Being Social

I’m serving on a doctoral candidate’s dissertation committee this semester and in preparation for their upcoming defense, I was reading the final draft of their dissertation. As I was reading through the candidate’s literature review, I realized that as educators and researchers, we use a lot of terminology to describe different concepts about student learning and the classroom environment. For example, I consider myself to be a social constructivist. This means that I believe that social interaction is a key component of learning. For this type of learning to happen, classroom environments must have some collaborative components where learners engage with their peers and knowledgeable others (teachers) who can help them develop their understanding through social meaning making. But when we dig into the different ways to conceptualize the factors that may play a role, we introduce terms like social presence, social connectedness, and so on. While those words may seem like they’re synonymous, they’re subtly different and describe different concepts. They also have different research traditions and can play different roles in fostering a social environment for learning. I thought I’d dedicate a post describing some of the differences. Here goes.

Social Presence: Short et al. (1976) first defined the concept as the “degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships” (p. 65). When applied to online learning, social presence is a student’s perception of the existence of ‘others’ in the virtual environment. Social presence is also part of the Community of Inquiry model, introduced by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001). In their framework, they define social presence as the ability to interact with others in a meaningful way.

Social Connectedness: Social connectedness refers to the degree to which individuals feel they are part of a community, have a sense of belonging, and feel connected to others around them. It involves a feeling of being included, valued, and supported by others, and having a network of relationships that provide emotional and social support. (Lee & Robbins, 1995).

While I’m talking about these concepts as separate entities, they’re related. Social presence is an assessment of the perception of the other participants within the space, whereas connectedness is an emotional experience, evoked by, but independent of, the other’s presence. A person can sense the presence of others, but not necessarily feel connected to others. For example, I can see friends’ posts on Instagram or Facebook and recognize their presence. But without interacting with them in that space, I won’t feel a sense of belonging or connected to them. In this example, there is social presence but no social connectedness. But there can also be social connectedness without a sense of presence. For example, let’s say I get a letter in the mail from a friend with whom I’ve lost touch. In this case, I can experience social connectedness, without necessarily sensing their social presence.

So, how does this relate to our classrooms? While I think these can naturally play out in our physical classroom spaces, the real challenge is fostering these in our online learning spaces. In those spaces, instructors need to design for it and facilitate it. They don’t happen without someone cultivating it. And that’s one of the hardest parts of being a social constructivist working in online spaces.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Lee, R. M., & Robbins, S. B. (1995). Measuring belongingness: The Social Connectedness and the Social Assurance scales. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 42(2), 232–241.

Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. Toronto; London; New York: Wiley.


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