SIP 10.10 Establish a Strong Social Presence Online

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Students sitting at picnic table while working on laptops.

We are becoming a nation of lonely people. Our youngest generation attending college now, Generation Z, is considered the “loneliness generation,” in part because of the vast time spent behind a computer screen using social media as a means to interact with peers; another contributor to their loneliness is the lack of meaningful interpersonal connections overall.  Online interactions can never take the place of face-to-face interactions, but there are strategies and techniques that can be incorporated into your online course to increase student-to-student interaction, create more meaningful connections and decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Take a SIP of this: establishing a strong teaching presence online

The key is to create opportunities for interactions between learners that are stimulating, allow learners to express themselves and have significance in the learners’ lives (Stavredes, 2011). It’s easy to develop a sense of anonymity in online courses. In an online environment, it is more difficult to create a sense of presence; however, social interaction in online courses promotes positive learning outcomes and student satisfaction. Social presence also creates comfort and emotional connections among learners in online learning environments (Akcaoglu & Lee, 2016).

Suggestions for increasing social presence in an online course:

  • Think about all the ways in which you connect to your students in the face-to-face environment and then translate these ideas to online (sharing of personal stories and experiences, frequent feedback and continuous conversation). Also see: SIP 10.2.
  • Use emails to communicate with the class about current events, things to do that week or a summary of overall class progress on assignments or assessments. For example, send an email to the class letting students know how well the class did on a particular quiz or midterm. You can send an email outlining areas for improvement, perhaps taking the opportunity to reinforce concepts that may have been overlooked or misunderstood. You can also use emails to summarize a recent forum discussion as well as incorporate additional information that may be relevant or answer any lingering questions that didn’t get asked during the discussion. In addition to sending emails, it is critical to answer emails in a timely fashion. One of the biggest complaints voiced by online students concerns their instructors not responding to emails.
  • Use discussion forums. Discussion is an integral part of the online learning environment. The structure of the discussion is important in developing critical thinking skills and reinforcing collaboration with peers. Discussion activities should encourage learners to integrate their knowledge and comprehension of course content and apply what they know to real-world scenarios (Stavredes, 2011). For example, use case studies with corresponding questions that encourage students to think critically or have students analyze a current news article or website related to course content. Also, it is important to design the discussions to encourage students to participate over multiple days (rather than just posting and replying to classmates on the same day).
  • Use synchronous communication to enhance social presence. Immediacy is a critical element in social presence, and communication in real time often enhances social presence when handled well. Blackboard has an online chat feature. (See SIP 2.2 for how to make chat rooms accessible.) Chat is a text-based form of synchronous communication. You can also use Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype to create video synchronous communication. I know professors who use Zoom to create real-time help sessions or invite guest speakers to present on topics relevant to the course.
  • Create opportunities for students to work in teams or groups. Although many of you have probably heard multiple complaints from students about having to work in groups, if planned correctly, group/teamwork can provide students with an opportunity to collaborate on a deeper level with their peers. Not only is this critical for developing social presence; it is also critical for preparing our students to collaborate with others using a variety of different mediums. Blackboard has tools for creating and managing groups online.
  • Create a student hub/water-cooler discussion forum. Create a discussion forum for off-topic discussions that may be important for students. During face-to-face classes, off-topic discussions (i.e., the latest Broncos game, movies, music, current events on campus) can be a normal part of course discourse and helps to establish community. Creating a forum discussion for students to discuss these topics that are important to them gives students an opportunity to establish a sense of community online.

Online education probably isn’t going to solve the loneliness issue – if anything, it could exacerbate it – but online education is growing exponentially and may one day outpace traditional face-to-face courses. In other words, online education is here to stay. Our role as instructors is to create an online environment that provides meaningful peer-to-peer interactions that will assist our students in understanding the material and making connections.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of establishing a strong social presence online

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