Fostering Social Presence in the Online Classroom: Helping Students Meet Affective Learning Objectives

By Virginia Byrne

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Virginia ByrneVirginia Byrne is a PhD Candidate in Technology, Learning and Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park’s College of Education. After six years in higher education and student affairs, she came to the University of Maryland to research online higher education and how technology can support student sense-of-belonging. She holds a Bachelor's degree in marketing from the University of Illinois, Urbana - Champaign, a Master's degree in student affairs from Florida State University, and a Graduate Certificate in Instructional Systems Design from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Do your online students see you as a real person?

What about their peers?

Through my research on online instructors and students, I often hear about the challenges of fostering meaningful online conversations and collaborations. Many of us assume that the interactions necessary for leadership development can only happen when students and instructors are physically co-present in face-to-face classes or co-curricular experiences. However, as more students opt to learn online, we must overcome our assumptions that online learning affords inferior interpersonal communications and learn how to facilitate meaningful online interactions. This is especially important for online leadership courses that rely on group projects and meaningful discussions to reach affective learning objectives.

I interviewed expert online instructors in academic subjects that often are assumed to be difficult to learn online (e.g., communication and diversity) because they require meaningful peer-to-peer conversations and the secure foundation of trust necessary to give each other feedback. I sought to understand how these instructors approach their online teaching so that their students develop a learning community in which they can be vulnerable, discuss controversial topics, and make meaning together. I believe leadership educators can glean practices from these expert online instructors.

I adopted the Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007), one of the most cited theories for understanding asynchronous learning communities. The framework is composed of three overlapping elements:

  • Social presence is the ability for learners to present their personalities so that they seem like “real people” to their peers, despite only engaging through technology.
  • Teaching presence is the class design of social and cognitive processes that facilitate the achievement of meaningful learning objectives (e.g., facilitating discussion, direct instruction, instructional design).
  • Cognitive presence is the process by which students make meaning through reflection and discussion.

To view a visualization of the model, please visit the Community of Inquiry website and click on the interactive flash animation on the home page.

Fostering social presence is key for teaching leadership online because it helps learners see you (the instructor) and their peers as real people. It may contribute to students sharing more meaningfully, listening more thoughtfully, and more fully respecting the feedback they receive. To demonstrate how to foster social presence, I will summarize four teaching practices of two expert online instructors, Jackie and Sheryl, that are relevant to instructors who teach leadership online.

Provide activities that require students to introduce themselves, share fun facts, and interact.

Students, perhaps with previous experience of an industrial model of teaching in which students log in, learn from the instructors, and then log off, state that they think online classes are not conducive to friendships. Jackie and Sheryl consciously combat this by designing activities with the expressed goal that students build rapport in a way that mirrors in-classroom relationship building. For example, students are asked to share fun-facts and create avatars at the beginning of the semester, and then respond to at least three peers.

Explain the benefits of a social community and justify the importance of social activities.

Noting that students do not often have experience making friends in other online classes, Jackie explains to students in an early video message and in her syllabus that learning “is a social activity.” She writes: “As a collaborative constructivist educator, I privilege group work for its effectiveness and efficiency. Rest assured that any collaborative activities you encounter in this course will be simple, feasible, and, most importantly, worth your while. At no time will I design a group activity for the purposes of ‘making you do group work.’ Rather, I will only design group activities when I have strong reasons to believe that doing the activity collaboratively is more effective (and efficient) than doing it independently.”

These instructors, however, know students often do not enjoy interactive activities. “It’s a necessary evil, small group work. They hate it, but it’s good for them,” said Sheryl. This tension between designing interactive activities that have the students’ best interest in mind, and recognizing that many students struggle with online communication, motivates these instructors to be open with their students that socializing is important for their learning, but that using technology to mediate interpersonal interactions may impact the quality of those interactions.

Humanize their personal presentation.

Social presence is hindered when the instructor is merely a name on the screen. In other words, when students do not perceive their teacher to be a “real person” they become less interested in engaging in a learning community. Jackie prefers to communicate to her students via video conference from home while wearing casual clothes. She believes this humanizes her image to her students, stating, “It's part of how I keep myself real to the students as well because they, you know, ... my cats are wandering around and they're like, ‘oh, she's a human being - she has cats.’”

Create a welcome video.

A best practice adopted by both instructors is to send students a welcome video on the first day of the semester. In her video, Sheryl introduces herself and her title clarifying that, “I prefer to be referred to as Professor R.” She explains her interest in the course and why she believes the content is valuable. She discusses how online learning does not need to be only short email communication and that she hopes students have meaningful discussions during the class. She adds, “I'd like to draw your attention to the beautiful, unique, handcrafted beaded necklace created for me by my… daughter. She thought I wasn't sparkly enough.” Sheryl balances both presenting herself formally with insights into her personal and family life.


Expert online instructors intentionally humanize themselves and afford students a structured way to see each other as real people. Additionally, they justify to students why interaction is important. This practice aligns with adult learning theories (e.g., Knowles, Swanson, & Holton, 2011), which encourage instructors to share their underlying pedagogy so that learners understand why they are being asked to complete assignments as a group and thus are more motivated. These online instructors move beyond teaching content and intentionally enact practices that support students in developing a community, being vulnerable, and having real conversations, so that students can gain skills and meet affective learning objectives.

If you are a leadership educator looking to create group environments as part of your teaching, consider how you show up on the screen and how close students feel to you. Do they see you as a real person? Next semester, try adopting these teaching strategies to defy the assumption that meaningful interactions can only happen in-person by supporting and justifying practices that establish social presence.


Garrison, D. R., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2007). Researching the Community of Inquiry Framework: Review, Issues, and Future Directions. Internet and Higher Education, 10(3), 157–172. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2007.04.001

Knowles, P., Swanson, P., & Holton, I. (2011). The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development (7th ed. ed.). Burlington: Elsevier Science.

About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at pauseforpedagogy@ila-net.com

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.

Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. Her current role as an Educational Developer at York University involves supporting faculty in exploring and implementing innovative best practices for teaching and learning. Her doctoral work examines the relationship between professional identity development and communities of practice. Lisa also volunteers her time as the EDC Institute Coordinator for the Educational Developers' Caucus (EDC). Lisa can be reached at lmendersby@gmail.com.

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