Characteristics of “Presence”


In the past when determining how users or learners might interact at a distance, especially when looking through an instructional design perspective, I had never given much thought to the concept of presence. This is particularly true in corporate training or work environments where regardless of volition, people will interact as a function of their jobs. But when shifting the context to education in a more traditional context of K-12 and Higher Ed, it has become clearer that “presence” is not quite as simple as it might seem.

The literature is factual and clear that retention rates in distance programs suffer greater losses than their face-to-face counterparts (Allen and Seaman, 2013). What accounts for this is not entirely well understood as there are simply too many variables that are dynamically changing, and it is best to avoid conflating causation with correlation. Nonetheless several readings this week posed the concept of “presence” that is characterised as cognitive, social, and instructor (Ko & Rossen, 2010; Stavredes, 2011).
Cognitive presence stood out to me more as a function of the instructional design/foundation of the course. If the objectives are appropriate and can create enough challenge via the ZPD, then by proxy learners should be engaged and a cognitive presence should be promoted. I imagine if the objectives were far too easy, then students would be disinterested all the same. Regardless, cognitive presence will most likely not occur without social and instructor presence, making these three components of presence interdependent. As the literature repeatedly references student feelings of isolation, it struck me that this is perhaps a similar feeling among students who attend so called commuter schools. This prompted me to search for papers on the feelings of belongingness and isolation among commuter school students, one of which is “Commuter Students’ Educational Experiences and Sense of Belonging in the Undergraduate Engineering Community: A Phenomenological Study” by Jenny Linn Smith and Julie Martin Trenor. I have as of yet not had significant time to digest and compare themes but some are notably similar.
In order to have cognitive presence it seems requisite to have social and instructor presence, though I imagine the question is really whose responsibility is it to foster such rather than simply should we have it. How much of a role do students play in facilitating social presence as actors in their own play? How much is instructor presence is required to facilitate social and cognitive outcomes? The burden, as I see it now, is primarily on instructor presence as the leader of the orchestra. There is so much nuance and subtlety that only the instructor is either in a vantage point to see or only has the privilege of seeing, that they are instrumental in facilitating the full spectrum of presence. Just like how Transactional Distance can vary (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012; Stavredes, 2011), it is still the responsibility of the instructor to set the distance.
As I begin to teach online or facilitate more blended courses, it becomes more evident that greater care in planning be put into facilitating presence through various forms of interactions. In the assignment of analysing a communications tool, there ended up being a lot more analysis required than I had anticipated. Just how a tool might be used, and what limits it has in relations to the course objectives due to the medium, were issues I typically have not had to address as most of my experience teaching is face-to-face. The qualities of the messenger as they relate to educational outcomes and online presence were also not so readily obvious despite personally having used the messenger socially for many years. This also really does highlight the nature of what cognitive presence is in contrast to social presence.
Nevertheless, much like approaching learning theory as a broad spectrum ranging from behaviourism to cognitivism to social constructivism, approaching presence in a palatable and structured framework provides a method of clearly focusing on one, or noticing perhaps where one is weak.
Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2013). Changing course: Ten years of tracking online education in the United States.
Ko, S., & Rossen, S. (2010). Teaching online: A practical guide (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.
Stavredes, T. (2011). Effective online teaching: Foundations and strategies for student success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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