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Remote Learning: Are You Really Engaged? Biz Researchers Examine 'Social Presence' Issues

By Keith Morelli

TAMPA (August 19, 2020) -- Online learning is not new, but it now is nearly all encompassing as the pandemic grips the nation in its fifth month and colleges and universities must offer more courses online this fall semester, when nearly a third of all students are taking online courses. With that, something is lost: social presence. How can online learning be more engaging?

Researchers at the University of South Florida are discovering that social cues, previously taken for granted, are somewhat lost in a world in which the people having a discussion are on a computer screen or behind an egg icon.

Instructors now teaching online and students now learning remotely must find a way to create a social presence to replace face-to-face discussions.

Social cues, like written comments on the side of the monitor, emojis, maybe photographs are proving to be valuable resources in this brave new world of remote communication, according to a paper recently published by a group of researchers including four from USF.

Collaborating on the paper titled “Do Social Features Help in Video-Centric Online Learning Platforms? A Social Presence Perspective,” were Stephanie Andel, with Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis; Triparna de Vreede, with the Muma College of Business; Paul Spector, with the USF Department of Psychology; Balaji Padmanabhan with the Muma College of Business; Vivek Kumar Singh, with the University of Missouri; and Gert-Jan de Vreede with the Muma College of Business. The research was supported by Rali, a firm that measures and analyzes video engagement and granted access to video platforms on which researchers were able to reach their findings. The paper was published in Computers in Human Behavior.

The study looked at ways to design communication systems in which social cues become better understood and utilized by educators and students alike, two groups that now seem married to computer-to-computer contact more than face-to-face interactions. It seems the more personality exhibited, the more effective online learning is.

“Social presence cues (likes, comments, emojis and the ability to interact with one another as content plays or a teacher teaches) can help in these platforms,” said Padmanabhan. “It’s something to think about for schools and universities as more and more content moves online.”

“This (online approach) is not a one-size-fits-all and there may be learning scenarios where we might want to mute these features a little, but there are overall benefits that need to be recognized and integrated thoughtfully into learning platforms, making this a question of intelligent design,” he said.

Even before the pandemic swept across the nation, online education at the collegiate level already was on a steady rise.

“As technology continues to advance, so too does the landscape of the education system, with the traditional classroom frequently being replaced with online learning environments,” according to the paper’s introduction. “In fact, distance education enrollment has been steadily increasing over the years, with the percentage of U.S. college students who are enrolled in at least one distance education course rising from 25.9 percent in 2012 to 31.6 percent in 2016.

Recent shifts to online learning in response to COVID-19 were swift and such an abrupt transition to online learning did not come without challenges. A recent survey cited by the research found that the majority of students voiced concerns about the transition, with 64 percent worrying about remaining focused and disciplined in the online format. More than half expected a negative impact from the lack of social interaction in the online learning environment. Online learning remains an effective tool, though with efforts to instill social presence, it could enhance the online learning experience, resulting in more students signing up for online courses.

“Within the existing online learning literature, there is a general consensus that social presence, or the ability to perceive others in a mediated environment, is an important factor to cultivate within the online classroom,” the paper said. “In fact, social presence has been consistently linked to numerous positive outcomes. When online students perceive greater social presence within their online classrooms, they experience greater satisfaction and perceived learning. Other research has shown that social presence fosters intentions to take future online courses.”

Most educators agree that social presence can be cultivated and individuals are able to convey their personalities and connect with others via online communication mediums, such as text-based communication and other features, the paper said.

“Social presence is not as simple as originally assumed, as individuals in online environments struggle to ‘make up’ for lost social cues in mediated environments,” the research said. “For instance, studies have shown that displaying humor and using emoticons to express emotions can influence online social presence perceptions.”

Some online learning environments have begun to look into adding social features to increase social presence.

For instance, research found that one-on-one communications between students and their instructor has the potential to increase the perception of instructor social presence. Research also has shown that the addition of personal profiles and photographs in an online environment … has shown to increase perceptions of social presence.

“These research studies show that, when provided with additional avenues to connect and interact, users are more likely to feel a greater sense of belongingness and ultimately perceive higher levels of presence within the online classroom,” the paper said.

The research concluded that social features serve as a feasible way to strengthen social presence in the online landscape.