How to Humanize Online Learning with Social Presence

How to humanize online learning with social presence

Online learning is nothing new, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, suddenly every school from kindergarten to university switched to online. Millions of students and teachers found themselves thrust into online classes for the first time, and they soon learned about the pitfalls. Online learning is not always a good substitute for face-to-face because there is something that is lost. Insights about why are in some new research by Stephanie Andel, Triparna de Vreede, Paul Spector, Balaji Padmanabhan, Vivek Singh, and Gert-Jan de Vreede published in the peer-reviewed journal, Computers in Human Behavior. This research provides some clues about how to humanize online learning. 

Online Learning and Social Presence

Online or distance learning uses technology for course content delivery rather than face-to-face classroom methods. Some methods are asynchronous where students work on their own schedules by accessing online materials and posting responses. Others are synchronous where classes are held online, using delivery platforms like MS Teams or Zoom. While proponents of online learning have argued that it will eventually replace the face-to-face classroom, what the COVID-19 transition to online education has taught us is that even synchronous online education is not the same. It did not take long for college students to start complaining that they did not want an online education, and for parents to realize their children were not learning in the same way stuck to a screen at home. What was lost in the online learning environment was the feeling of social presence—that there were other people present.

Research on Social Presence in on Online Environment

Andel and her colleagues performed two experiments with an online video platform that enabled people to watch educational videos with different online features enabled. In the first experiment people watched a cooking video in which they either could or could not see comments made by other viewers. Being able to see comments by others, even though made in the past, increased the feeling of social presence.

The second experiment explored the impact of personality on responses to an online learning experience.

  • Subjects of the study completed an online assessment to measure the personality characteristics of conscientiousness (the extent to which someone is competent, hardworking and achievement oriented) and extroversion (the extent to which someone prefers social activities to engaging in activities alone).
  • Subjects watched an online instructional video using the same platform as in the first experiment, but in this case everyone could see other people’s comments.
  • Subjects indicated the level of social presence they experienced, how much they enjoyed the experience, and how much they believed they learned.

There were three important findings from this second experiment.

  • People who experienced high social presence were more satisfied and felt they learned more.
  • People who were extroverted and enjoyed social activities liked the online experience with social features more than those who were introverted.
  • Social presence made no difference in the learning of those who were conscientious. Their learning scores were high regardless of social presence. For those who were low in conscientiousness, however, social presence was important. They felt they learned less when social presence was low, but when they experienced social presence, their learning was the same at that for the highly conscientious.

How To Humanize Online Learning

These two experiments showed that social presence is important in that people who experience it will respond more positively to online learning. However, not everyone will respond the same. People who are conscientious and are highly motivated to learn might do well even without social presence. However, this does not describe most learners in both educational and work environments. More often students and employees are engaged in the learning activity because it is a requirement, and not because they are intrinsically motivated. For them social presence is necessary.

To humanize online learning means to build in social engagement that can enhance the sense that others are present. This can be accomplished using several approaches.

  • Synchronous Learning. The best way to assure social presence is to have everyone present at the same time, at least virtually. This means holding a live class where everyone is present via an online platform. This works best when everyone has their camera on so people can see one another, just as in a live classroom. Our COVID-19 experience has taught us that this environment is not the same as being face-to-face, but it is the next best alternative when it comes to social presence.
  • Asynchronous Interaction. With asynchronous learning, it is possible to include opportunities for interaction through e-mail or messaging features. Class discussions can be simulated where an issue is raised, and everyone is encouraged to discuss by posting their comments in response to one another.
  • Asynchronous Commenting. Learning platforms like the one used by Andel and her colleagues can allow comments to be made at certain points in the video being watched. Being able to read comments others have made, even though there is no interaction, can add a level of social presence.

Online learning might not completely replace face-to-face instruction, but it will continue to be a major mode of instruction. For that reason, it is important that we build in social features to make the experience as effective and pleasant as possible.

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

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