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Twelve 'No Skips' Approaches for Developing Social Presence Literacy in Virtual Education

By Thomas Dyer, Jean Mandernach / February 2024

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Faced with increased virtual learning opportunities, faculty continue to seek ways to engage students and create community in the online classroom. The Community of Inquiry (COI) framework is composed of three presences (cognitive, teaching, and social). The COI framework explains the educational experience for students in online learning environments as a combination of discourse, content, and climate. While all facets of the COI framework are important, social presence is a vital component of success for those who teach and learn in virtual environments.

Social presence was originally defined by Short, Williams, and Christie as the “degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships” [1], which consists of “a quality of the medium itself” attached to the perception of intimacy and immediacy. Relating this to online education, Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, and Archer further defined social presence as the ability of individuals to project themselves socially and effectively into a virtual community, thereby presenting themselves as “real” people [2]. Emphasizing the reciprocal nature of social presence, Whiteside emphasized that social presence is an effectively charged connectedness that motivates students to take an active role in their knowledge construction as well as that of their peers [3]. She contends, “The SPM [Social Presence Model] positions social presence as a critical literacy and guiding principle that drives learners, academic content, norms, behaviors, instructional strategies, activities, and outcomes” [3].

Humans crave social connection; this reality doesn’t change in the online learning environment. Recognizing that online learning lacks traditional non-verbal cues and physical proximity, it has long been criticized as being impersonal or lacking connectedness. But, with dedicated attention to the importance of social presence, this doesn’t have to be the case. The challenge lies in knowing the how and why of developing social presence literacy. The ability to define, implement, and invest in social presence is an essential means of cultivating emotions and relationships that enhance the learning experience. 

The following 12 approaches provide specific and intentional guidance for instructors to foster social presence in the online classroom. When considering the best approaches for developing social presence, you can compare them to a perfect music album—a “no skip” album. A “no skip” album is a music album that has no bad songs; therefore, you don’t need to skip any songs while listening to it. Just like “no skip” albums, all of the social presence strategies are important and together will help you to develop social presence literacy in your virtual classroom.

1. Be real. An important, overarching definition of social presence is the ability of individuals to project themselves socially and affectively into a virtual community, thereby presenting themselves as “real” people  [1]. Students want to see our humanness. An instructor’s personality includes unique traits that make them feel “real” and authentic beyond what a stereotypical instructor may be perceived. Your personality may be reflected through instructional values and design decisions, communication style, and sociability.

2. Acknowledge students as individuals. It is important to be an active communicator, whether that’s in the discussion forum, delivering feedback or simply sending an email to a learner. This type of communication requires a respectful approach that acknowledges the reciprocal roles of the teaching and learning dynamic. While instructors strive to be “real,” it is vital that we see learners as “real” as well. One simple way to acknowledge learners is through greetings, no matter if it’s in a simple reply to a discussion question or an email. Using a student’s preferred name, inviting them into the discussion, offer salutations, and just ask them how they are doing.

3. Ensure your availability. Students come into online courses with many unknowns. One simple way to ease student anxiousness is to showcase your availability through approachable, visible, accessible, and tangible interactions. Baker was most interested in instructor immediacy and availability in relationship to instructor social presence related to student motivation [4]. Baker found instructor immediacy positively influenced student motivation, learning, and cognition. Don’t assume students know they can reach out to you. We must explicitly share with them our willingness to be available. However, do set boundaries and clearly share those times you are not available. In a quick welcome video, you can establish availability by sharing with students your regularly scheduled availability for synchronous meetings, your timeline for asynchronous responses to questions, and your preferred methods of communication.

4. Foster higher-order thinking. Prior knowledge and experiences of students play an essential role in building a social presence. Vygotsky’s social development theory supports the concept of social presence in the online classroom centering on two guiding developmental principles: inner speech and the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Inner speech helps to take the information students conceptualize in their heads to a place of engagement, while ZPD shows the potential knowledge a student can gain in the learning experience. Social presence increases in classrooms where students and instructors have frequent contact with one another, this increase in contact can also boost knowledge and foster higher-order thinking. It is important for instructors to ask questions, share resources, and offer alternative positions that push their students to engage in critical analysis and higher-order thinking in the online environment. This type of higher-order thinking mandates an intentional dialogue with students that can simultaneously challenge and reaffirm learning.

5. Be intentional with social presence. An instructor’s definition of social presence is intertwined with their knowledge of, and experience with, social presence. Recognizing there are varying definitions of social presence, it’s important that each instructor define social presence within their own course, institution, and disciplinary context. Instructors cannot simply assume that their course engagement will create a social presence; they must be intentional and create a specific plan to establish an initial and ongoing social presence in their unique setting.

6. Create community cohesion. Community cohesion emphasizes bringing together students as a course community. This area includes sharing additional resources and information with the group and seeing the group as a cohesive whole. It also involves cohesive (greetings, vocatives, social sharing), and interactive responses (invitation, approval, advice) [3]. A cohesive community sets the stage for students to feel comfortable sharing personal meaning which encourages participation, which is vital to the construction of knowledge.

7. Embrace the reciprocal role of social presence. The role of instructor goes beyond content expertise, discussion moderator, and grader. The isolation of online students is well known, but we rarely address this regarding faculty. The impact of social presence is a two-way process. If students are feeling or experiencing a connection, it is likely that faculty have been and are impacted by those same experiences. The implementation of social presence strategies increases instructor and learner activity, which leads to more dynamic discussions, improved engagement in virtual teaching, and reduced isolation for both instructors and learners.

8. Implement technology strategically. The use of technology not only enhances the presentation of content in the online classroom but simultaneously fosters social presence. Simply extending an instructor’s visibility beyond written text to include the humanizing components of seeing one’s face and hearing their voice automatically fosters a sense of social presence. Personalized video is a favorite for those attempting to increase social presence in the virtual classroom using tools such as Flip, Loom, and Zoom [5]. Personalized videos show learners you are a “real” person and trigger natural, social tendencies in attention and responding.

9. Leverage learners’ curiosity. The key to engaging in a dynamic teaching and learning interaction is to leverage learners’ natural curiosity and prompt active responding. Incorporating gamification techniques provides a concrete avenue for engaging with learners around course content. Gamification can range from something as simple as “code word games” (placing code words within a discussion forum for students to find and report back to you) to semi-structured problem-solving challenges in a virtual reality classroom (such as Kumospace); there are also badging or leaderboards for when students complete course-related challenges, quizzes, or activities.

10. Promote immediacy and intimacy. Because immediacy and intimacy behaviors require both verbal and non-verbal communication, translating them into the online classroom requires intentional effort. Immediacy is defined as the distance people put between themselves and others while communicating. Intimacy explains the level of communication through verbal and non-verbal behavior to explain interpersonal interactions. One way to translate immediacy and intimacy to the online classroom is through email or phone calls, personalized discussion posts, and video implementation to increase rapport and create a personal relationship with students [6]. Instructor approachability is another strong predictor of immediacy and intimacy in the online classroom. Approachability as a form of immediacy and intimacy are behaviors designed to draw learners to each other and the instructor. Immediacy may positively influence student motivation, learning, and cognition. Establishing immediacy and intimacy in the virtual classroom can contribute to a positive student experience and foster opportunities for one-on-one interaction.

11. Focus on affective association. Affective association, also known as affective expression, addresses the emotional connection in the online classroom. Affective association can be demonstrated by indicators for immediacy (eye contact, relaxed body posture, gestures, smiling), and affective responses (paralanguage, emotions, humor) [3]. Instructors can use emojis and bitmojis to communicate emotion in text form in the virtual classroom. While emoji and bitmoji use are beneficial for the written (text) format, facial expressions and humor are strategies that can be used in personalized video or Zoom calls. Affective expression represents the relational and communal element of social presence. Instructors and students have the ability to share values, display personal beliefs, and demonstrate attitudes in the online classroom. Even the simple strategy of looking directly into the camera when recording video can help to establish “eye contact” in remote communication and convey a more personalized interaction.

12. Tap into chronemics. Chronemics involves the study of time management in nonverbal communication and its connection to human communication [7]. Time is perceived differently for all of us. Some of us are more efficient than others. Our value systems differ in degrees when it comes to time and communication. As an instructor, you may send a message to a student and move on with your day. Inversely, a student may send you a message and then stare at the screen waiting for that quick response. In this age of immediate connection, the sense of time is influenced by the ease of sharing messages. It’s important to clearly communicate the ways students can contact you and the time in which you will respond. Timeliness is important whether it’s answering a student’s question or providing feedback. Ensuring students have a proper expectation of communication standards and timelines will reduce stress and dissatisfaction.

Instructors may struggle to connect with online students without an intentional focus on instituting social presence strategies. How instructors implement social presence is a key indicator of their involvement in the online classroom. Students look to increased instructor involvement and feedback as an expectation of a successful learning experience. Implementing social presence in the online classroom can be challenging as nonverbal actions, tone, and inflection are now negotiated through technology. Effective online instructors should implement a range of strategies to create a sense of social presence through respectful, encouraging, timely, and positive communication.


[1] Short, J., Williams, E., and Christie, B. The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. John Wiley & Sons, London, 1976

[2] Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D.R., and Archer, W.  Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5, 2 (2001). 

[3] Whiteside, A. Understanding social presence as a critical literacy. In A. Whiteside, A. Garrett Dikkers, and K. Swan (Eds.), Social presence in online learning: multiple perspectives on practice and research (1st edition). Stylus Publishing, 2017, 12-1-12-15.

[4] Baker, C. The impact of instructor immediacy and presence for online student affective learning, cognition, and motivation. Journal of Educators Online7, 1 (2010).

[5] Dyer, T., Steele, J., Larson, E., and Holbeck, R. Integrating technology into the online classroom through collaboration to increase student motivation. Journal of Instructional Research 4 (2015), 126–133. 

[6] Bialowas, A. and Steimel, S. Less is more: Use of video to address the problem of teacher immediacy and presence in online courses. International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education 3, 2 (2019), 354–364.

[7] Döring, N. and Pöschl, S. Nonverbal cues in mobile phone text messages: The effects of chronemics and proxemics. In R. Ling and S. W. Campbell (Eds.), The Reconstruction of Space and Time: Mobile communication practices. Transaction Publishers, 2009, 109–135.

About the Authors

Thomas D. Dyer, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University. He has more than 15 years of experience in higher education and online education. His research focuses on examining student engagement, participation, and community connection in the online classroom through social presence strategies. He explores strategies for integrating community cohesion, online proximity, and social presence literacy through careful and considerate technology integration. Dyer is an active teacher, advocate, researcher, author, and presenter in the field of online education and social presence literacy.

Jean Mandernach, Ph.D. is executive director of the Center for Innovation in Research on Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on enhancing student learning experiences in the online classroom through innovative instructional and assessment strategies. She explores strategies for integrating efficient online instruction in a manner that maximizes student learning, satisfaction, and engagement. In addition, she has interests in innovative faculty development and evaluation models, teaching and learning analytics, emergent instructional technology, and faculty workload considerations. Mandernach is an active researcher, author, presenter, and consultant in the field of online education.

© Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/2024/02-3594549 $15.00


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