Learner Centered Environments and Social Presence



One way in which the framework presented in “How People Learn” (HPL) and the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model overlap to help me create an effective course is at the intersection of “learner centered” and “social presence.”  According to the HPL framework, in order to create an effective course I must design a seminar that centers on the participants by paying attention to their initial knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs. Social presence is one of the three presences in the CoI model. It is a complex concept associated with both social and academic factors.


In the HPL framework, the word community refers to an environmental context in which participants share norms. In this approach, learning occurs best when the norms “encourage academic risk-taking and opportunities to make mistakes, obtain feedback, and revise.” According to this framework, it is only in a context of intellectual camaraderie that we can expect students to reveal their preconceptions about a subject matter, their questions, and their progress toward understanding.

Defining Social Presence

There are important differences between earlier and more recent definitions of social presence and I think that an understanding of community in the CoI model becomes clearer when these changes are considered


According to Garrison, the later definition does a better job of conveying “…the dynamic nature of the social presence construct in a progressively developing community of inquiry.”

Social presence in an academic context means creating a climate that supports and encourages probing questions, skepticism and the contribution of explanatory ideas. Sustaining critical thinking and discourse requires a sense of belonging that must develop over time.

Garrison, D. Randy (2011-05-20). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice (Kindle Locations 817-819). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

The Categories of Social Presence


The original classification scheme for social presence included three broad categories: affective communication, open communication, and cohesive communicative responses. After the first decade of research, it appeared that affective responses might not be the defining characteristic of social presence in a community of inquiry and that is why in the newer definition group identity is seen as taking precedence over personal identity.


The research suggested that a classroom focus on affective ties between individuals diminishes academic functioning by undermining the aspects of cognitive presence that rely on the willingness of participants to be critical of each other. At a practical level, Garrison says that while individuals should be encouraged to provide autobiographies, this must not be done in ways that distract from the academic purpose.


Rather than trying to force close relationships between individuals as a CoI is forming, the classroom environment should allow these relationships to develop naturally and progressively through the processes of purposeful and collaborative inquiry.


Early on in the process of turning an online classroom into a community of inquiry, a specific type of interpersonal communication is required. This form of interpersonal communication must create a climate that emphasizes a sense of belonging to the group and to its educational goals. The interpersonal communication must create an “academic” environment, an environment that is respectful and supportive enough to allow both critical reflection and discourse.


My Interest in the Concepts


This is not the first time that I have written about these concepts in the past few months, so a few words about my continuing interest in them appears suitable.  I am charged with designing two graduate level seminars for first and second year graduate students in sociology who have chosen the online-applied option. I also expect students who have chosen the thesis option and some students from related disciplines who have a serious interest in how sociologists approach the subject matter. However, based on recent experience, I also expect students to register for the fall semester who lack the ability to identify with a group composed of sociology graduate students or with sociology as the course of study.

One of the most common misconceptions that students, even at the graduate level, have about sociology is that it is “just common sense.” They think of sociology courses as fun and easy but not academically rigorous. These students sometimes register for graduate level seminars with no sociological background, no sociological goals, and no sense that this is problematic. If the semester starts with too much emphasis on affect or too much time on the autobiographical, they become entrenched before they realize that there is a group with a shared agenda. They do not belong and do not wish to belong to this group.

Therefore, I have been spending a great deal of time trying to come up with new writing exercises for the start of the semester, exercises that set the appropriately academic tone. I want students to be able to start the semester writing about themselves so that I can learn something about the knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and skills that they bring with them.  I hope that the new approaches to creating social presence demonstrate the existence of a core group with shared sociological learning goals while simultaneously allowing them to express their conceptual diversity.

In the spring semester, I asked students to complete the VARK questionnaire and to write an essay about their learning preferences. By graduate school, they all tend to have multimodal preferences and the essay is simply a chance to start with metacognition. However, it was also a chance to become too autobiographical and too affective.  In the fall, I am starting out both metacognitive and sociological. And I must thank Susan Bodnar-Deen for reminding me how sociologists prefer to introduce themselves.

One goal of the program in sociology is for all of its graduate students to develop a “sophisticated” understanding of sociological concepts and theories. In the fall, the first thing that I want to know about the seminar participants is where they stand in the social structure – agency debate. I have a one-page hand out and two short videos on the topic. After they have read the hand out and watched the video, I expect graduate students in sociology to be able to tell me where they stand and why. In addition, I expect the brief response to “why” to be slightly more persuasive than “It’s just my opinion.”

One of the triggers that I will use for the discussion of structure-agency is this 14:00 minute TEDx lecture by Sam Richards.

In the second exercise of the semester, I will provide them with triggers and ask them to tell me where they stand on micro-macro (and is that congruent with their structure-agency position) and where they stand on order-conflict. I want to know if they most closely identify with conflict theory, structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism, or exchange theory.

The next exercise deals with what  skills (sociological, technological, and transferable) each student brings to the table. In this exercise, I ask the students to consider the requirements of “group projects” and to consider what skills a team would need to have in order to successfully complete them.  I ask them to assess the extent to which they possess these skills and what skills they would need other members of their team to possess.  Then we talk about collaboration. Given the chance, I create self-directed work teams composed of people with complementary skill sets.  I expect the  sociology graduate students will find these activities in which they identify their philosophical and theoretical standpoints as well as their skills to promote identification with the other sociology students and with the discipline.  These introductory activities require the type of interpersonal communication that leads to the next steps in creating social presence: open communication and cohesive responses.

Hopefully, the  students who joined the seminar with the perception of a graduate level seminar in sociology as a course that requires nothing more than “commonsense”  will notice sooner, rather than later, that the sociology graduate students are not actually speaking standard English and have a different understanding of course goals and learning objectives. Creating social presence in this way will contribute to the creation of cognitive presence and the achievement of the academic goals that have been set for graduate students in sociology.


3 thoughts on “Learner Centered Environments and Social Presence

  1. Your description of the change in definition of Social Presence is a valuable distinction. We often considered “social” to mean becoming friends rather than becoming part of a group with common intellectual goals. It is important to note this difference in defining social presence as you describe your course activities changing from “let’s get to know each other” to “what are you thinking about sociology”. It has also helped me to understand more fully the focus of sociological study.

  2. Ann, piggybacking off Joyce, I also thoroughly enjoyed your thoughtful post…and the distinctions ten years of continued research brings to the concept of social presence.

    Your focus on “…a “sophisticated” understanding of sociological concepts and theories” as well as wanting “…to know about the seminar participants … stand in the social structure – agency debate” open up rich possibilities for both defining and building community…or even communities.

  3. Meredith Katz

    Wow Ann, I really enjoyed your post and thinking through this in light of the fact I will also be teaching an online course for the applied masters option. Thanks for all the great insight!

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