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Faculty Perspective: Establishing Social Presence

Distance Learning -- Tue, 06/03/2014 - 12:00am

The guest blogger for this post is Mr. Johan Adendorff. He is a Master Instructor in the Health Promotion and Wellness online degree program in the School of Kinesiology housed within the College of Education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Learn more about Mr. Adendorff by clicking here. This is a guest blog; the opinions presented here do no reflect the Office of Distance Learning or the University.

Increased social presence in an online teaching environment is an evolving process as instructors continually explore new avenues to improve the online learning experience. Research clearly indicates that social presence in the traditional classroom setting (face-to-face) enhances instructional delivery and the classroom experience (Brandi Scollins, Mantha, 2008). It is important to define “social presence” as it relates to the online experience: Social presence is multifaceted and must have specific intent.

Defining Social Presence

Existing definitions are readily available, but few simple definitions can actually capture how involved online social presence really is. A simple definition includes being connected or engaged with others in some form of exchange or collaboration, the sense of being connected with others through computer mediated communication, the combined focus on a specific discovery (topic/production), an interactive exchange of ideas and thoughts creating a culture where participants feel connected and challenged, yet safe to participate without fear of ridicule and embarrassment (Facebook, in my opinion, does not provide this desired safety and security).

Basic Tools

In the search for better and more advanced technology to enhance collaboration and to develop a culture of social connectedness, there are practical primary Internet tools available which are often overlooked. Examples would include e-mail, instant messaging and virtual chat rooms (office hours), forum posts and discussions boards, Question and Answer forums, video posting and prompt assignment feedback. These are tools that are readily available through Moodle and similar delivery systems.

Despite successes when optimal use of these older tools are implemented, we seek new horizons, new methods to meet the same goals more efficiently and more effectively. New avenues may be Facebook, Twitter, and Slide share, Adobe Connect, and so on and so forth. It seems the ultimate goal is to have a Face-to-Face online educational experience. In my estimation, that is probably where we will end up. Though I am open to new ideas and new tools, I still hold the philosophy that not all that is new is necessarily better. Keeping an open mind, though, is imperative if you do not want to be limited to the tools of the past. Now, let me share with you my experiences with social presence and connectedness using the older aforementioned tools available.

Tools of My Trade: Staying Socially Connected

  • Setting the Stage Using a Forum Discussion: Posting a detailed explanation of expectations, letting students know what to expect from you (be consistent!), as well as what you expect from them. Students can identify with this. This is my initial contact with my students in both my Environmental Health and Stress Management class.
  • Instructor/Student Bio’s Using Forum Posts: Requiring all students to participate by posting a bio and responding to a minimum of five peer bio’s posted. Students can use a power point, YouTube, Prezi, etc., presentation and must post a picture of themselves (authentication). Responses must be three sentences or more and must focus on the presentations posted. It is important, if not imperative, that the instructor participates in the discussion by posting a personal bio as well (a short video is excellent). Instructors must respond to each student in a meaningful and positive way to identify with each student. Look for something positive, even if it is hard to find. In my stress class I encourage each student to list the five major stressors in their lives and my comments will then focus on identifying with one or more of their struggles. This makes me human when I show vulnerability. In my environmental health class I focus on the five top environmental concerns they may have (opening the door for meaningful discussion later on). This is a two week process, but a very fun way to connect with students. We must remember that social presence is both vertical (teacher to student) and horizontal (student to student). This is a prime platform to connect students with similar interests to work together on future assignments.
  • E-mail:  Responses to student emails should be within 24 hours and must always have a positive conclusion. This is sometimes difficult, but if a positive culture is desired, instructors must lead the charge. Nip negative e-mails with a swift response, not a swift reaction. Reactive replies create a negative social environment. E-mails can often sound cold, impatient, rude and accusatory. Give students the benefit of the doubt, but still address your concern with the involved party. For example, “I know you did not intend for it to sound negative, but…”. Students are quick to apologize. Thank them and make them allies in your attempt to perpetuate the positive social culture you desire. Be available, but set the boundary.
  • Virtual Office Hours: Virtual office hours can be quite a lonely time for an instructor because students have lives too. Twice a semester, using either Moodle or Skype, I have mandatory office hour participation. I provide three time slots and only allow 8 students to sign up for each time slot. Cameras are optional but microphones are strongly encouraged. Students come prepared with one question or concern and one or more positive experiences in the class to share with their peers. This is usually a fun time and lasts no longer than 45 minutes. I look forward to this event, because I get to see some of my students.
  • Question and Answer Forums: These forum types are mainly used for horizontal communication (student to student collaboration). Sometimes I intervene, but for the most part, I simply monitor the activity on this forum. Students enjoy the peer teaching and help on these forums. I always have a presence to ensure a positive culture and to protect students from incorrect information sharing.
  • Course Announcements: Using the Moodle News Forum, these announcements are done once a week or as needed. This activity serves as a simple reminder that the instructor is aware of due dates and times. Students appreciate these reminders.
  • Assignment Feedback: In my experience, assignment feedback provides the best opportunity for student feedback or response. My goal is to have assignments graded and grades posted with constructive feedback within 3-5 business days of the assignment due date (I sometimes succeed). I am still amazed at responses I receive about feedback appreciation. Students who do exceptional work love to be affirmed and students who deliver mediocre productions love the encouragement when it is constructive yet positive. I find this avenue to be the best to spur students to social interaction and participation. This practice of affirming the unaffirmed is a powerful tool to promote a positive social culture (Conrad Barrs, M.D. 1975). Major student productions, such as semester projects, are posted on discussion forums for peer review and peer feedback. Generally, peers must comment on a project different from the one they selected.
  • Instructor Role in Facilitating Discussion: An instructor’s role in the discussion board is varied; they must offer information, provide feedback and corrections, and ask questions. Instructors must also manage the socio-emotional side of the classroom by quenching any flames, drawing out lurkers, and toning down more loud participants (Rovai, 2001). I couldn’t have said it better myself.
  • Synchronous Web-Conferencing:   Adobe Connect is a tool I will experiment with this summer. I look forward to new innovations, but will not readily discard older yet effective, tools of the trade.

Finally, using humor can be effective in diffusing volatile online tensions. Just as humor works to diffuse tense situations in face-to-face contexts, humor can be used in the online classroom to foster social presence. Humor “reduces social distance and conveys goodwill” by offering students something to share in (Aragon, 2003, p. 65). Humor has also been tied to improving learning outcomes (Woods & Ebersole, 2003).

New tools to promote social presence often come with a learning curve and at times instructors are reluctant to implement new innovations because of the time commitment “new” requires. Yet, faculty can embrace an appropriate amount of new without being pushed over the virtual electronic cliff.