Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

Course Design and Presence

I’ve been working on pulling together a set of design principles based on  learning theory as applied to collaborative learning, online learning environments, and the sense of presence, and have developed the following list of principles for course design:

  1. Learning is social and collaborative – students construct meaning through a variety of interactions with their instructor, with each other as individuals, and with each other in groups. That is, learning is meaning-making, emerging within and through everyone in the community of learners.
  2. Creating an integrated context and conceptual framework  is essential:

To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organized knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 16)

  1. The beneficial characteristics of collaborative learning as described by (Kreijns, Kirschner & Jochems , 2003) are that learning is active and the learner is responsible for their own learning; teaching and learning are shared experiences; students participate in team activities and develop social and team skills; and “students are stimulated to reflect on their own assumptions and thought processes” (p. 337).
  2. Understanding the social, collaborative nature of learning requires a shift from understanding learning as the acquisition (of knowledge) to participation, and suggests that the most generative learning environment is inquiry based:

It is a student-centered active learning approach focusing on questioning, critical thinking, and problem solving. Students are engaged in finding solutions to authentic, socially valid problems through investigations and collaboration with others. Inquiry-based instruction should help students to communicate with those who have different perspectives, articulate problems out of complex and messy situations, and collaborate with others in finding solutions to problems. In an inquiry-based learning environment, the teacher becomes a partner in the inquiry, a guide and facilitator who presents challenging, interesting, curiosity-provoking problems that entice students to learn. (Gunawardena, 2004, p. 146)

  1. A course which is learner-centered gives an appropriate level of individual agency to the student, providing choice whenever possible (Goldman, Booker & McDermott, 2008).
  2. In an online course, developing a sense of presence (a sense of “being there” and “being together”) is essential to student engagement (Munro, 1998), and a variety of activities that promote the sense of presence should be part of the course design (Lehman & Conceicao, 2010).

From my own doctoral research, the sense of presence is actually an ongoing process (Spagnolli, Varotto & Mantovani, 2003), is always dynamic and emergent, occurs in a moment and over time, involves experiences (most often, doing with others), the process is both objective (can be observed) and subjective (sensed and felt), and is both transactional and transformative. The sense of presence is developed through:

  • A sense of placeThere is a “there”, there. There is a place for everything, and everything is in its place.
  • Social interaction (social presence)We are here, together with others (communicating and interacting socially and supporting each other).
  • Individual agencyI am here, I am visible, I have individual power and control, and I can make a difference to the whole.
  • Community agencyWe can work together, in collaboration, to create new meanings for ourselves and for each other.


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (2000).  How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Goldman, S., Booker, A., & McDermott, M. (2008). Mixing the digital, social, and cultural: Learning, identity, and agency in youth participation. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, Identity, and Digital Media: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 185–206. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262524834.185

Gunawardena, C. (2004). Inquiry-based online learning environments. In T. Duffy & J. Kirkley (Eds.), Learner-centered theory and practice in distance education: Cases from higher education. (pp. 143-158). Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lehman, R.M. & Conceicao, S.C. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Munro, J.S. (1998). Presence at a distance: The educator-learner relationship in distance learning. ACSDE Research Monograph 16. The Pennsylvania State University.

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.

Suter, V. (2011). I am here – Are you there? Sense of presence and implications for virtual world design. (Doctoral dissertation, Pepperdine University).  Retrieved from

2 comments on “Course Design and Presence

  1. Pingback: How can presence play out in course design? | Vicki Suter

  2. Dr. Arlette Poland
    January 11, 2016

    Love your work and your questions! Just one thought re teaching… as a professor, too. I find it useful to place fun near the top of the goals and activities. Games and fun things help learners remember better, I suspect. Or maybe I am just speaking of my own learning and imposing that on the students.
    Again, thanks!

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