I’ve been reading much about the impact of social presence in online learning environments. Essentially, I understand the concept to mean that one must feel seen and be seen by others in an environment if collaboration and communication can happen. In a constructivist online learning environment, social presence is absolutely essential for interaction to happen.
What does it take to project social presence in an online environment? Why should we bother? I’ve seen first hand what a failure to establish social presence causes. I unsuccessfully implemented an ongoing, online professional development opportunity for some teachers of adult ESL students. The teachers were hoping to learn how to use social media in their their classrooms. What better way for them to learn than to actually use a CMS that mimics social media, in this case Schoology?
Guess what!? They didn’t trust the environment or the facilitation, so they refused to build their profile pages or blog. Not surprisingly, there was not much collaborative learning. I’ve felt fairly frustrated by the experience for some time. What would I do differently? First, I think I’d start smaller. Several of these teachers were new to even email. Perhaps a listserv would have seemed a smaller step. Though harder to assert social presence in such a medium, research suggests that it’s not impossible (Lowenthal, in press). Second, I think I would do more modeling. I posted once every week to show them how to do it. I think once every day would have been better.
The experience showed me how hard it is for some people to put themselves out there. When I think about my own efforts to establish social presence in my online courses, I often feel like I’m constructing a new identity that is representative of but not exactly who I am. I do this by deciding what photos to post or which information to share. I trust that others in the community will accept these presentations/offerings and somehow that will begin to establish the trust necessary for collaborative learning. It does take some getting used to.
Lowenthal, P. R. (n.d.). The evolution and influence of social presence theory on online learning. Online education and adult learning: New fronties for teaching practices, 1–30.