Published on 2015/08/26
The EvoLLLution | Community of Inquiry: Social Presence
Educators must ensure they are building a level of social presence into their courses to ensure their students feel engaged.

This is the second installment of a four-part series by Debra Beck discussing the value of the Community of Inquiry framework for success in online, in-class and blended learning modalities. The first part of the series introduced the concept, and in this installment Beck will discuss the role of Social Presence in the success of developing a Community of Inquiry.

Reducing the perceived distance between students and instructor and building a sense of community in a group of learners who may live states—or even continents—away from each other are essential functions of social presence in an online classroom.

Creating and sustaining social presence—one of three core components of the Community of Inquiry framework—is a perpetual challenge for online instructors. Social presence facilitates the process of building a community where individual and collective commitment to the learning process deepens the potential for engagement with the content and with each other. Social presence enables student ownership of learning success and satisfaction with the overall course experience.

Because online students may be literally continents away—or, at least, not in the same room at the same time—creating social presence requires careful attention to how members are invited in, welcomed and encouraged to become active participants in their own learning process.

Individual students have varying levels of comfort with sharing personal information and with different technologies that might be used in the course. Some will have higher levels of need to see and hear classmates and find inability to do that on a regular basis problematic. We cannot guarantee a universally positive experience for all students. But we can pave the way for the kind of social connections needed for a successful learning experience.

Following are some of the ways that I have worked to build social presence, as well as a few ideas shared by others:

  • Provide clear, easy entry points for finding and getting acquainted with fellow students and the instructor. Create a welcome thread for introductions, with a request to share basic information—e.g., biographical, interest in the course/topic, etc. Ask them to share a photo, to provide a “face” to the name classmates will see in discussions and group projects. Offer the option to share this information via other media forms, including video or audio.

  • Offer a prompt, personal welcome to each student as he/she checks into the thread. Acknowledge information shared and ask a question that invites expansion and additional sharing.

  • Set up a “class café” —a thread dedicated to sharing and conversation beyond the formal discussions and interactions related to content. Encourage students to use that space as an additional community building and peer-learning opportunity.

  • Highlight the tools available for communication (e.g., email, chat, conferencing, wiki, group spaces) as members of the course.

  • Provide a friendly, informative, personalized instructor biography and make it part of the introductory course material.

  • Offer a video or audio welcome to the course, to give students a better sense of the instructor as an individual.

  • In larger classes, create opportunities to work in smaller groups: discussions, group projects, peer reviews, etc. These scenarios facilitate deeper bonds with individual students and joint ownership of the learning experiences that they share.

  • Set basic course expectations for course participation—ways of working and interacting together that are respectful and collegial—that place high value on collaboration.

  • Involve the students in defining ground rules and expectations for course discussions and for group participation. Build ownership of those expectations.

  • Once in discussion, do three things. One, model the kind of open and respectful discourse yourself that you expect from students. Two, encourage appropriate, voluntary sharing of personal examples. They both give life to concepts being discussed and offer additional opportunity to learn more about each other. Three, be prepared to address problematic interactions and reinforce the sense of safety needed for a culture of open dialogue.

  • Take care to acknowledge and respond to every student in class discussions. Be aware of your interactions, avoiding the temptation to focus your energy and attention on the most active or chatty students. Find ways to engage quieter members and to draw them into the discussion. Never let a student feel invisible.

This is the second of a four-part series by Debra Beck outlining the Community of Inquiry framework from a postsecondary perspective. Please click here to receive updates when future installments are published.

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Readers Comments

Rebecca Johnson 2015/08/26 at 2:37 pm

These are really helpful, concrete ways to improve the online learning experience beyond just stating things like provide better services. Instructors need to be so intentional about how they set up the online space, and many instructors just don’t have the experience doing that from teaching in conventional classrooms.

Debra Beck 2015/08/28 at 10:27 am

Thanks for the feedback, Rebecca. My patience is low for people who dismiss online learning as “less than” or “easier than” (because they assume you just set it up and leave the students to fend for themselves) . It is a different kind of teaching, a different kind of environment. But the needs for creating a safe, stimulating, collegial *learning community* are strong. The challenges for creating and sustaining social presence in an online course are unique to that setting but at the same time universal. Its role in creating a quality learning experience for the students is huge.

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