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Chapter 1: Building Community & Presence in Online Learning

By: Kevin Chamorro, Jon Hoff, Keith Mickelson & Tyler Skillings



The construct of learning communities have been present in face-to-face classrooms for many years. Teachers and students have been able to build a social presence by simply participating in a classroom, engaging in dialogue with peers and students, and by working collaboratively within this environment. However, now that online education has become more popular due to availability and access, educators need to understand the best practices for building communities in an online environment. This chapter will outline elements to consider when designing an online classroom, and activities that will promote social presence.

The topics in this chapter address key elements in providing students with the opportunity to build a sense of community and belonging within an online course. As you read through this chapter consider the following questions:

1.       What is social presence?

2.       How does this affect my online classroom?

3.       What factors ensure that social presence is being considered in my online classroom?

After completing this chapter, you will be able to answer these questions and how they relate to the chapter material.


Making the transition from a face-to-face classroom to that of an online classroom or partially online is no easy task.  When teaching and learning leave the classroom, many elements are left behind and new expectations emerge (Pallof and Pratt, 2007) such as considering learner community, or establishing social presence. It is difficult for online learners to make connections with peers via text on a screen.  Most of the social and behavioral cues otherwise seen in a traditional classroom are gone. How do we help students build relationships online? How do we replace people’s facial gestures, tone, and voice in an online course?  Because education is a “social practice” learning environments must be able to support the social practice and process of learning (Shea et al., 2001). thus, it is left to the course designer, and the instructor to establish student presence. This can be done in several ways as discussed below.  

Designing with a Presence

As part of designing an online course, creators must be considerate to build into the curriculum, opportunities for students to interact. such considerations are defined as interactive strategies, as noted by Lehman and Conceição (2010, p. 27). There are a variety of ways by which such interactions may occur. Here is a brief list of possibilities:

  • Discussions

  • Case studies

  • Role plays

  • Team projects

The above list is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to provide a few examples. In providing these types of student interaction opportunities, educators are providing opportunities for authentic learning to occur, by allowing the students to discuss and explore what they have learned in a meaningful way. Allowing students to come to their own conclusions on their own understanding assists them to solidify those concepts, in addition to allowing other students to add to a collective understanding.

Before going too far, it is important to introduce “determinants of presence.” These are the components that should be kept in mind when creating and designing an online course. They include the type and focus of the content, the format of the learning experience, the interactive strategies implemented, role played by the instructor, types of technology and the kinds of support provided, as introduce by Lehman and Conceição (2010).

The recommended instructional design framework recommended by Lehman and Conceição (2010, p. 30), is the “Being there for the online learner” model. Designers must be intentional about including the a sense of presence as part of their design. However, if you are teaching online, you must be aware of what creates presence. Without this knowledge, it is likely that you will not be successful at creating the online presence that enables that authentic learning that benefits the students. If the instructor is aware of what creates presence in an online course, then they are able to capitalize on the determinants to ensure that presence is part of the course. Lehman and Conceição (2010) note, “The design process is not a linear one; rather it is one of continuous action in which the instructor uses and revisits the components of the framework.”

The first thing to discover, is that there is a difference between face-to-face training and online training. After identifying these differences you will understand that the support that you provide to the course will be different. You should ask yourself, “how do the two differ from one another?” The obvious is the use of technology, so how will you plan to support the technology? Depending on your circumstances, you may be the one responsible for for supporting it or you may have others helping you. Keep this in mind as you go about designing your course.

Be prepared to get yourself ready to teach online. Start by training yourself on the Learning Management Software (LMS), get to know the ins and outs. Identify and understand both its features as well as its limitations as Lehman and Conceição (2010) instruct us. If you plan on using other software be sure to focus on it enough in order to use it within the course successfully. It is also not a bad idea to have your own resources on what you are using, such as, experienced colleagues.

At this point you have two options for your next step 1) identify an existing course that you will convert to be an online course; OR 2) create an online course from scratch. Lehman and Conceição (2010, p. 38) have provided an excellent resource to help keep you on track in designing your existing course into an online course. They have provided the timeline detailed in Table 1.1.

There are four types of presences that you should consider using in your design of an online course. They are Objective, Subjective, Social and Environmental; according to Lehman and Conceição (2010). Each of these of these types of presence can be achieved through a variety of activities and interactions. We are not focused on the types of activities and interactions as part of this chapter however, should you want to research this topic further Lehman and Conceição provide more information in their book Creating a sense of presence in online teaching : How to "be there" for distance learners (2010), Chapter 4.

The last thing you should consider when creating presence in an online course is your learners. Each of them will come to your online course with their own set of experiences and expectations, as Lehman and Conceição (2010) explain. You must be prepared for the complete spectrum. Some of the thing that you can do to prepare for any situation is to provide a clear, welcoming starting point for your learners. As previously mentioned in Table 1.1, send out a Welcome letter prior to the course beginning. There is a lot to be said about first impressions and this is your chance to establish a positive impression. Consider exercise that are fun and inviting to draw the learners in as some of their first required exercises. Lehman and Conceição (2010, p. 40), tell us that a good place to start is a scavenger hunt. As part of this introductory, be sure to establish and set the expectations for learners concerning behavior in an online course. Remember the goal is to establish a presence, that first week or so, allow the learners to begin to build relationships. Just as in any face-to-face interactions, building relationships online is just as important.

Presence in Online Learning Communities

When learning in a face-to-face environment, opportunities for social interaction and discussion are inherent to the format. Students typically participate, to some degree or another, in whole-class and small group discussions, sharing thoughts and ideas. These interactions are an important part of the learning process, especially if we are attempting to construct deeper meaning. When learning in a computer-mediated environment; however, opportunities for interaction are not as readily available, and need to be integrated into the design of the course. Also, simply creating opportunities for interaction is not necessarily sufficient, and an effort must be made generate a true sense of presence among students in a course. By doing so, you can move students from merely being classmates sharing a digital space to participants in a community of inquiry, as developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000).

Defining Presence

Currently, there is no clearly agreed upon definition of presence in a computer-mediated learning environment; however, the concept of presence is not a new one. When Short,Williams and Christie (1976) first introduced the concept of social presence as part of an effort to explain how the medium impacts communication, it was defined as the degree to which a person feels real when communicating via some media. More recently, Ditton and Lombard (2006) defined it as “the perception and illusion of nonmediation,” or in other words, the degree to which the medium of communication becomes imperceptible. In discussing interactions, Picciano (2002) describes the concept of presence as “...a sense of being in a place and belonging to a group…” when communicating through media. Based on these definitions, it is apparent that there are two factors related to the concept of presence: the perception of realness of the interaction, and the perception of inclusion, or being part of a group. To build a successful community of inquiry, designers must take both of these factors into account as they build online courses.

In the community of inquiry model developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) three core elements - social presence, cognitive presence and teacher presence - interact to create the learning experience. Most important to success is cognitive presence, or the learner’s ability to construct meaning through sustained communication. Cognitive presence is vital in developing the critical thinking in communication for learning. Social presence is defined as “the  ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the

community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as real people.” (pg. 89). Social presence is important in that it supports cognitive presence by indirectly facilitating the critical thinking process. The final core element is teacher presence. Teacher presence comes in the form of two functions. The first is designing the learning experience, which includes the selection and organization of course content. The other is facilitation, which may be done by the teacher, or a shared responsibility among members of the group.

Implications for Course Design and Instruction

Designers and instructors must consider the three core elements of presence when creating  and administering courses, in order to maximize the learning experience for students. What follows are some suggestions for fostering each of the three elements.

The first of the key elements, cognitive presence, can be facilitated in a variety of ways. Garrison and Cleveland-Innes (2005) discuss providing clear expectations, selecting manageable content, and structuring appropriate activities as important considerations for design. One of the most common tools for developing cognitive presence is discourse or academic discussion, which can occur in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. In a study conducted by Kanuda and Garrison (2004) students noted the importance of the instructors’ role to assist and guide discussion. Providing questions of emerging relevance was one aspect of accomplishing this. The same study also indicated that the use of collaborative work helped to foster increased cognitive presence and create meaningful learning experiences.

Social presence serves to support cognitive presence, and more meaningful sharing and learning tends to occur as social presence increases. A sense of group belonging can be fostered by incorporating a few key elements to a course. Karen Kear (2010) suggests including member profiles as a course element. The key is having an opportunity to know others in the learning community. This can also be accomplished by the inclusion of an self-introduction activity at the onset of a course. Kear also notes that the use of synchronous communication, through chatting or instant messaging applications can also serve to increase the level of social presence. Video conferencing extends this even further, as well as the potential use of virtual meeting simulations, such as Second Life.

The final aspect of consideration is that of teacher presence. According to Garrison and Cleveland-Innes (2005), “sustained teaching presence that encourages participation, but is not teacher centered, is crucial.” In other words, the teacher’s presence must be consistently perceived, but they must not be the center of attention. This can be achieved by providing timely feedback, and quickly addressing student questions or concerns. Also, as noted previously, the instructor’s strategic guidance of discussion can play a crucial role.

Works Cited

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

Garrison, D. R., & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. The American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 133-148.

Kanuka, H., & Garrison, D. R. (2004). Cognitive presence in online learning. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(2), 21-39.

Lehman, R. M.; Conceição, Simone C. O. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching : How to "be there" for distance learners. Retrieved from

Lombard, M. & Ditton, T. (1997). At the heart of it all: the concept of presence. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 3(2).

Picciano, A. G. (2002). Beyond student perceptions: Issues of interaction, presence, and performance in an online course. Journal of Asynchronous learning networks, 6(1), 21-40.

Short, J., Williams, E. & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. London: John Wiley & Sons.

Palloff M.R., & Pratt K. (2007). Building online learning communities; effective strategies for the virtual classroom. John Wiley & Sons.


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