Building Trust

There is ample research and writing on building community that discusses the importance of building trust. Whether it is in a classroom or an online environment, learners must trust that the course will be a source of learning, that their classmates will be respectful and contribute to their knowledge, and (most importantly) that the teacher is trustworthy. If trust is lacking in an online environment, there is no discussion or interaction, and hence, according to Ortner (2010), no community. In other words, any socio-cognitivist aspirations the instructor or designer has about learners co-constructing knowledge will be left unfulfilled.

I have lived this as a designer/facilitator of online learning! My first troubling experience like this was with a group of teachers, new to technology, who wanted to learn more about social media and technology integration into their classrooms. I used Schoology as an online learning venue and set up modules allowing for lots of interaction. During our in-person orientation and kick-off meeting, I gave them time to play in the site and gave support where needed. When it was time for them to personalize their homepage and leave an introductory blog post, they resisted. I heard many concerns about privacy and reluctance or refusal to put anything personal online.

No matter how I explained privacy settings and the security of the site, several refused to do anything that would contribute to developing their social presence online. They were very afraid of posted information being used against them and of identity theft. I allowed them to follow their intuition and didn’t press them; however, not surprisingly, these same teachers refused to participate in the online discussion. They said that they were worried about being judged by others in the group. They didn’t see how sharing their ideas could be a springboard for learning. I see a direct connection between their unwillingness to engage socially, TO TRUST, and their resistance to share their opinions and contribute to both their own and their colleagues’ learning.

How could I have prevented this? I think I should have started with baby steps. First of all, they didn’t know me personally, so I had none of what Brookfield (2006) referred to as “authenticity”. My assurances were not enough to mitigate their fears about privacy on the Internet. I could have put all of these beginners in an isolated group and had them practice interacting using low-impact topics where we could all get to know each other. Such sheltered, unstressful discussion may have eased their fears, proving that the only readers of their writing were trusted, nonjudgemental colleagues. I hope I get a chance to try this again with newcomers!

Brookfield, S. (2006). What students Value in Teachers. In The Skillful Teacher: On Trust, Technique, and Responsiveness in the Classroom (pp. 67–78). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kelly, R. (2008). Creating Trust in Online Education. Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching Strategies. Retrieved from

Ortner, N. A. (2010). Developing trust; the superglue of online communities. California Virtual Campus. Retrieved from

Social Presence. Overcompensate.

The standout lestaylor photo on flickr

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.