. Karen was awarded the OLC award for Most Outstanding Achievement in Online Learning by an Individual in 2006 and was inducted into the inaugural group of OLC Fellows in 2010. In 2010 she also was given the Distinguished Alumni award by her alma mater.