Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

What is the role of persistence in the sense of presence?

I keep coming back to the idea of the sense of presence when I think about creating virtual environments for learning and collaboration. I suppose I can’t help myself – this was after all, the topic for my dissertation (“I am here – are you there? Sense of presence and implications for virtual world design”).  But that’s not it, because I’ve been mulling this over and attempting to articulate the idea of presence for a very long time. The construct that emerged for me, through those three years of research, had four parts – the sense of place, social presence, individual agency, and mediation of collaboration. And now, the idea that is deepening my understanding is the role of persistence.

I understand the sense of place to be “there is a there, there.” This continuously emerges through interaction with our environment, whether virtual or face-to-face. The metaphors we use about this almost all come from our experience of physical place. And part of this sense is . . . the place is there, even if I am not. It is there to meet me when I arrive, and it remains after I leave – in other words, it persists.

Social presence is “we are in that place together with others, with the ability to communicate and interact socially.” Most of this interaction isn’t content-driven, it is broader than that, it is the way we build relationships and trust. When social presence is felt, the place becomes a space where there are people there to greet me; when I leave the social space, there is this feeling that there are people there even when I am not. In other words, it persists.

Individual agency is something a little different, it is about my presence in the space as someone who has power to have an effect in the goings-on in the social space. I am visible in the space – whether I am there at a particular moment in time, or not.

And the last piece of the sense of presence for me is what happens when individual agency becomes community agency. Maybe it is just me, but the activity where community agency emerges -the power of people together in the community to act, to create something that the individuals in the community could not on their own – happens when people collaborate. The collaboration may be a twitter chat that swirls for about an hour around an idea, or it may be an online journal like Hybrid Pedagogy, but something is true for everyone in the community at the end of the collaboration that was not true at the beginning of the collaboration. I see the results of community agency when what is created persists, and is a gift even to those who weren’t directly involved in the collaboration.

So – persistence is interwoven for me in the idea of presence. It was there all the time, I just didn’t see it.

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