Fostering Social Presence in Online Courses

Encouraging Students to Engage with Each Other in Online Discussions

Social Presence: Helping Students Build Independent Relationships

In the past few years, I've noticed that digital technologies both help and hinder interpersonal communications in the face-to-face classroom. When I walk in before the start of class, many of my students are on their phones. They're messaging friends or following status updates or reading the news — on other words, engaging with the larger community outside my classroom.

This seems like negative, but it's not. It's a sign of the potential that these tools offer for connecting with students outside the physical space of a classroom. But emphasis on potential: it takes time and strategy to not only use these tools effectively, but to encourage our students to use these tools independently to build relationships with each other.

Lowenthal focuses on building relationships and authenticity within online courses. He explains the Community of Inquiry Model, built upon three components:

  • Social Presence: Interpersonal connections among participants.
  • Teaching Presence: Guidance and feedback from the instructor
  • Cognitive Presence: Engagement with the material to be learned.

Key Strategies for Building Social Presence

Here are some key techniques to encourage students to talk with each other:

  • Assign Introductions: Ask students to introduce themselves in a discussion forum, and then use your own example and suggested questions to encourage students to write detailed descriptions of their thoughts on the course, career plans, and personal interests.
  • Assign Responses to Each Other: Some students will naturally reply to each other, but many won't. But it's the back-and-forth conversation that creates interpersonal connections, and you need students talking to each other early in the course so they'll begin to look forward to these conversations later in the course.
  • Provide Your Own Personal Contributions to the Discussion: Sometimes, you need to take off the teacher's hat. Let your students see what you care about outside class — show that you share some of their interests, and that you can also relate to their own struggles to navigate that balance between life, school, and work.
  • Reach Out to "Missing" Students: If a student hasn't participated recently, get in touch with them. A quick e-mail or text message to say "hi!" can provide motivation to a student who's hesitating, or it can make you aware of extenuating circumstances that may require additional course accommodations.
  • Don't Intrude: Sometimes, the most important thing to do is to step back. Let your students be themselves. If two students are having an excellent conversation that stretches for a couple days of discussion posts, there's no need for you to comment — they're already creating the independent social presence that will keep them engaged.
  • Don't Grade Personal Content through Grammar: You wouldn't like if it someone gave you a "C" on your summer vacation, would you? For many discussions, a simple completion grade will ensure that students post — and you don't want students to be constrained based on worries about grammar or syntax or saying the "right" thing. So conversational discussions, emphasize that students can post anything at all that's classroom appropriate — what matters most is that they post.
  • Know When to Step In to Protect Community Guidelines: 99% of the time, students are polite and appropriate. The occasional expletive (directed at a topic and not another person) likely isn't a problem. But you need to monitor to ensure that some students aren't shutting down others. Certainly, offhand comments like "that's stupid" have the effect of silencing students, but a well-meaning comment like "no one believes that" can have a similarly chilling effect. You must also be alert for racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discriminatory language. Though major incidents will be rare, you must still address "minor" issues in a way that's respectful and educational.

When Social Presence Failed: A Story of an Online Writing Course

When I was younger, I took online creative writing courses. They were helpful in getting me to write and teaching good technique, but one of these courses seriously stung. Though the instructor and a well-meaning classmate wanted to offer helpful advice, they inadvertently sent the message that I wasn't a real writer.

Inspiring Creativity: The Rule of "Yes"

Part of fostering social presence involves helping each student feel confident. Even as you teach your students new concepts, even as you guide them to change their habits as writers and researchers, you need to reassure each member of your class that they already have valid ideas. And they do — every student in your class will have years of experiences to share, plus a wide variety of past courses. Our students have dreams and goals and hopes.