Who is the instructor? What is he/she like? These are typical questions among students getting ready to start a new course. In a course that is delivered completely online it is unlikely you will get the opportunity to meet your students in person. How would your online students describe you?
Social presence in online courses has been defined in different ways, but I think this description from Tarleton State University faculty members, Credence Baker and Jennifer Edwards, is a good place to start. Social presence is "the feeling that group members communicate with people instead of impersonal objects. As communication channels are restricted, social presence may decrease. When social presence is low within a group, group members often feel disconnected and cohesion levels are low. When social presence is high, however, each group member has the feeling of joint involvement."
Steven Aragon, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, states [PDF] that the goal of developing a sense of social presence in a course is "to create a level of comfort in which people feel at ease around the instructor and the other participants." Studies conducted by a variety of higher education researchers are finding that an instructor's online presence can affect overall student satisfaction and learning achievement, as well as community building [PDF].
Social Presence Strategies
As the instructor, you set the tone for your course and it's all about how and when you communicate. The steps you take to create your social presence will function as a model upon which the other members of your course's learning community, your students, will create their social presence as well. How can you communicate your social presence online?
- Introduce yourself. This may seem basic, but is often overlooked and can make a huge difference in how your students get to know you online. Most online course sites provide some sort of "meet your instructor" template. Complete this as thoroughly as possible and consider augmenting with audio or video recordings, as well as a photo. It's always nice to put faces to your students' names and they will likely appreciate "seeing" you as well.
- Set up your own webpage. Your course site may limit what you can post in terms of space available and format, but you can usually provide a link. Do you already have a "home" website, page, or professional social networking account? Consider providing this to your students. Steven Berg, associate professor at Schoolcraft College and a contributor to HASTAC.org, recently polled his students to find out what information they would like to see on an instructor's web page. Among the ideas suggested were "merging 'personal' and 'professional' information" and "links to Facebook and other social networking" sites in which you are active. Where are you active in a professional capacity? Choose to share only those profiles that are most appropriate for students and beware of sharing too much personal information. You may even want to establish separate accounts for communicating with students and friends and family.
- Contribute to course discussions. The threaded discussion format can be challenging to negotiate, especially in courses with large numbers of students. It is important, however, for you as the instructor to be active in these forums as a facilitator. Hong Wang, in an article from Faculty Focus, recommends several techniques for instructor engagement, including "group and class discussions, having a group leader facilitate the group discussion" and "summarizing the group discussion." In courses that rely heavily on discussion forums for interaction, your activity will contribute to student perception that you are "there" and present in the course, and engaged with the content right alongside them.
- Provide prompts and transitions. Curt Bonk, professor at Indiana University, recommends several strategies for fostering social presence that also help to create a flow of communication throughout the course [video]. Bonk's ideas include recapping events, announcing next steps, and using email for critical points and reminders. This kind of activity can also help to transition students from one unit to the next, and give you the opportunity to address common questions and concerns along the way.
- Be available. Provide ways for students to contact you both within and outside of the course. Establish virtual office hours, make use of email, and consider different types of synchronous communication, such as text chat or instant messaging, video conferencing, and even the telephone. Let students know when and where you are available, and provide clear expectations for when you will respond to their inquiries.
- Be yourself. In addition to the more official and formal communication requirements of an academic course, look for places in which you can let your personality come through, show your sense of humor, and share stories about your experiences. Connect with your students as a fellow learner. Bonk recommends adopting a conversational tone and finding ways to include information about events you are involved in, such as conferences, and current interests including articles you are reading.
Social Presence Planning
There's no question about it; these techniques take time and effort to implement successfully. Consider blocking specific time to engage in these social presence activities when planning your schedule for the upcoming term. Create your own social presence task list – by term, topic, or week – to ensure that you are including communication and community-building strategies throughout the course.
Some instructors find these efforts more intuitive and easily applied than others, as is also the case in face-to-face communication strategies. It takes practice and finding the 'right' balance between being actively engaged and overwhelming your students is part of the challenge. Give yourself the latitude to try a few new techniques and see what works best for you and your students.
Reach out to the faculty development and support groups at your school to find out more about available workshops, materials, and guidance. And look for other online instructors – in your personal learning network, at conferences, through professional groups and forums – who are successfully building social presence and identify techniques and strategies that inspire you.
Image credit: nyuhuhuu, Flickr, CC-BY