Nathan Riedel Summarizes Article: Social Presence in Relation to Students’ Satisfaction

A Summary of Social Presence in Relation to Students’ Satisfaction and Learning in the Online Environment by Richardson et al.

If you have ever been in the TILT office, then you probably know we are big fans of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework for online course design. CoI is a concept, developed by C.S. Peirce and John Dewey, that consists of three elements: Social Presence (a student’s interaction with peers), Cognitive Presence (a student’s interaction with content), and Teaching Presence (a student’s interaction with the instructor). In a recent essay published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, Jennifer C. Richardson et al. highlight that social presence correlates with student satisfaction and perceived learning.

Richardson et al. analyzed over 98 articles related to social presence and online learning. After implementing stringent criteria, the authors were left with 25 articles that met their research standards, covering “3015 online course participants for perceived learning and 3862 participants for satisfaction.” (Richardson et al., 407) Additionally, the authors deliberately define social presence as “the ability to perceive others in an online environment.” (Richardson et al., 402) The meta-analysis within this article strived to answer three questions:

  1. How strong is the relationship between social presence and students’ satisfaction in fully online courses? To what extent does the strength of the correlation vary across studies?
  2. How strong is the relationship between social presence and student’s perceived learning in fully online courses? To what extent does the strength of the correlation vary across studies?
  3. What are the conditions (e.g., type of scale used to measure social presence, audience of the course, discipline area, and course length) that moderate the strength of the correlations? (Richardson et al., 408)

The results of the article promote the implementation of social presence in online courses, despite acknowledging that social presence is not always as strong in certain types of courses when compared to others.

The first important finding is course duration. The courses covered within the 25 articles consisted of 6 week, 8 week, and 16 week durations. Richards et al. discovered the longer the course, the stronger the correlation between social presence and student satisfaction and perceived learning. 6 week courses tended to have lower weighted average correlation while 16 week courses had higher weighted average correlation. (Richardson et al. 411)

The authors speculate the weak correlation could be due to students’ inability to form a group cohesion. Citing Akyol and Garrison (2008), Richardson et al. suggest that in the beginning of a course, students exhibit higher levels of affective expression (i.e. learners share personal expressions of emotion, feelings, beliefs and values). As courses progress, affective expression decreases as group cohesion (i.e. learners interact around common intellectual activities and tasks) increases. Essentially, we can gather that students feel more satisfied and as if they have learned more when their online interactions involve working toward goals instead of expressing their previously held beliefs and viewpoints. (413)

The second important finding is academic discipline. The meta-analysis determined that the strength of correlation between social presence and student satisfaction and perceived learning differed across which discipline the course covered. Online courses in Education tended to be weaker than most other disciplines, such as agriculture and nursing, but stronger than online Business courses.

The authors theorize that such difference could be due to the inherent nature of the content. Citing a study by Gorsky et al (2010), the authors explain that students tend to interact more in science courses than in the humanities.  Increased interaction is attributed to the inherent, problem-solving nature of science courses, which leads to higher levels of student-instructor and student-student communication. Despite the potential of philosophic or literary debates, students apparently find more value in social interaction when a common goal is present. (Richardson et al. 414)

The third factor is student demographics. The research suggests that social presence tends to have a positive effect on students at all academic levels. The authors made note that mixed academic level and certificate courses tended to demonstrate a stronger correlation between social presence and student satisfaction and perceived learning than undergraduate and graduate courses. However, the authors found a comparable strength of correlation when comparing graduate and undergraduate courses. (Richardson et al. 410)

Overall, the case for social presence within the article is strong but requires context. Depending on the course, students find value in having a lively, robust learning community. Students believe they learn more when they are able to work with their peers toward one goal. Given the authors’ suggestions that science courses tend to have a stronger relationship with student satisfaction and perceived learning when social presence is emphasized than humanities due to the inherent problem solving nature, perhaps using social presence to work out problems in the humanities—rather than debating them—would promote a more positive view of social presence within students.

Furthermore, instructors need to be more intentional about building social presence in shorter courses. Given that students in 16-week courses have more time to develop their learning communities they are more likely to develop stronger group cohesion and express increased course satisfaction.  Instructors may want to research ways to promote writing prompts and discussion topics that bring students together rather than promoting personal views and beliefs. As mentioned previously, students find more value in working toward a problem when engaging socially. Perhaps presenting topics and discussions that focus on problems to be solved rather than ideas to discuss could lead to a higher level of student appreciation of social presence.

If you are interested in social presence or the other two aspects of the Community of Inquiry, then contact Teaching Innovation and Learning Technologies at

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