10 Tips for Establishing a Strong Social Presence in Your Online Class

by Donna Petherbridge, Stacy Gant and Daniel Davis

For students and instructors, taking (or teaching) an online course can feel like an isolated activity. However, student connectedness via a sense of social presence is an important aspect in online learning environments because a sense of communal belonging may affect learners’ levels of motivation and satisfaction (Bolliger & Inan, 2012). Developing an engaged model of instruction is important for increasing student achievement and retention rates in online courses, with research indicating that learners need to feel part of the social fabric of an online course before comfortably interacting with others (Leach & Zepke, 2010; Wei, Chen & Kinshuk, 2012). Importantly, an instructor’s role as the course leader and guide is pivotal and can be the single largest influencer of how effectively students learn in an online setting (Bolliger & Inan, 012). Creating a sense of online community and establishing a strong, virtual instructor presence can improve student satisfaction with online courses, positively impacting instructor evaluations and increasing student retention.

Social presence is the degree of feeling, perception and reaction of being connected to other intellectual entities in online classrooms (Tu & McIsaac, 2002). The power of social presence cannot be underestimated; studies have shown evidence that social presence has significant effects on learning interaction, which in turn has significant effects on learning performance (Wei, Chen, Kinshuk, 2012). This feeling of connection — of being part of the community — is enabled by online learning environments that purposefully plan and engage in high-quality interactions; the kind of interactions that are associated with high levels of student satisfaction and retention (Hoskins, 2012).

Instructors must be very deliberate with their involvement in an online course and in building relationships with students in these environments (Crawford-Ferre & Wiest, 2012). Instructors play an important role in establishing social presence by inviting students into the course, and immediately involving students in the community with well-designed orientation activities and clearly demonstrating that the instructor is also a “real person” and active intellectual presence within the environment. Instructor immediacy (e.g. the instructor’s level of involvement, especially early on in a course) has been shown to be positively related to student cognition (Baker, 2010).  Activities such as initiating discussions, asking questions, using self-disclosure, addressing students by name, using inclusive personal pronouns (we, us), offering praise, and communicating attentiveness are examples of instructor immediacy that help build social presence.

Taking steps to scaffold a strong sense of social presence in an online course may feel overwhelming. Especially if an instructor is new to online teaching, he or she may feel the time commitment or effort in truly being “present” for an online class is insurmountable. However, there are concrete, proven steps that you can take to build social presence, which can result in improved student learning and retention, higher quality course interactions, better course evaluations and a higher level of satisfaction for both the students and instructor in the class.


Invite Students to Participate

  1. Send a letter to students a few weeks prior to the start of the semester to “invite” them to class. Use this letter to communicate expectations as well as share any start of course logistics. [Example from EAC 580: Dr. Donna Petherbridge]
  2. Establish an inviting space for your course (check that your course is well organized; links are functional, etc.)


Let Students See & Hear You

  1. Provide an instructor bio with a photo and perhaps a short video to learn more about you. [Example from FS 250: Dr. Clint Stevenson]
  2. If you use Moodle, upload a profile picture so it appears alongside all of your posts/emails. [Instructions]
  3. Include video/audio recordings in some of your online lessons so students can hear your voice. [My Mediasite works well for creating narrated presentations and here’s a QuickStart Guide to learn more.]


Interact with your students

  1. Facilitate class introductions and communicate attentiveness at the start of the semester (showing your personality and noting your students by name). In subsequent, content-related discussions, model effective discussion posts and summarize discussions, integrating student comments so they can see that you are following their contributions.(or, assign a rotating student leader to do so) (Bart, 2010).
  2. Be accessible and respond to email with a defined time period (e.g. within 2 business days or a time you clearly explain in your syllabus, which some instructors define as a “Communication Policy.”)
  3. Hold online office hours and focused content discussion sessions so students can connect with you in “real-time”. Blackboard Collaborate and Google Hangouts are both good tools for this. [See: Google Hangouts for Conducting Virtual Office Hours]. Did you know that students in online classes with synchronous communication components perceive the class as having a higher instructional quality than one only using asynchronous communication methods (Ward, Peters & Shelley, 2010), and student feelings of isolation in online course can often be addressed with some use of synchronous tools? Boling, et.al. (2012).


Evaluation as a type of presence

  1. Boling, et.al. (2012) found students perceive that a quality of a good instructor is someone who provides individualized feedback. Keep a running list in a Google doc or Excel spreadsheet of common feedback that you find yourself giving to students on assignments that you give each semester, for easy cut & paste comments that give your students the sense of getting specific, individualized feedback. Also, use evaluation opportunities as a way to be present with your students; provide ways for students to give you feedback about the course as you go along (e.g. a suggestion box forum in Moodle for students to provide suggestions for the course mid-semester).
  2. If you’re giving feedback on a paper or assignment, give feedback verbally as well as written feedback.  It can save time and may make the student feel more connected to you (and to the class). If you use Moodle, there is a tool available called PoodLL that allows you to easily do this. [Instructions]

For more ideas & inspiration on social presence theory and techniques, watch this online seminar:Building Community in an Online Course.