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The Role of Presence in the Online Environment

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In this chapter we discussed why fostering feelings of "being there" and "being together" are so important in creating online presence, and we provided an overview of the current research on presence. We also defined the concept of presence and explained the difference between presence and engagement, as well as the social, psychological, and emotional aspects of presence in the online environment. 



The posting below looks at the various aspects of "presence" in online learning and how to use them effectively. It is from Chapter One, The Role of Presence in the Online Environment, in the book, Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching: How to "Be There" for Distance Learners, by Rosemary M. Lehman and Simone C. O. Conceicao. It is part of the Jossey-Bass Guides to Online Teaching and Learning. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 - - Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Brain-based Research Informs Instructional Design



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning 

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The Role of Presence in the Online Environment 

Understanding Presence


The concept of presence is complex and not easy to understand. Presence is the result of the dynamic interplay of thought, emotion, and behavior in the online environment, between the private world (that is, the inner world) and the shared world (that is, the outer world) (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007) and is rooted in the interactive (that is, enactive) perceptual process (Noe, 2005). Therefore, presence should be viewed from different perspectives: social, psychological, and emotional.

The Social Aspect

The first perspective involved in the concept of presence is social presence, a concept that surfaced in the 1970s when Short, Williams, and Christie (1976) wrote about individuals being seen as "real" when communicating using media. They found that the amount of presence was based on the type of media used. For example, distance learners received video cassettes recorded by instructors as a resource to supplement correspondence study. Learners felt a sense of instructor presence when they listened to the instructors voice and could hear the nuance and tone. Today it is believed that while the type of media used has some influence on social presence in online environments, social presence has more to do with how well individuals participating in online learning are successful in acknowledging or disregarding the presence of the medium (Lombard & Ditton, 1997) and feel that they are together with others (Biocca, Burgoon, Harms, & Stoner, 2001), as previously mentioned.

Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2003) have incorporated social and teaching presence in their Community of Learning and Inquiry model, viewing these two types of presence as elements of cognitive presence. From their perspective, social presence and teaching presence have to do with how instructor and learners, via online technology, individually and socially see each other as "real people."

Palloff and Pratt (2007) consider social presence to be a critical element in online community building. They say that in online environments there is a greater chance for learners to feel isolated because of a sense of loss of contact and connection with others. Social presence gives learners a feeling of connecting and belonging to a community.

For learners like our hypothetical Amanda, considering the social aspect of presence when designing a course can help reduce feelings of isolation. And if Carlos addresses the social aspect of presence, he can adapt and incorporate group activities that mirror the strategies he uses in his face-to-face course.

The Psychological Aspect

In the second perspective, according to Lombard and Ditton (1997), presence is a psychological state in which the technology becomes transparent to users, who no longer recognize it in the learning experience. In other words, an illusion is created in which the technology seems to disappear and people and locations that are actually separated feel that they are together in the same room.

Simulations are an example of online environments in which technology becomes transparent. Simulations involve the imitation of the real world in the virtual world. The technology creates an illusion of the real world so that the participants no longer perceive the existence of the medium (Lombard & Ditton, 1997).

However, it can be challenging for novice learners and instructors to achieve the feeling of transparency. They may feel anxious and reluctant about the online environment and focus on the technology rather than on the learning experience. After they become psychologically comfortable with the online environment, the technology is no longer a distraction and they have the potential to better experience presence.

We should clarify the term virtual as we use it in this book. We use the term in two ways: virtual space and virtual world. When we refer to the online environment, we are referring to the virtual space in which learners participate in the learning experience. When we use the term virtual world we are referring to a computer-based simulated environment that involves immersive experiences.

The Emotional Aspect

The third perspective, emotional presence, is the ability to genuinely show feelings through words, symbols, and interactions with others in the online environment. In this process, learners and instructors are emotionally present when they connect with others in an authentic way during the online learning experience.

We humans are perceptual by nature, dynamically interacting in the perceptual environment to create representations of our world that allow us to organize information into stories or self-narratives. Our perceptual environment is our awareness of all sensory information (Noe, 2005), which includes a recognition of our own body and inner self. This awareness provides us with information about the external world, the body, and the internal world. Our perceptual process manages and integrates this information, and represents it to us consciously and unconsciously. During this process, emotions affect our behavior and thought and our experience of presence. Emotions are key to perception; they guide us to focus on particular aspects of a situation, enable us to concentrate on that situation, connect the affective to the cognitive, and to arrive at thoughtful and appropriate decisions for our actions (Alcaniz, Banoa, Botella & Rey, 2003).

The emotional aspect of presence includes the active process of receiving, responding to, valuing, organizing, and characterizing what is important (Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1964). Emotions are a kind of gatekeeper for our perceptions and act both with and without the intervention of thought. We need to consider the role of emotion in online learning because it helps us recognize the environment where learning takes place: online interactions among participants and the creation of a learning community.

Environment Where Learning Takes Place.

The online environment is often defined based on how an individual observes and perceives something concrete, such as the type of technology used in the course, the type of the learning community formed, the interactive strategies implemented, the role played by the instructor, and the content. These aspects of the online environment are often recognized by instructors when they design face-to-face courses, where emotional cues are easily recognized because of their physical closeness to participants. But in the online environment, they need to be intentionally included in order to create presence.

The concept of presence is rarely considered in the design of an online environment because it is difficult to understand how it will play out in the learning experience. But when a course is designed with presence in mind, the experience comes alive and the learning process is driven by the dynamic interplay between thought, emotion, and behavior.

Online Interactions Among Participants.

Technological advances and the use of the Internet in online learning have changed the way we view online interactions among participants. Today these interactions are evolving: life is increasingly virtual as we carry out more and more of our communications and transactions via the Web; instructors increasingly serve as guides and mentors for learners; learners express the desire to be emotionally interconnected with other people even when they can't see them; and feelings of "being there" and behaving socially with other people are expressed through social networking tools. Thus Carlos needs not only to be familiar with the design of online courses but also to be aware of emerging technologies.

These kinds of changes are beginning to lead instructors and designers to rethink how to create online learning environments that are socially interactive, create learning communities, and help learners feel a sense of presence during the online learning experience.

Creation of an Online Learning Community.

One way to consider emotion as a guide in the development of presence in online learning communities is to use collaborative and reflective communication among participants. Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2003) developed the Community of Inquiry Model through the occurrence of three elements that are essential for an online educational experience: cognitive, social, and teaching presence.

• Cognitive presence relates to thinking and involves the ability of learners to start, create, and validate meaning through reflection and dialogue in the online environment.

• Social presence involves personal and emotional connection to the group. In online environments, individuals are able to express themselves socially and emotionally in a genuine manner if the design of the course is successful. Social presence can facilitate cognitive presence because in order for learners to express their thoughts, ideas, and feelings in the online environment they need to feel comfortable relating to others.

• Instructor presence is the voice of the facilitator, who serves as a model for the critical discourse, provides constructive critique, and gives formative feedback. A successful educational experience involves the balance and interaction of cognitive, social, and instructor presence (Garrison, 2003).

There is no question that creating a sense of presence in the online environment is critical. As we already mentioned, people are social beings by nature, and today the Internet is one of our social spaces. Because of the differences between the physical space of the real world and the virtual space, our sense of presence is felt and experienced in different ways. In the physical space, presence is easier to recognize through observation and perception. In the virtual space, presence needs to be intentionally created. The feeling of presence in the virtual space is the result of the dynamic interplay of thought, emotion, and behavior between the private world and the shared world. It is rooted in the interactive perceptual process. While most research focuses on cognitive, social, and teaching presence, this book considers them, but sees a perceptual systems approach as central to the design process. Designing with a sense of presence starts with an awareness of presence and places the learner at the center of the design process.

In the beginning of this chapter, we introduced you to Amanda and Carlos. Amanda did not know why she felt lonely, anxious, and isolated even before her online courses started. Carlos could not imagine how his interactive course could possibly be taught totally online. These two hypothetical cases present the typical concerns of novice learners and inexperienced instructors when working in the online environment. Their feelings of apprehension show how the concept of presence is elusive and hard to grasp when there is an unfamiliarity with this environment. We must take into consideration the social, psychological, and emotional aspects of presence and ways in which they influence participants' interactions in the online community.


In this chapter we discussed why fostering feelings of "being there" and "being together" are so important in creating online presence, and we provided an overview of the current research on presence. We also defined the concept of presence and explained the difference between presence and engagement, as well as the social, psychological, and emotional aspects of presence in the online environment. In Chapter 2, we will focus on how, according to perceptual research, presence can be experienced in the online environment, and we will introduce you to the Being There for the Online Learner model.


Biocca, F., Burgoon, J., Harms, C., & Stoner, M. (2001). Criteria and scope conditions for a theory and measure of social presence. Paper presented at the Presence 2001: Fourth International Workshop.

Garrison, D. (2003). Cognitive presence for effective asynchronous online learning: The role of reflective inquiry, self-direction and metacognition. In J. Bourne & J. C. Moore (Eds.), Elements of quality online education: Practice and direction (pp. 29-38). Vol 4, Sloan C Series. Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium.

Garrison, D., Anderson, W., & Archer, W. (2003). A theory of critical inquiry in online distance education. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of distance education, 113-127. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Garrison, D. R., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2007). Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues and future directions. Internet and Higher Education, 10, 157-172.

Krathwohl, D., Bloom, B., & Masia, B. (1964). Taxonomy of educational objectives. Handbook II: Affective domain. New York: David McKay.

Lombard, M., & Ditton, T. (1997). At the heart of it all: The concept of presence. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(2). Retrieved April 29, 2004, from

Noe, A. (2005). Action in perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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