Tips for Building Social Presence in Your Online Class

You’ve been assigned your first online class to teach and you feel like you’re ready. You’ve done your homework and learned the ins and outs of the institution’s course management system. You’ve structured your content in purposeful ways and developed thoughtful guiding questions to situate student learning and motivate them. When the class starts, however, you realize that while everything is technically functioning correctly, many of the students are not engaged. While you were looking forward to teaching online and interacting with students, the students are approaching your course as if it’s an independent study. This wasn’t what you anticipated when you agreed to teach online!

In their framework outlining educational experiences for students, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) identify and explain the critical elements of a Community of Inquiry that supports instruction and learning. The elements include: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. For online classes, many new online instructors tend to focus on the cognitive presence and teaching presence, and overlook the necessity of the social presence. They’ll build great online modules that help students enhance their understanding of course content but forget to attend to the critical social aspects that engage students and foster community building. While these aspects can happen naturally in face-to-face courses, they must be intentionally built into online classes.

Here are five ways you can build social presence in your online class:

  1. Have your online students introduce themselves. This may sound simple but the first module of my online courses asks students to introduce themselves to their peers. I create a discussion board where students share short introductions with the group either through text or through a short multimedia production using Fotobabble, MyBrainShark or some other Web 2.0 tool. I usually try to connect the introductions to course content in some informal way to assess the students’ prior knowledge and experience with the material. More than anything, the introductions are designed to foster open communication amongst students outside of course content.
  2. Introduce yourself to your students. When I ask my students to create short introductions of themselves, I offer my own introduction as an example. I also create a short orientation video where I provide an overview of the course and share a little about myself. Presented in a short video where students hear my voice, students can connect with me outside of the written text that I provide for most of the class material.
  3. Create a “commons area” for off-topic discussions. In a face-to-face class, it’s easy to engage in off-topic discussions. Students walking into the classroom will argue about last night’s football game, discuss the latest movies, or talk about their favorite music. This type of engagement is extracurricular but it can help students build relationships that are advantageous inside the classroom. Without purposeful inclusion of risk-free environments for sharing, online students’ affective needs will not be met and they may not fully engage with course content or with their classmates. In my online classes, I create a discussion board labeled “Commons Area” or “Water Cooler” and offer some guidance to the purpose of the area. While I’ll often peek in to add a question or respond to a post, I generally give the students some free rein over this forum.
  4. Use synchronous tools for office hours. Most course management systems offer chat rooms or synchronous online classrooms as tools for teaching and communication. I schedule online office hours where students can meet with me to discuss course content and ask questions. While not every student takes advantage of the office hours, publishing their availability communicates to students that I am committed to their success in the course.
  5. Don’t be the center of every discussion. Many new online instructors try to respond to every post in a discussion board. This habit can actually limit student-to-student interaction and discussion. In a face-to-face class, few instructors would break up lively classroom discussions by evaluating every remark from students. In online classes, however, instructors will do exactly that. Instead of excessively participating in discussion boards, provide some thought-provoking questions and allow the students to discuss course content openly on their own. Offer guidance when necessary and communicate that you’re present in the discussion through carefully chosen posts. Give the students some space to interact with one another and build their understanding through collaborating with their classmates.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Dr. Oliver Dreon is the director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Millersville University. Follow him on Twitter @ollied.