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Online communication is now used to build community and support learning in universities, schools, and many other organizations. This has benefits for learners and for teachers, but it also raises problems. One problem is that learners find some online environments impersonal.
A feeling of impersonality when communicating online has been characterized as a lack of "social presence." Social presence relates to whether users feel that they are interacting with real people, even though the communication is via technology. The concept of social presence originated with Short, Williams and Christie's analysis of human communication via different media . They discovered that social presence is influenced by the medium of communication—or the user's perception of that medium. For example, a videoconference can offer higher social presence than a discussion forum because in a video conference people can hear each other's voices and see each other.
In a text-based medium such as a discussion forum, there are very few "cues" to add a personal touch and distinguish one participant from another. To address this problem, many online educators have suggested the use of personal profiles—self-descriptions created by each user, which typically include a photo or image. These photos may also appear beside or within users' postings. The forums in the Moodle virtual learning environment (VLE) adopt this approach, with messages including a photo or image representing the sender (see Figure 1). Clicking on the user's name then takes you to their profile (Figure 2).
Recently, against the backdrop of widespread use of social network sites, the potential benefits of personal profiles have been revisited. This article considers whether personal profiles can help to increase social presence in online education. It discusses findings from two studies at the UK Open University investigating distance learners' perspectives on personal profiles in online learning.
The Open University is the largest provider of distance education in the UK, with more than 200,000 undergraduates who are mainly mature students studying part-time while also employed. Students can support each other and contact staff using online forums, with forum membership varying from 20 to 2,500.
The two investigations, which took place in 2006 and 2012, were:
The first study was carried out at a time when social network sites such as Facebook were not in widespread use. It was interesting to then follow this up several years later, when students were much more familiar with social network sites and sharing profile information online.
In Study 1 a personal profile facility was implemented in an online communication system (offering forums and instant messaging) for use in a short, distance-learning module on web technologies. When a user first logged into the system they were prompted to enter some information into their profile; a user could also add a photograph or image. Once a user had entered their information a small icon representing a face was displayed next to their name at the top of each message they posted. Other users could click on this icon to view the profile. Data on students' use and perceptions of the profile feature were gathered from the 195 students. Part way through the module students were asked various questions about whether they had entered information into their profile, whether they had looked at other students' profiles, and how helpful they found them. About 70 percent of the students replied to these questions. The findings are summarized below.
In response to the question "Did you put any information into your profile?" 51 percent of the students who responded said that they did. Table 1 shows the types of information reported (as percentages of the students who responded).
Table 1. Types of profile information.
|Added information about studies||43%|
|Added information about family/hobbies||75%|
|Added information about employment||35%|
Students were asked: "Have you looked at other users' profiles?" Forty-three percent of students had, mainly to find out something about other students who had posted messages. However, when students were asked whether they found it helpful to have profiles available, only about one third said it was, and only slightly more found photos or other images in profiles useful. An online survey was launched toward the end of the module inviting further comments. This element of the data gathering had only 14 student responses, but these were nevertheless analyzed to explore students' views. The main themes that emerged were: visualizing others and their perspectives; concerns about privacy; and preferences for learning about others from their postings. When asked whether looking at others' profiles was helpful, some students said it was helpful to learn something about other students' backgrounds, interests and expertise: "[It] gave an idea of where people were coming from, what their perspectives were."
Some students commented that profiles were mainly useful for early familiarization: "like the round of introductions at a tutorial."
Others students did not find profiles particularly helpful: "Other people's personal details don't really interest me and I like my privacy, so I was not tempted to fill one out myself."
There was a suggestion that it was better to learn about others from their postings: "You can tell all you need to know about a person from the messages they post."
There were also comments about privacy: "Nice to have, but it should be optional as many people like to maintain their privacy and anonymity."
Since Study 1 was carried out, there has been a considerable increase in the use of social networking sites. As these sites are based around extensive personal profiles, this could encourage students to make more use of profiles in online learning environments. To investigate this, a small-scale study was initiated to look at Open University students' use of profiles in the university's VLE. The students were enrolled in a first-year Open University module on computing and information technology.
Students from two tutor groups were invited to answer an online survey, about three months after the start of the module. The questions they were asked were similar to those in Study 1, for example whether they had entered information into their profile, whether they had looked at other students' profiles, and how helpful they found them. The survey was completed by 23 of the 29 students (79 percent), though not all students answered every question.
Eleven students reported entering some information into their profile. Table 2 shows what kind of information they reported (students could select more than one option).
Table 2. Types of profile information (10 students answered the question).
|Added information about studies||80%|
|Added information about hobbies or interests||40%|
|Added information about employment||30%|
|Added information about family||10%|
Seventy percent of the 23 students reported uploading a photo, and of these 88 percent said this was "a photo of me, on my own'." Students were asked whether they had looked at the information in other students' profiles. Of the 22 students who answered this question, 50 percent said they had.
When students who had entered some profile information were asked what prompted them to do so, responses mainly focused on being sociable: "Community spirit—share some carefully chosen info with other students for friendliness."
Other comments suggested that filling in a profile was a convention: "[It] just seemed appropriate."
When students who had uploaded a photo/image were asked what prompted them to do so, a typical response was: "I think it makes it more personal when you can see someone's face over the Internet, and makes it easier to talk to them, instead of them being this 'anonymous' stranger behind a computer. I like to be approachable."
When students who had not uploaded a photo/image were asked whether there was any particular reason, some said that there was no reason, while others were concerned about privacy.
When students were asked what prompted them to look at other students' profiles most comments revolved around curiosity, sometimes aroused by forum postings: "[I was] just being nosey or was interested in what they were saying and wanted to find out more about them."
There was also a connection between interacting with other students, either face-to-face or online, and reading their profiles: "[I] wanted to put faces to names and remind myself who I had met during tutorial get-togethers."
When those who had not looked at other students' profile information were asked whether there was any particular reason, typical responses related to lack of interest in personal aspects: "I only really use the forums when I'm studying—not so much for a social aspect."
Some students considered the social and educational aspects of forums to be separate: "I use the forums mainly for educational purposes and in that context most of the profile information isn't very useful—for social purposes I prefer to meet people in person."
In both Studies 1 and 2, about half the students wrote some information in their profile, and about half looked at others' profiles (see Table 3).
Table 3. Comparison of profile use from Studies 1 and 2.
|Study 1||Study 2|
|Added profile information||51%||48%|
|Looked at others' profiles||43%||50%|
There are also similarities between the two studies when considering the types of information that students added to their profiles. As Table 4 shows, students reported adding information about their studies, their hobbies/interests/family, and their employment.
Table 4. Comparison of profile information from Studies 1 and 2.
|Study 1||Study 2|
|Added information about their studies||43%||80%|
|Added information about their hobbies, interests, or family||75%||50%|
|Added information about their employment||35%||30%|
Study 2 shed light on students' choice of profile image, which was typically "a photo of me on my own."
Studies 1 and 2 suggested that, for some students, the profile facility and profile photo could add an element of social presence to online learning. However, in both studies, a significant proportion of students did not find the profile facility of particular importance, and several students had concerns about privacy.
Some students preferred to learn about other people in a more natural way, from their online contributions, rather than from a profile. For example, in Study 1, a learner commented: "What one might want to know—if anything—can be deduced from conference posts."
Several years later, in Study 2, a similar comment was: "It does not seem like an important or relevant part of my course. [I am] more interested in their forum postings."
This is in line with previous research, which suggests that when using a text-based environment, students learn about each other from the content and style of their forum posts.
The research presented in this article found that some students saw value in adding information and a photo to their personal profile, and found it helpful to read the profiles of other students. However, some students felt no need for these facilities, had privacy concerns, or thought that reading others' contributions was a better way to get to know them. Perhaps this is not surprising, and we should think of social presence as a dynamic sense of other people , rather than something that can be easily conveyed via a static personal profile.
As is often the case in online learning, individual students have different perceptions, preferences, and needs. It is only by researching the use of online communication for learning that we discover which specific features are considered helpful by students. If students are made aware of features that may be of value, and of the potential benefits, they can choose whether or not to use these features, according to their own views and experiences.
 Short, J., Williams, E. and Christie, B. The Social Psychology of Telecommunication. John Wiley & Sons, London, 1976.  Kehrwald, B. Being online: Social presence as subjectivity in online learning. London Review of Education 8, 1 (2010), 39-50.
 Short, J., Williams, E. and Christie, B. The Social Psychology of Telecommunication. John Wiley & Sons, London, 1976.
 Kehrwald, B. Being online: Social presence as subjectivity in online learning. London Review of Education 8, 1 (2010), 39-50.
The research reported in this article was funded and supported by the UK Open University. The authors would like to express their thanks for this support. This article is based on: Kear, K., Chetwynd, F., and Jefferis, H. Social presence in online learning communities: The role of personal profiles. Research in Learning Technology 22 (2014).
Karen Kear, Frances Chetwynd, and Helen Jefferis are lecturers at The Open University (UK). Each has published research on educational technology in peer-reviewed journals, while Karen is the author of Online and Social Networking Communities: a Best Practice Guide for Educators. Karen and Helen may be found on Twitter as @KarenK and as @Merrysailing respectively.
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