Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

Social presence

When we arrive someplace, we look around, we want to know where everyone is. We want to be noticed, to be greeted, to be welcomed in. We want to know something about the people we are with, we chat, we explore common interests. One of the most challenging aspects of being an online learner is the isolation – where is everybody? We need to have the sense that we are together with others, with the ability to communicate and interact socially. From personal experience, I know 3 AM is a lonely time for a doctoral student struggling with statistics.

We can feel a strong sense of being socially present without a sense of co-location in a shared space; for example, a phone conversation can convey a sense of social presence without a sense of place (Slater,, 2000). Well-designed virtual learning environments, tools, and practices can overcome this sense of isolation, and create a sense of social presence. For the text-based learning environment, a sense of social presence can be created by:

Making sure that everyone has a profile, and introduces themselves with “something they want everyone to know about them.”

Provide and model simple presence indicators to offer opportunities for impromptu communication (it may be something as simple as the skype status indicator)skype

The power of the presence indicator is that it offers the opportunity for impromptu communications – it says, “I am here.” It is a place where the mode of communication can be negotiated – “just send me an email,” or “let’s talk on the phone now,”  and an informal message can even be left. It can overcome the sense of isolation that is so debilitating to the online learner. The doctoral student struggling with a statistics assignment at 3 AM can check who’s “up” and reach out for support and even, if she’s lucky, help with the assignment from the more statistically savvy of her classmates. There’s a sense of solidarity looking at a contacts list, and seeing who else is “up”, is like seeing the lights on in dorm rooms down the hall. You can stick your head in a room and chat. We’re all up and we’re working away – all of this promotes a sense of social presence.

The effective use of a presence indicator is dependent on it being generated automatically when your computer is turned on, and on behavior – being scrupulous about keeping it updated. If you say you are available, then you need to be available. Signalling that you are busy or can’t be interrupted is perfectly fine, and part of the rules of engagement are that you respect the signals others have established.

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