A key concept in online education research, the term presence is drawn from Social Presence Theory (Short, Williams, Christie 1976) that examines the ability of various communication mediums to transmit social cues, and the impact these limitations might have upon trust and social interaction. In the field of online learning its most common use is through the terms ‘social presence’ and ‘teacher’ or ‘instructor presence’.

Social Presence

Drawn from a social constructivist view of learning, where learning is understood as an inherently social activity, the term social presence initially referred to the possibility of experiencing other individuals in the situation as real and tangible people who will react and respond to us (Oztok, M. & Brett, C. 2011) . Over the last 20 years of research into online education the term has expanded to include our ability to express and represent ourselves “socially and emotionally as real people” and the levels of trust, collaboration and communication between the group as a whole (Oztok, M. & Brett, C. 2011).

Teacher Presence

Teacher presence, in the context of online learning refers to the participation of the teacher in the online learning space to assist in shaping and directing cognitive and social processes (Zilka, G. C, Cohen, R, & Rahimi, I. D. 2018), but also extends to the curation, design and presentation of the components of the learning experience such as materials, text discussions, real time video discussion and the structuring of the LMS subject site itself.

Why is presence important?

Studies have shown close links between perceived teacher presence to student satisfaction (Ladyshewsky, Richard K. 2013) and student learning (Picciano, A. 2002). Students are also missing out on much of the social interaction that would normally occur in an experience of university study, supporting the development of social presence in a subject will enable students to have a richer social experience of learning in 2020.

What does teacher presence look like?

  • Responsive and timely; quickly hearing back from real people builds student confidence in the online learning space.
  • Be a real, social person; studies have shown that interactions with teaching staff who use first names, give thanks and praise to students and refer their own real life experiences have more impact than the sheer number of interactions (Ladyshewsky, Richard K. 2013).
  • Communicate clear expectations for yourself and students. Knowing when you are available and how quickly you are likely to respond reduces frustration for students, knowing what expectations there are for interactions in the online learning space helps reduce everyone’s anxiety and lowers the likelihood of potential issues.
  • Design for social interaction; include tasks and processes that require students to work collaboratively, introduce themselves, or relate their own experiences to the material.
  • Facilitate productive discourse; be present in discussions and ready to steer the conversation through comments and encouragement.
  • Synchronous video options such as Teams and Zoom can assist students to feel a social connection to you and other students if facilitated well.
  • Asynchronous options such as online discussions allow flexibility for students to engage at a time that suits them and has positive benefits for students who might avoid speaking out in class or over video.
  • Practice empathy; expressing concern and showing that you care about students through your interactions and language builds trust and a sense of belonging in a community.

Uncharted waters

The current situation where the majority of higher education programs are conducted online due to COVID-19 is a completely new era for online education. Previously any student participating in online education might have been assumed to have chosen the online format due to distance, mobility, time, flexibility, budget or their own preferences for social interaction. This is the first time that large cohorts have undertaken online learning due to it being the only option. It seems likely that the experiences and research that comes about from teaching and learning in 2020 may shift our understanding and practice more than the previous 30 years combined.

Shared experiences

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