What is the importance of social presence in fostering deep learning?

Excerpt from Donald, R., Gallahad, R. and Kamal, S. (2013) 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐈𝐦𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐚𝐧𝐜𝐞 𝐨𝐟 𝐒𝐨𝐜𝐢𝐚𝐥 𝐏𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐞𝐧𝐜𝐞 𝐢𝐧 𝐅𝐨𝐬𝐭𝐞𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐃𝐞𝐞𝐩 𝐋𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐧𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐢𝐧 𝐎𝐧𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐞 𝐄𝐝𝐮𝐜𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧.

Distance education originated with correspondence courses in the 18th century, in which passive media were utilised to allow asynchronous communications between a tutor and a learner. With the introduction of the Web in 1994, allowing increased public access to digital resources, the opportunities for online education opened up. Technological developments opened various possibilities for interaction, virtual learning communities were enabled to move beyond only web-based activities, and interaction began to be viewed as an essential element in online courses.

Now, education has been regarded as a social practice, and consequently it was considered that any formal learning environment should provide for the social practice and process of learning. However, in the case of asynchronous text-based environments, computer mediated communication (CMC) was soon criticized from the perspective that the loss of cues normally used in social interaction would interfere with learning, and that the lack of face-to-face interaction in web-based learning made it less effective than traditional classroom learning.

Therefore, it became a focus of inquiry as to how online education can cater for the social requirement, and research began on how online course participants interact. Garrison (2011) regards this as the best place to begin thinking about e-learning, due to the medium’s ability to support levels of interactivity at a high level. As research began on interactions in e-learning, questions arose as to the degree to which social cues being filtered out in CMC determined how participants interact socially and are perceived as “being there” and able to come across as being “real” when communicating online.

Cui et al (2012) suggest that among the many factors that affect the online learning experience, social presence is worthy of extended study in terms of the asynchronous nature of web-based education and the communication issues that it raises. Social presence is arguably the most popular theory used to evaluate how participants socially interact in virtual learning environments (VLE). According to Cui et al (2012) social presence is an essential starting point for research on how students feel about their online experience, primarily in consideration of “students’ frustration, dissatisfaction, less participation or even higher dropout rates” that may result from asynchronous learning environments. Social presence should also be considered with regard to the effectiveness of online instruction.

So, we must ask, what is meant by social presence? There is no single, universally accepted definition, and almost all who use the term give a slightly different definition. Social presence has been variously defined as:

  • the degree to which individuals perceive intimacy, immediacy, and their particular role in a relationship (Short, Williams, and Christie, 1976)
  • the feeling of contact obtained across various communication media (Williams, 1978)
  • the degree of feeling, perception, and reaction of being connected by CMC to another intellectual entity through a text-based encounter (Tu & McIsaac, 2002)
  • a student’s sense of being in and belonging in a course and the ability to interact with other students and an instructor (Picciano, 2002)
  • the ability of participants to identify with a group, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop personal and affective relationships progressively by way of projecting their individual personalities (Garrison, 2009)

Lowenthal highlights that the various definitions tend to fall on a continuum, on one end of which social presence is conceptualized as the degree to which a participant is perceived as being “real” and being “there”. The focus of these definitions is on whether people can project themselves as being “real” in an online environment. At the other end of the continuum the focus is not only on whether someone is perceived as being “real”, but on whether there is a positive “interpersonal emotional connection” between participants. Lowenthal concludes that most researchers fall in the middle of the continuum.

Social presence can be demonstrated to be of importance on two levels, both of which are essential in community building and guiding learner – learner interaction to deeper levels of understanding, which Motteram (2001) perceives as being vital in the educational process.

Salmon (2011) applies the term ‘socialisation’ to the second stage of her five-step model of the online learning experience, and this can be related to the first level of social presence. We have previously considered social presence in terms of presenting ourselves as being “real”, and this extends to perceiving other participants as being “real” and “there” also, to the point that relationships can be formed. Salmon presents her second stage as one of “individual participants establishing their online identities and then finding others with whom to interact.”

Salmon’s 5 Stages Model

Therefore it has been advised that online tutors begin their courses by encouraging students to share general, personal information, and Anderson (2004) suggests that this is best achieved through the use of virtual icebreakers. These activities enable participants to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real’ people and making all feel that they belong to the group. This sense of belonging or presence’ enables students to interact comfortably with peers as well as instructors.

Now, these directions toward a social experience extend beyond that of simply creating a friendly atmosphere such that participants enjoy a course and form new friendships (although these are important motivating factors). Socialisation is not employed blindly to facilitate chat, but exists as a developmental stage towards deeper interaction for pedagogical reasons. Salmon’s model indicates that successful socialisation (stage 2) leads participants on to information exchange (stage 3) and knowledge construction (stage 4), which takes us beyond surface communications to more critical discourse.

The idea of social presence reducing personal risk and increasing acceptance becomes particularly important in critical discourse as, according to Garrison and Anderson (2011), the establishment of social presence also enhances and sustains cognitive presence. Garrison and Anderson argue that a successful education depends upon a balance of social, cognitive and instructor presence as a foundation for a critical and creative ‘community of inquiry’, which is a requisite for higher learning.

Such a “true learning community”, according to Belderrain (2006), places student interaction “at the heart of learner-centred constructivist” practice, “fostering student interaction” and “promoting collaboration”. Lowenthal (2009) adds that the community of inquiry model is “based on assumptions about participation,” stemming from “evidence of learners reaching higher levels of cognitive engagement as they work with others in their community, supported by teacher activity which enhances the conditions for such interaction.”

So, this focus on a community again highlights the importance of social presence in developing interaction and collaboration, and indicates that the quality and quantity of interaction can be molded by the degree of social presence (Belderrain, 2006). The community-centred approach allows for the inclusion of a critical social component and permits us to investigate how learners can create new knowledge collaboratively, which is at the heart of social constructivism.

In summary, social presence entails establishing a community of practice in which members “support and challenge each other, leading to effective knowledge construction” (Anderson, 2004), and “successful e-learning depends on the ability of the educator to create learning environments that motivate students and facilitate meaningful and worthwhile learning activities” (Garrison & Anderson, 2011). Social presence “[empowers] participants to actively construct their knowledge rather than passively receiving information, through participation in reflective dialogue in a trusting, familiar, informal and empathic community” (Chapman et al, 2005).

So much for the theory … let’s experience it in practice …

Our signature training in Online Course Delivery is designed for teachers and trainers in any field who wish to develop their career in online education. It covers the essentials of moderating a virtual learning environment (VLE), content design, how to effectively balance self-access content with live sessions, the facilitation of learner-centred knowledge construction, and assessment.

If you think ‘teaching online’ just means live lessons in a virtual classroom, then get ready to think again!

This is an interactive group course, which requires active participation and collaborative work. While some pedagogical theory is covered, it is largely practical and experiential. You will come to understand the needs of online learners by being an online learner yourself. The training is tutor-facilitated, and you will have daily contact and feedback.

Take your online training delivery to a higher dimension

”I enjoyed Online Course Delivery immensely. The training provider has designed a detailed course that gives fantastic value for money, incorporating both individual and group forms of communication and tasks. The course has given me the knowledge and tools to further my career teaching online. I can highly recommend Online Course Delivery.” – Matt in Brazil

Skills you will learn
  • Working with virtual learning environments (i.e. Moodle)
  • Encouraging participation in online courses
  • Dealing with learner issues
  • How eLearning can be better than face-to-face training
  • How to effectively balance synchronous and asynchronous tasks
  • The importance of socialisation in online education
  • Engaging and motivating online learners
  • Creating tasks for different learner types
  • Essential elements of multimedia design
  • How to create powerful presentations for live online sessions
  • The keys to teaching in a virtual classroom
  • How to productively moderate online forum discussions
  • Creating and sourcing content for asynchronous courses
  • The psychology of online learning
  • The crucial components of instructional design
  • Effective assessment in the online world

The final assessment is a group project in which you will be developing a sample unit for an asynchronous course. Our hope is that beyond the course, you will continue to develop your courseware and deliver it to your own learners.

Course length, dates & times

This 35-hour course is delivered over 5 weeks, therefore 7 hours each week.

There will be a weekly 1-hour live session, the timing of which will be negotiated per the availability of the group.

Apart from the live session, much of the interaction takes place in online forums. Participants can log in and work through each unit at any time during the week.

A new run of the course begins every 6 weeks. CLICK HERE for dates and fees.

Course Syllabus
  1. Access & Climate Setting
    We’ll begin our journey by exploring our virtual learning environment (VLE), finding our way around some of the course resources, and in getting to know each other. As a virtual learning community, we will be working very closely together throughout the course. We’ll start thinking about how to effectively moderate online courses, and will also consider the advantages of eLearning over face-to-face training.

  2. Online Socialisation
    Unit 2 is based on the concept of learning being a social process and looks at how a tutor can encourage interaction in a learner-centred online environment. We’ll also think about learner types and how to cater for these. We will learn how to develop a lively social learning environment, consider some important tutor skills, and try out a variety of Moodle activities.

  3. Information Exchange
    Online learning environments allow a multitude of ways to present multimedia content. In this unit, we’ll cover essential principles of multimedia learning, and experiment with a range of tools and online resources. This is a very practical unit!

  4. Knowledge Construction
    In Unit 4 we’ll look at how the dynamics of our initial stages of course design result in the main aim of socialisation: the establishment of a true online learning community. We’ll explore some important theory at the heart of knowledge construction, try out some more digital learning activities, and begin work on a collaborative project.

  5. Development
    In this final unit of our voyage we’ll look at how to bring a course to an end. We’ll consider assessment in the online context, and think about how to ensure that our learners leave our courses with the confidence to continue their learning autonomously. A large amount of this week is scheduled to allow everyone time to complete the collaborative project, which is used for summative assessment. The final assessment is a group project in which you will be developing a sample unit for an asynchronous course. Our hope is that beyond the course, you will continue to develop your courseware and deliver it to your own learners.

“This has been an inspirational, amazing, fun and challenging course, one for which I’m very grateful for. Being online felt like being at home. Thank you so much for this opportunity.” – Sissy in South Africa

Private Group Bookings

This training course is also available to private groups and can be tailored for specific organisations.
Our prices for private group bookings are:

  • 5 – 10 participants £355
  • 11 – 20 participants £710

Please contact info@mrbee.uk to discuss your requirements.


By the end of this course, you will be fully-versed in designing and delivering highly-effective online courses in virtual learning environments (i.e. Moodle). This will allow you to start delivering your own independent online training.

Supporting independent practitioners is our main aim. Our ideal is that participants will go on to create their very own virtual learning environments and to launch their very own online school / training platform.

Graduates of our training automatically become MisterBee Associates.

MisterBee Associates gain access to The Beehive – a free community resource, established to support independent online practitioners. Our aim is to provide resources and encouragement to help our members establish themselves as independent training providers.

In addition, we aim to provide teaching / training work through our sister project, ASEAN Business English, and through other projects as they arise

We also offer support in setting up your very own online school. ASEAN Business English was established to help you get started, but our main goal is for you to be successful as an independent practitioner.

“I felt so inspired by this course, which I learned so much from. It gave me a better perception of online teaching.” – Margo in South Africa

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