Like many people over the past year, I found myself at the kitchen counter with my kindergartener as we peered into his computer screen and listened to his teacher. Eyes glued to the screen, we watched his teacher move two red cubes and then four yellow, explaining the day’s math lesson. This was a big change for both of us. His experience being online was limited to a treasured hour on the iPad each weekend, while my work for the last decade revolved around online degree programs. I was familiar with online learning at the college level, but definitely not the kindergarten level. The COVID-19 pandemic brought our daily worlds and my research together in a way I could have never imagined.
My recent dissertation research focused on how institutions of higher education could take a programmatic approach to addressing specific factors related to online student success and retention through orientation. Universities have historically used orientations as a way to address student retention (Angelino, et al., 2007; Bawa, 2016; Gazza & Hunker, 2014). My study sought to expand on the research by examining whether participation in an orientation based on the Community of Inquiry had a positive association with factors related to online student success and retention. Specifically, my research looked at the outcomes of orientation participation and online students’ perceived sense of social presence, perceived online learning self-efficacy, and use of metacognitive and self-regulation learning strategies.
My researched suggested that there were some significant differences among students who participated in orientation and those that did not. The results indicated that after participating in orientation, students’ online learning self-efficacy increased. Orientation participation was also connected with a higher perceived use of metacognitive and self-regulated learning strategies. But after a year where so many were learning and working online, what strikes the biggest chord with me is what the data signified in terms orientation participation and an individual’s sense of social presence.
Social presence is a key element to every successful online learning environment. Social presence can be defined as “the ability to project one’s self and establish personal and purposeful relationships” (Garrison, 2007, p. 63). Social presence comes out of the Community of Inquiry, which gives a framework for an effective educational experience (Garrison et al., 2000). The Community of Inquiry framework is based on the work of John Dewey, and emphasizes “the collaborative construction of knowledge in a community of learners” (Swan et al., 2009, p. 4). In the Community of Inquiry framework, the learning process occurs through the interaction of three elements: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence (Garrison et al., 2000).
Social presence is not just about creating connections, but rather the creation of purposeful relationships and group cohesion (Garrison, 2007). Social presence involves affective communication, open communication, and group cohesion. Social presence also has a significant impact in the online learning environment. The research has shown that a sense of social presences is essential to an online learner’s success, perceived learning, satisfaction, and retention (Richardson et al., 2017; Hozweiss et al., 2014; Lieu et al., 2009; Swan & Shih, 2005; and Bosten et al., 2009).
My research showed a statistically significant difference in the social presence scores between those who participated in the orientation and those who did not. The study results also indicated that orientation participants’ perceived self-efficacy to interact socially with classmates was statistically higher in comparison to non-participants. Orientation participants showed a higher sense of social presence and higher level of self-efficacy to interact socially with classmates. These outcomes are noteworthy, because of the significant impact social presence has on online learners’ success.
As my son navigated remote learning and I worked remotely, it became clear to me how the need for social presence is not limited to just the online college classroom. Whether you are a kindergartner learning to read your first words over Zoom or a working professional participating online in professional development training or working remotely, personal and purposeful relationships matter. Social presence matters. If we want our students and employees to be successful in the online learning environment, we need to enable them to nurture a sense of social presence. We need to intentionally orient people to learning and working online. The creation of community in the online environment cannot be taken for granted; it needs to be purposeful (Swan et al., 2009).
Things have definitely changed since May of 2020. My son finished his school year spending most of his days in a face-to-face classroom, and I wrote this blog post in my office overlooking campus. However, I think the pandemic has taught us that working and learning online will continue to expand. As our online programs continue to grow and more and more companies discuss continuing remote work options, we should think how we can lay the groundwork for our students’ and our employees’ success by orienting them to create a sense of social presence, purposefully connecting and collaborating in the online learning environment.
Rebekah Grosboll is the Online Coordinator for the Legal Studies and Political Science Departments at the University of Illinois Springfield and a recent Doctorate of Public Administration graduate.
Angelino, L. M., Williams, F. K., & Natvig, D. (2007). Strategies to engage online students and reduce attrition rates. Journal of Educators Online, 4(2).
Bawa, P. (2016). Retention in online courses: Exploring issues and solutions—A literature review. Sage Open, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244015621777
Boston, W., Díaz, S. R., Gibson, A. M., Ice, P., Richardson, J., & Swan, K. (2009). An exploration of the relationship between indicators of the community of inquiry framework and retention in online programs. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(3), 67-83.
Garrison, D. R. (2007). Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61-72.
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.
Gazza, E. A., & Hunker, D. F. (2014). Facilitating student retention in online graduate nursing education programs: A review of the literature. Nurse Education Today, 34(7), 1125-1129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2014.01.010
Holzweiss, P. C., Joyner, S. A., Fuller, M. B., Henderson, S., & Young, R. (2014). Online graduate students’ perceptions of best learning experiences. Distance Education, 35(3), 311-323. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2015.955262
Liu, S. Y., Gomez, J., & Yen, C. J. (2009). Community college online course retention and final grade: Predictability of social presence. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 8(2) 165-182.
Richardson, J. C., Maeda, Y., Lv, J., & Caskurlu, S. (2017). Social presence in relation to students' satisfaction and learning in the online environment: A meta-analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 71, 402-417. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.02.001
Swan, K., Garrison, D., & Richardson, J. C. (2009). A constructivist approach to online learning: the Community of Inquiry framework. In Information technology and constructivism in higher education: Progressive learning frameworks (pp. 43-57): Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
Swan, K., & Shih, L. F. (2005). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(3), 115-136.