The Opportunity Matters – Social Presence in an Online Environment

One area in which we receive a lot of questions by instructors-to-be of fully online and hybrid courses is about communication in online courses. How much should you communicate? What will students expect? How often should I log into my course?

These are great questions! When we’re thinking about instructional design, we call this “social presence”. It’s part of a larger idea called the Community of Inquiry Framework. Along with teaching presence and cognitive presence, social presence creates a learning-supportive experience in any classroom environment.

“Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Social presence is this part of teaching, whether online or in person, where you are not just an instructor but a human being. This is easier in the face-to-face classroom, where students see your body language, language choices and humor every time the class meets. But in the online space, injecting your social presence is a conscious choice of media, language and communication (Lehman and Conceição, 2010).

In the classroom, social presence appears as soon as you enter the room. It is as effortless as breathing and nearly as important to your successful teaching. When we enter the online space, the presence maintains its importance but not its ease.

How can you improve your social presence in an online or hybrid course? We can break this into a few categories, each of which impacts your students’ success online.


The way we approach our online classes sends a clear message to our students. If an instructor is overtly worried or hostile to the idea of online or hybrid teaching, or appears indifferent or unapproachable in communications, students pick up on that attitude and it impacts their perception of the class (Sun, et al., 2008).

Are you nervous about teaching online for the first time? Are you trying a new activity that you’re not sure will work out? Be honest with your students! I know that this can feel like drawing back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, but including the students in the process of teaching can help create buy-in, especially when we’re talking about adult learners. If it is the first time you have used a tool, ask your students for feedback – you’ve gotten student buy-in on the assignment, and you gain valuable feedback! Exposing students to your teaching vulnerabilities might result in your students feeling more comfortable exposing their learning vulnerabilities to you.


Another important aspect of teaching online is timeliness. Student’s perception of a human on the other end of the computer connection and of their satisfaction with their class is tied in with the timeliness of responses, grading and feedback (Sun, et al., 2008).

This doesn’t mean you need to respond to student emails or grade assignments the moment they hit your inbox. This is a matter of managing expectations. Make clear to your students how quickly you will respond to an email and stick to it. Make sure students know when items will be graded, and provide feedback in a timely-enough manner that they can use it for future assignments. If you assign your students discussions, be sure to facilitate the discussion to produce productive, thoughtful discourse and maintain learner engagement (Ladyshewsky, 2013) but don’t feel obliged to respond to every student each time they post in every discussion.

You’re not a machine, and students don’t expect you to be, but providing guidance helps them know when to expect to hear from you.


First, a quick definition –
When we talk about instructor immediacy, we’re talking about the behaviors that close the perceived distance between instructors and students. Non-verbal immediacy are things like smiling and eye contact, while verbal immediacy is calling students by name, using humor and encouraging participation.

Online communication can often seem cold or distant, creating a barrier between students and instructors. To help students succeed, that is the last perception we want them to have! How can we adjust our behavior to help with this perception? By making a point of being warm and somewhat informal in our communications, it helps online and hybrid students see their instructor as a human, making the social connection that can be missed in asynchronous online communication. Look at the difference in the following two announcements:

“The materials for today’s class are now available on Blackboard under the Week 6 folder. The assignment is due Tuesday night. No exceptions!”

Contrast that announcement with the following:

“Hello everyone!

Thanks for a great discussion yesterday in class! The materials for today’s online class are available on Blackboard. Go under Course Content > Week 6. You’ll find a brief video going over what needs to be done, reference materials and the assignment, which is due Tuesday night. As always, email or text me ahead of time if you have any questions or problems so I can help!

Ms. Shafer”

These two announcements convey the same information, but they say it very differently. While the first does give information on where to find content and when things are due, the second goes over what the students will find on Blackboard and reminds them that their instructor is available for assistance if they need it. It’s very easy to write announcements and other communications in Blackboard as you would a professional email – succinct and straightforward (but, think of the times when straight-forward professional emails were misconstrued by the recipient – perhaps due, in part, to a lack of personal voice. The best communications to online learners are ones that give both the information students need and the feeling of a personal connection.  Immediacy correlates with student satisfaction, cognition and motivation (Baker, 2010) — and who doesn’t want that!

Opportunity Matters

We are each of us human beings, and personal and emotional connections to groups help us succeed in many areas of our lives. That is the fundamental purpose of social presence in teaching. Learning the names and interests of your students is only part of that presence. Your students also want to have a personal and emotional connection to you as the instructor, so you must make the effort to be present on a social level. Just as in the classroom, a student may not reach out to you (via email, office hours, or another form of communication) but your social presence (regardless of physical time and space) lets them feel comfortable in relating to you and most importantly, know that they can reach out if they need to.

Baker, C. (2010). The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation. Journal Of Educators Online, 7(1), 30 pp.

Ladyshewsky, R. K. (2013). Instructor Presence in Online Courses and Student Satisfaction. International Journal For The Scholarship Of Teaching And Learning, 7(1), 25 pp.

Lehman, R. M., & Conceição, S. C. O. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching: How to “be there” for distance learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sun, P., Tsai, R. J., Finger, G., Chen, Y., & Yeh, D. (2008). What Drives a Successful E-Learning? An Empirical Investigation of the Critical Factors Influencing Learner Satisfaction. Computers & Education, 50(4), 1183-1202.