Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

Sense of presence


New thoughts just emerging: see blog entry,  the role of persistence in the sense of presence.

From the Socratic perspective, learning environments are based on face-to-face interaction between learners and teachers, assembled in one place, in each other’s company. “Presence” is this context meant to be present in a spatial sense and a temporal sense, the present being the current moment in time: what is happening now in this shared space.

With the modern inventions of clocks, calendars and maps, we developed a more abstract relationship to time and space, a process termed “time-space distanciation,” where “systems of exchange and knowledge . . . are independent of particular locations in time or space” (Hine, 2000, p. 6). With the invention of the computer and computer networks, we invented new modes of communication and new media that could span time and distance in order to communicate and collaborate, and a new definition of “presence” became necessary. We continue to be endlessly inventive with equipment and software that can make communication with someone on the other side of the world instantaneous, can help us collaborate with large geographically distributed groups, and have allowed us to build simulacra of the world. This has been both beneficial, in allowing us to do new things or do things in a new way across time and distance, and alarming to some, because the full social implications are unclear.

When we began to extend our faculties with various media, questions began to emerge about the quality of mediated experiences in comparison to direct presence. Anything other than direct presence has been considered second best for collaborative learning (with some important exceptions), but with globalization and the increasing dependence on computer-mediated communication, supporting direct presence is becoming less possible. Institutions of higher education increasingly depend on online learning environments. And we’re coming to realize that maintaining a sense of presence is key to student engagement. I started to think about presence in online learning environments as “the perceptual illusion of non-mediation” (Lombard & Ditton, 1997, p. 9).

Thus my five-year journey to understand the sense of presence, engaging with the large body of research that exists on the sense of presence in virtual environments (MIT has a journal devoted to the subject), and with conceptual frameworks in the disciplines of education, game design and theory, computer-supported learning and collaboration, human-computer interaction and design, virtual reality, design, human geography, group and social dynamics . . . over 50 different definitions, related terms, factors and models attempting to explain the sense of presence. I found the more conventional perspectives of presence limited to presence as an attribute of media or as a property of private individual experience to be helpful, but for the design of collaborative learning environments, these perspectives didn’t tell the whole story.

And thus, definition #51: an extension of  Spagnolli’s conceptualization of presence as the result of an ongoing collaborative action-based process, a contextualized human experience of collaborative learning activity that evolves over time, with four dimensions: the sense of place, social presence, individual agency, and community agency. Presence is not an individual  state, it is a social process.


Hine, C. (2000). Virtual ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Lombard, M., & Ditton, T. (1997). At the heart of it all: The concept of presence, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(2), 1-33. Retrieved November 23, 2008 from

Spagnolli, A., Varotto, D., & Mantovani, G. (2003). An ethnographic, action-based approach to human experience in virtual environments. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 59, 797-822.

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