Social Presence Continued: Rethinking Skills for Graduate Students


social presence

In the last blog that I wrote for OCDI, I discussed activities designed to encourage the specific type of interpersonal communication required early in the process of turning an online graduate sociology seminar into a community of inquiry. The activities described foster a sense of group identity among sociology graduate students. The first activity allows them to examine the extent to which they possess a view of social phenomena that is distinctively sociological. The second set of activities allow them to reflect on and discus sociological concepts and theoretical perspectives with which they are familiar because they were first encountered in their undergraduate introduction to sociology course and discussed with some regularity in many of the courses required for the major.

Before I can focus on a checklist for creating cognitive or teaching presence, I must focus on one additional activity required to create a climate that will foster the required social presence. The next climate setting activity early in the process of turning this online classroom into a community of inquiry turns the attention of participants to skills.

Broadly Transferable Skills

The first part of the skills activity relates to the OCDI concern with transferable learning. The assignment is preemptive. I require that participants demonstrate the ability to think logically about how the skills they acquire or hone in this seminar (and the other courses required for an MS in sociology) will contribute to the list of transferrable skills that are applicable to their future professional endeavors. I provide examples. But they must answer the question of how they will apply the skill for themselves.

An Incomplete List of Graduate Student Skills – Graduate College University of Illinois –

Graduate Students Transferrable Skills Northwestern University Career Services

A Focus on Group Projects


I then ask them to review the requirements for the group projects in the course and to identify the skills and tools that they will need to have in the group to achieve success as a group.  Recently I have been experiencing “cognitive dissonance” about how the project must change if the seminar participants must use only open web resources. The dissonance was resolved as I worked on writing this blog and thinking about how to create an open web class project.

The Traditional Literature Review Relies on Subscriptions

For several decades, the project in the seminars I facilitate has been a traditional review of the literature (or at least a good start on a literature review). The process of conducting a literature review provides students with the opportunity to enhance a number of transferrable skills. For those in the thesis track and for those who plan doctoral studies the transfer is visible and direct. The literature review is more than an assignment. It is a “rite of passage” connected with the writing of theses and dissertations as part of “severe” initiations into academia. Those who were planning applied work often went through the same process even though they were not pledging academia.

In the 21st century, VCU Libraries is more than a partner in this process. The library offers instruction on writing literature reviews in sociology. The library offers tools including databases, bibliographic database managers, access to journals through subscription, and interlibrary loan. The librarians will teach people to use these resources in classes and workshops and even in one on one consultations. Without use of the journals and tools that are available by subscription through the library, this traditional project becomes undoable.

Access to Research Libraries is Limited

There are few open access journals in sociology. Open sociology journals are not the only limits that students in the online-applied sociology program face. It is very important to remember that when people leave the university they lose access to the many research library services that advanced graduate students and faculty members take for granted. Therefore, it is important that students in the applied online option learn to use resources to which they will not lose access when they graduate.

I am working on designing a new class project that relies on open web resources and free web 2.0 tools. I can use these resources to create class projects that impart needed skills without worrying about loss of access after graduation. The applied online students also need class projects that help with the “professional paper” that they must write at the end of their internship experience rather than help with the literature review that informs thesis writing. I can do that!





Designed Just for the Online Applied Option

I propose to guide the online applied students through activities that focus on the “gray” literature open to the public.  I propose to introduce them to bibliographic database managers that are free of charge and that allow collaboration with work colleagues not connected to the University.  I propose to require them to present their findings professionally rather than academically.

Effective: Fall 2014 SOCY 693 Internship Semester course; 150 contact hours. 3 credits. May be repeated for a maximum total of 6 credits. Permission of the internship coordinator and graduate director required for enrollment. A graduate-level internship that allows students to explore professional opportunities as related to the discipline of sociology. Students will be required to write a professional paper applying sociological concepts and methodologies to their experiences in the setting, as appropriate.

I believe that taking the time to walk the students who have chosen the online applied option through assignments that have clearly been designed with their needs in mind provides additional impetus for students to identify with each other and with the goals of the course. I do not think that I can over emphasize the importance of this when students may never meet each other outside of the virtual world.

I think this approach also conveys the first message that I want them to receive about my presence as a teacher.

Hi, my name is Ann Creighton-Zollar. I made this just for you.


With these plans in writing, I can turn to a checklist for creating cognitive presence.


2 thoughts on “Social Presence Continued: Rethinking Skills for Graduate Students

  1. Great plans. It’s difficult to support the different goals and needs of students. Personalizing your course is more work but I think will be very much appreciated. Keep us posted.

    • We are creating a new program: an online option for the MS in applied sociology. If we do not create courses tailored to this group why would they choose us over other programs. I do not think we can be successful if we just offer the same old courses online. Courses tailored for the group needs to be part of our distinctiveness.

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