Creating Social Presence Amid Social Distance

Like most educators in the past weeks, I’ve been thinking about students across the state of Florida, particularly students who have little to no experience with online learning.  My mind also wanders to their teachers and the fast-paced transition to online teaching and learning each of them has been facing.

These reflections led me to consider my own journey. I left my brick-and-mortar teacher origins to transition to research in the online teaching and learning more than two years ago. 

My online learning experience as a doctoral student and the realization that so many students would become online learners in the near future led me to my occupation. I learned much as an online student who benefited from instructors practicing what research shows is most effective for online learners, and I have learned much from the researchers in the field of Online Education for Kindergarten-12th grade since I joined their tribe.

Social Distance and Adjusting to Online Education

In a world where our governments have mandated social distancing to keep us safer during a pandemic, it seems ironic, yet obvious and necessary to discuss the importance of social presence. This discussion is important for online learning (not to mention, for some extroverts and ambiverts, sanity). 

In recent weeks, much has been written and circulated about the transition of schools as they have quickly pivoted from traditional classrooms to distance and online learning. The focus of these commentaries has been largely on the importance of first adjusting emotionally and relationally to a new normal before trying to shift every habit and pattern into a new way of work.

As an educator, I know how challenging this type of advice can be to take seriously.  Our brains are wired to balance multiple tasks at a time, so it is in our nature to try to do the same things we’ve always done as we shift into our new normal.  If we try to focus on everything at once, however, we will indeed overload and crash our own operating systems before conquering even the smallest online teaching and learning feats.

The Relevance of Social Presence

I asked myself recently (because hasn’t social distancing resulted in frequent conversations with yourself?) what I appreciated when I doubled as an educator by day and an online learner/doctoral student by night and weekends. I realized that the several components of the Social Presence Model (Whiteside, Dikkers, and Swan, 2017) were embedded in what I found to be exceptional online learning experience. 

I thought maybe I could share a little about what I feel is important in the crux of COVID-19, whether one is making the transition to online learning or adjusting as an online educator with new groups of students or remote working environment.

In her 2018 article relating social presence principles to the legacy of Mr. Rogers and his children’s television programming, Aimee Whiteside provides helpful definitions for each Social Presence Model concept. I’ve included something similar below with examples from my own experiences as an online learner with understandings of Kindergarten-12 educator practices.

Social Presence Definitions & Examples

Affective Association

The teacher can provide opportunities for students to engage with the course emotionally, whether by sharing humor or creating spaces for personal stories and divulsion.

Examples: Several teachers provided opportunities to personalize course content through creativity such as poetic expression or synthesizing information through images.  Their own examples modeled how we might go about the assignments, as well as gave insight into their personal lives and made the learning environment comfortable.

Community Cohesion

The teacher creates community cohesion by thoughtfully addressing students as a group and using appropriate salutations to speak to and include students as a part of the class.

Examples: My teachers developed thoughtful questions on reading to engage in as part of discussion board postings.  These guided conversations provide opportunities for the teacher to engage in our work as well as foster community among students.

Instructor Involvement

The teacher can become involved by actively engaging in the class environment relationally and socially.

Examples: My teachers provided model assignments, clear rubrics, and encouraged out-of-the box thinking and discussion about class content. This involvement showed their commitment and made them approachable when my classmates and I faced difficulties.

Interaction Intensity

The teacher should encourage students to interact with each other’s discussion board responses, shared assignments, etc. by giving credit and referring to each other as they build discussions and collaborate.

Examples: My teachers introduced interactive platforms we could use to synthesize information creatively, as well as modeled using direct quotes/paraphrases from individuals in the class.

Knowledge and Experience

The teacher builds relationships with students by considering the understanding and experiences they bring to the class.

Examples: My teachers gave frameworks we could use to respond to one another, as well as cultivated classroom environments where it was easy and expected to share with one another. 

Although available research on social presence focuses largely on higher education online learning, I think most will agree the above principles are timely and relevant to the work we do in the Kindergarten-12th grade space.

In partnership with the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southeast, we have a team that is beginning to work on creating more bridges between existing social presence research and Kindergarten-12 online learning. We became interested in this area of research last year, unaware of how even more relevant it would become.

Developing social presence as we grapple with the newness and necessity of being physically socially distanced is particularly important for our students, teachers, and families. 

Teachers who foster belonging, provide clear expectations, and develop relationships with their students are sure to bring the comfort and reassurance we all crave in today’s new normal of staying home and interacting, collaborating, and learning—living—online in new ways.

Whiteside, A. (2018). Continuing “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”:  Returning compassion, connection, connection, and social presence to teaching and learning

Whiteside, A. L., Dikkers, A. G., and Swan, K. (Eds.) (2017). Social Presence in Online Learning:  Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research

April FleetwoodApril Fleetwood, Director of Accountability, Research, and Measurement, manages university and internal research opportunities at FLVS that focus on best practices and student achievement in online learning for grades K-12. She started her career teaching high school English after graduating from the University of Florida with her Master of Education in 2007. She joined FLVS and received her Doctor of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Florida in 2017.

One comment on “Creating Social Presence Amid Social Distance

  1. Aiden

    Why is no one listening to any of this. I do not think some teachers realize this, specifically my teachers, but kids have emotions, and can realize when you are acting like they are a piece of trash. Students can also realize when you are angry, and when you feel like giving them a virtual smack. It has been increasingly obvious that the teachers have been under a lot of stress, and that makes sense. But the point of this comment is not to say that teachers have to be super human and not get stressed from the pandemic, it is just that teachers need to treat students like people as well. And it might just be me, but I am about ready to flip out one of these days.


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