Social Presence Expectations in Distance Education

How can learning design adapt social presence to the needs and expectations of learners in online distance education?

In the book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle, she explores the relationship of our digital addiction to connect socially at the expense of face-to-face interactions. In her research, Turkle reports that “students in online classes do better when the curriculum includes face-to-face encounters.”(p.230) Turkle doesn’t discredit technology delivery models and tools, instead, she urges us to design for conversation, a place to have synchronous, authentic dialogue to encourage empathy.  As an instructional designer who telecommutes and designs courses for distance education, I’m curious and sympathetic about social presence in online learning spaces. If human behavior is evolving and many report they prefer asynchronous communication methods, then, what are learner expectations in online learning environments since learning is social?

Social presence theory continues to evolve as more dynamic learning technologies enable learners with enhanced media qualities, heightened perceptions of learner isolation and connection in online environments, improved learning experiences, and analytical tools to evaluate behavioral engagement (Chen et al., 2015). Beginning in 1976, Short, Williams and Christie established social presence theory from the perspective of telecommunications and concluded that not only does the selection of communication media influence the quality of communication, but also the apparent distance of one’s location. Short et al. described social presence as the “degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships” (p.65). In online learning environments, social presence is often studied in theoretical frameworks to define the degree of feeling, perception and reaction to another entity by computer-mediated communication (Tu & McIsaac, 2002).

Researchers have identified two components in online social presence and they are intimacy and immediacy. Argyle and Dean (1965) describe intimacy as non-verbal factors including physical proximity, facial expression, and topic of conversation. Whereas, Winer and Mehrabian (1968) define immediacy as non-verbal and verbal queues and the psychological distance between the communicator and recipient.

In online learning environments, learners are often confronted with a sense of isolation and are challenged to establish interpersonal contact with their instructors and other learners (Aragon, 2003). Unlike face-to-face learning environments, effective distance education environments must rely on instant messaging functions, audio and video media technologies, email correspondence, and discussion boards as communication platforms. Lowenthal and Snelson (2017) contend that social presence is not dependent on instructor presence, and it is a different construct than collaboration and community in distance education. According to a study conducted by Kim et al. (2011), high-quality media integration, instruction and interactivity support online social presence. Other researchers including Sung and Mayer (2012) confirmed through statistical analysis that there are five factors of online social presence including offering social respect, sharing personal and social information, providing comfortable and open learning spaces, establishing social identity and developing authentic intimacy. Course designs that offer and support social context, online communication, and interactivity provide positive degrees of social presence in distance learning environments (Tu & McIsaac, 2002).

Finally, social presence has been challenging for researchers to measure since is it not a static construct and because it fluctuates with the variables and components of communication in online learning environments (Chen et al., 2015).  Studies suggest that emerging technologies including interactive learning environments and more rigorous frameworks measuring social presence are needed for future examinations of social presence in distance education.



Aragon, S. R. (2003). Creating social presence in online environments. New directions for adult and continuing education, 2003(100), 57-68.

Argyle, M., Dean, J. (1965), Eye contact, distance and affiliation. Sociometry, 28(3), 289-304.

Chen, X., Fang, Y., & Lockee, B. (2015). Integrative review of social presence in distance education: Issues and challenges. Educational research and reviews, 10(13), 1796-1806.

Kim, J., Kwon, Y., & Cho, D. (2011). Investigating factors that influence social presence and learning outcomes in distance higher education. Computers & Education, 57(2), 1512-1520.

Lowenthal, P. R., & Snelson, C. (2017). In search of a better understanding of social presence: an investigation into how researchers define social presence. Distance Education, 38(2), 141-159.

Russell, J., Rosenthal, D., & Thomson, G. (2010). The international student experience: three styles of adaptation. Higher education, 60(2), 235-249.

Sung, E., & Mayer, R. E. (2012). Five facets of social presence in online distance education. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(5), 1738-1747.

Short, J., Williams, E. & Christie, B. (1976) The social psychology of telecommunications.New York, NY: Wiley.

Tu, C. H., & McIsaac, M. (2002). The relationship of social presence and interaction in online classes. The American journal of distance education, 16(3), 131-150.

Turkle, S. (2016). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. Penguin.

Wiener, M., and A. Mehrabian. (1968). Language within language: Immediacy, a channel in verbal communication. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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