Social Presence Theory and Implications for Interaction and Collaborative Learning in Computer Confe

2007-05-25  jianggzh
来源:International Jl. of Educational Telecommunications (1995) 1(2/3), 147-166

Social Presence Theory and Implications for Interaction
and Collaborative Learning in Computer Conferences


Training and Learning Technologies Program
College of Education, The University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM, 87131, USA.

The explosive growth of the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication(CMC) signifies the importance of understanding the social context of this medium, especially the new types and formations of com148 Gunawardena munity facilitated by computer conferencing. Communications technologies
that mediate the communication process in distance education and training create social climates which are very different from the traditional classroom. Even two-way interactive video and audio systems that permit the transmission of facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, create interaction patterns different from the face-to-face context. In traditional face-to-face interaction, besides what is actually verbalized, people exchange a range of nonverbal cues such as facial expression, direction of
gaze, posture, dress and physical presence. Birdwhistel (1970) notes that these nonverbal cues perform two distinct functions. The first concerns itself directly with the passage of information from one individual to another; the second is the “integrational aspects” of the communication process. Integrational aspects include all the physical manifestations of information exchange that keep the conversation going, regulate the interaction process, cross-reference particular messages to semantic meaning, and relate a particular context to larger contexts. In CMC, the integrational activity is the dialogue that occurs between participants and the instructors/moderators/ facilitators, and among participants.

The importance of examining social factors that impact communication
and learning in CMC has been emphasized in recent studies conducted
by Feenberg (1989), Harasim (1993), Jones (1995), Rheingold (1993),
and Walther (1992). In computer conferences, the social interactions tend
to be unusually complex because of the necessity to mediate group activity
in a text based environment. Failures tend to occur at the social level far
more than they do at the technical level. Jones (1995) discussing the “social
construction of reality” on computer networks, observes that reality is
not constituted by the networks CMC users use; but is constituted in the
networks and that it would be far easier to understand the physical, or
hardwired connections than to understand the symbolic connections that
emerge from interaction. As discussed in Gunawardena (1994) three attributes
of computer-mediated communication (CMC): The asynchronous
or time-independent feature, text-based communication and computer-mediated
interaction create a unique social climate that impact interactions
and group dynamics online. One of the theories that has been used in communication
research and educational psychology to explain the social context
of telecommunications-based interaction is the theory of social presence.
149 Social Presence Theory and Implications
The purpose of this paper is to examine research on social presence
theory and the implications of this research for analyzing interaction, communication,
collaborative learning, and the social context of CMC. The paper
will: (a) review literature related to social presence theory, examining
research conducted in both traditional and distance education settings; (b)
review literature that examines social presence in online communities, and
(c) discuss two studies that examine whether social presence is largely an
attribute of the communication medium or users’ perception of the medium.
The two studies were conducted in Spring 1992, and in Fall 1993 with
students who participated in the Globaled computer conferences who provided
their reactions to the medium of CMC after they had participated in
the conferences. The studies assessed students’ subjective perceptions of
media characteristics and not their performance in using these characteristics.
Although the question discussed in this study addressed the medium
of CMC from a user perception perspective, qualitative research data that
examines CMC from a relational perspective is also presented.
The review literature examines the development of the concept of social
presence from the seminal work of Short, Williams, and Christie
(1976) to its examination by communication researchers in the traditional
face-to-face classroom and distance education settings. The review of literature
further examines recent research that questions the applicability of
this theory to analyze the social context of online communities.
The two studies reported in this paper, are one small component of an
ongoing study that was undertaken to research and evaluate the Globaled
conferences that were conducted in Spring 1992 and Fall 1993. Globaled
linked graduate students in several universities to discuss issues related to
distance education, engage in collaborative learning and research related to
distance education, and experience distance education by using a medium
that is increasingly being used to deliver distance education. Detailed findings
of this project are reported in Gunawardena (1992), Gunawardena, et
al. (1993), Gunawardena et al. (1994), and Rezabek et al. (1994).
The studies reported here focus on one question in the questionnaire
that was administered to Globaled participants that solicited their reactions
to CMC. In this question, seventeen, five-point bipolar scales solicited stu150
dent reactions on a range of feelings toward the medium of CMC. The
questionnaire was administered after the students completed the Globaled
computer conferences. The question asked students to indicate their “current
feelings” about CMC. Therefore, the responses to this question indicated
students’ experience with the medium as a result of the conference
and any prior experience with CMC.
The 17 bipolar scales included: Stimulating-dull, personal-impersonal,
sociable-unsociable, sensitive-insensitive, warm-cold, colorful-colorless,
interesting-boring, appealing-not appealing, interactive-non-interactive,
active-passive, reliable-unreliable, humanizing-dehumanizing, immediatenon-
immediate, easy-difficult, efficient-inefficient, unthreatening-threatening,
and helpful-hindering. Students were asked to respond to each of the
five point scales according to their current feelings about the medium. For
each scale, “5” indicated a negative reaction to the medium, for example,
in the scale, stimulating- dull, “5” indicated “very dull,” and “1” indicated
a very positive reaction: “very stimulating.” If they were undecided or neutral
or thought that the medium was equally likely to be stimulating or
dull, they indicated so by circling “3,” the midpoint of the scale.
In one study, the questionnaire was administered to a group of graduate
students from four universities, Texas A&M university, the University
of New Mexico, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University
of Wyoming, who participated in the Fall 1993 Globaled computer conference.
In the second study a comparison is made between two student groups
at the University of New Mexico who participated in two separate Globaled
computer conferences: (a) the Spring 1992 Globaled conference that linked
graduate students from four universities: Florida State, the Universities of
New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wyoming, U.S.A., and Anadolu University in
Turkey and several outside participants who engaged in collaborative
learning and online discussions related to distance education, and (b) the
Fall 1993 Globaled conference which linked students in seven universities:
San Diego State University, Texas A&M University, and the Universities
of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Wisconsin-Madison, Wyoming, U.S.A., and
Wollongong, Australia, who participated in a collaborative learning exercise
that involved conducting research on a selected topic at each institution
and sharing the results with the Globaled community. The 1992 Globaled
conference had 70 participants and the 1993 conference had 90 participants.
The Globaled conferences were conducted using a “listserv” which is a
large electronic distribution list. Students subscribed electronically to the
list maintained at the University of New Mexico. In a listserv each stu151
Social Presence Theory and Implications
dent’s contribution is distributed to the group as a private e-mail message.
When compared to conferencing systems designed on the principles of
groupware, a listserv is not as conducive to conducting a group discussion
online. However, the listserv has the unique advantage of linking anyone
with access to an electronic mail account anywhere in the world.
The Concept of Social Presence
The issue of social presence may be explored by examining a variety of
constructs which may contribute to the social climate of the classroom.
Short et al., (1976) define social presence as the “degree of salience of the
other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal
relationships...” (p. 65). This means the degree to which a person is
perceived as a “real person” in mediated communication. They define social
presence as a quality of the medium itself and hypothesize that communications
media vary in their degree of social presence, and that these
variations are important in determining the way individuals interact. The
capacity of the medium to transmit information about facial expression, direction
of looking, posture, dress and nonverbal cues, all contribute to the
degree of social presence of a communications medium.
Two concepts associated with social presence are: Argyle and Dean’s
1965 concept of “intimacy;” and Wiener and Mehrabian’s 1968 concept of
“immediacy” (Short et al., 1976.) Short et al., suggest that the social presence
of the communications medium contributes to the level of intimacy
which depends on factors such as physical distance, eye contact, smiling,
and personal topics of conversation. They observe that the use of television
rather than audio-only communication makes for greater intimacy, other
things being equal. Immediacy is a measure of the psychological distance
which a communicator puts between himself or herself and the object of
his/her communication. A person can convey immediacy or non-immediacy
nonverbally (physical proximity, formality of dress, and facial expression)
as well as verbally. A person making a telephone call may choose to
speak in such a manner as to give an impression of aloofness and “distance”
(non-immediacy) or he or she may choose to adopt an attitude of informality
and comradeship (immediacy). Immediacy enhances social presence.
Therefore, according to this argument, social presence is a factor of
the medium, as well as that of the communicators and their presence in a
sequence of interaction.
152 Gunawardena
Walther (1992) observes that Argyle and Dean’s 1965 equilibrium theory
posits that communicators adopt levels of gaze, physical proximity, and
other behaviors indicative of intimacy and that these levels are derived
partly from cultural norms as well as from a need for affiliation. Short et
al., (1976) were aware of equilibrium theory and research although they
did not embrace it, and speculated that language may substitute or even
“overcompensate” for missing nonverbal information. Examining teleconference
research, Short et al., observed that because of the reduced-cue situation,
a participant will modify his or her behavior. Thus head-nods indicating
agreement may be replaced by verbal phrases such as “I agree.”
Equilibrium theory supports the principle of cue substitutability, in that a
communicator is likely to adopt other symbol systems to convey affective
messages that are unavailable nonverbally. Therefore, Walther (1992)
notes that those who communicate with each other using only a text-based
medium such as CMC, will try to achieve desired levels of immediacy
through the manipulation of verbal immediacy in the textual environment.
Examining the concepts of “social presence” and “interactivity” Rafaeli
(1990, 1988) observes that social presence is a subjective measure of the
presence of others as Short et al., defined it in 1976, while “interactivity”
is the actual quality of a communication sequence or context. Interactivity
is a quality (potential) that may be realized by some, or remain and unfulfilled
option. When it is realized, and when participants notice it, there is
“social presence.”
The Impact of Social Presence on Learning and Attitudes
A large number of studies in communication research focus on examining
factors related to social presence in the traditional face-to-face classroom.
A study by Kearney et al., (1985) examined immediacy as a potential
indicator of student affective learning across varied course content. The
results showed that immediacy was a good predictor of student learning,
and that both people-type and task-type students were sensitive to teacher
immediacy behaviors.
Having examined instructor social presence as a potential predictor of
instructional effectiveness, Christophel (1990) concludes that perceptions
of immediacy are highly correlated with favorable learner outcomes. Instructors
with a high degree of social presence were viewed by learners as
being more positive and effective, which, in turn, led to increased affect toward
the instructor and the course itself.
153 Social Presence Theory and Implications
Powell and Harville (1990) examined how a teacher’s verbal and nonverbal
immediacy behaviors relate to clarity when the students are ethnically
diverse. The results showed differences in the affect of immediacy on
clarity for certain ethnic groups, with Asian and Latino students showing
the greatest demand for teacher immediacy behaviors. Based on the assumption
that relational messages are multidimensional and are frequently
communicated by nonverbal cues, Burgoon et al., (1984) examined relational
messages associated with nonverbal behaviors. It was found that
high eye contact, close proximity, forward body lean, and smiling all conveyed
greater intimacy, attraction, and trust, while low eye contact, a distal
position, backward body lean, and the absence of smiling and touch communicated
greater detachment.
In a study that examined the relationship between verbal teacher immediacy
behaviors and student learning in a group of forty seven advanced
undergraduate students enrolled in upper-division communication classes,
Gorham (1988) found a substantial relationship between immediacy and
learning. Both the total verbal and nonverbal immediacy scores and the
overwhelming majority of the individual immediacy items were significantly
correlated with both affective learning and perceptions of cognitive
learning. Thus verbal and nonverbal behaviors function together to generate
Kelly and Gorham (1988) observe that while the link between teacher
immediacy and affective learning is empirically supported, the link between
immediacy and cognitive learning is less straightforward. They conducted
a study to investigate the effects of immediacy on cognitive learning
in an experimental situation which removed the effects of affect—that of
teacher (experimenter) toward students or that of students toward subject
or teacher, from the measurement of cognitive learning. The results
showed that immediacy produced positive results on short term recall.
They observe that a teacher’s use of immediacy behaviors is likely to be as
directly related to cognitive learning as it is to affective learning.
In the distance education context, Hackman and Walker’s (1990) study
provides evidence that “teacher immediacy” contributes to student satisfaction
and learning in an interactive television class. They argue that there
are differences between telecommunications delivered instruction and traditional
face-to face instruction, specifically in terms of the climate of “social
presence” created. Teacher immediacy behaviors include both verbal
and nonverbal actions such as gesturing, smiling, using humor, vocal variety,
personalizing examples, addressing students by name, questioning,
praising, initiating discussion, encouraging feedback and avoiding tense
body positions.
154 Gunawardena
Social Presence and CMC
Walther (1992) conducted a comprehensive study of interpersonal effects
in computer-mediated interaction, and observed that several theories
and experimental research on relational tone in CMC points to the lack of
nonverbal cues in this channel as a cause of impersonal and task-oriented
messages. However, field research in CMC often reports more positive relational
behavior and has indicated the development of “online communities”
and warm friendships. He observes that research has suggested that
communicators develop individuating impressions of others through accumulated
CMC messages and based upon these impressions, users may develop
relationships and express multidimensional relational messages
through verbal or textual cues.
Walther observes that social presence theory has been used to account
for interpersonal effects in CMC research. CMC with its lack of nonverbal
communication cues is said to be extremely low in social presence in comparison
to face-to-face communication. However, he observes that it is not
clear from the original theory of social presence (that electronic media differ
in their capacity to transmit information about facial expression, direction
of looking, and nonverbal cues), whether the actual characteristics of
the media are the causal determinants of communication differences or
whether users’ perceptions of media alter their behavior.
A significant number of research studies that have explored the effects
of CMC has failed to account for differences between CMC contexts and
purposes. Walther observes that the degree of social presence, social context,
or the relational qualities associated with CMC may be affected by the
different social processes, settings, and purposes within CMC use as well.
He cites research that reported that experienced computer users rated several
text-based media including e-mail and computer conferencing, “as
rich” or “richer” than telephone conversations, television, and face-to-face
conversations. Walther notes that the relational qualities such as task or social
orientation, and impersonality may be affected by other factors than
the medium alone. If the nonverbal as well as verbal messages of face-toface
groups were coded, then the overall ratio of socioemotional expressions
to total messages may be no different in face-to-face than in CMC
groups. It appears that the conclusion that CMC is less socioemotional or
personal than face-to-face communication is based on incomplete measurement
of the latter form.
Even when CMC participants have no other sources of information
about each other than their CMC interactions, some relational develop155
Social Presence Theory and Implications
ment may be expected to occur. Hiltz (1994) notes that the paucity of nonverbal
cues in CMC may limit information that serves to improve perception
of communication partners, to regulate social interaction, and to provide
a social context for communication. On the other hand, CMC participants
may explicitly increase overt social-emotional expressions such as
greetings, and paralinguistic cues in order to compensate for the missing
communication channels.
Johansen, Vallee, & Spangler 1988, (cited in Walther, 1992) suggest
that social presence can “be cultured” among teleconference participants, a
position different from Short and other‘s 1976 position that social presence
is largely an attribute of the communication medium. Research has indicated
that CMC users develop an ability to express missing nonverbal cues in
written form. One way of expressing emotion through this text-based medium
is the use of “relational icons” or “emoticons” the contrived sideways
faces that can be made by combinations of punctuation marks. These
marks contextualize the message within the relationship. Parenthetical
metalinguistic cues such as “hmmm” or “yuk” in a message adds emotion
to a text-based message. Such cues and emoticons add affective information
and indicate informality. Walther observes that studying CMC from a
relational communication perspective offers an approach to the process
that differs from a channel-effects view alone. A relational perspective suggests
that functional and social factors should be examined.
Discussing the emergence of community in CMC, Baym (1995) like
Walther feels that CMC needs to be studied from a relational perspective,
rather than from a “cues filtered out” approach. According to her, a “cuesfiltered
out” approach assumes that the computer itself is the sole influence
on communicative outcomes. In such a view the computer is assumed to
have low social presence because of the need to conduct interaction in a
textual environment and therefore, deprive participants of salient social
cues. The presumed lack of social context cues and feedback is seen as promoting
greater anonymity and social equality among participants. Baym
critiques this perspective and observes that while participant equality may
be seen as a benefit of CMC, the view that CMC is socially impaired leads
to an overwhelmingly negative characterization of the CMC social climate.
She notes that in her study of a Usenet newsgroup that is devoted to the
recreational discussion of daytime soap operas, participants have created a
dynamic and rich community filled with social nuance and emotion. She
emphasizes that it is a mistake to view patterns in CMC as direct effects of
the medium. There are at least five different sources of impact on CMC:
External contexts, temporal structure, system infrastructure, group purposes,
156 Gunawardena
and participant characteristics. These forces affect one another as well as
the emergent social dimensions of the groups. The emergence of pattern in
a computer-mediated group is a complex and dynamic process and its
study requires more naturalistic, ethnographic, and microanalytic research.
Examining the issue of community formation in a postmodern world,
Jones (1995) observes that with CMC we are embarking on an adventure in
creating new communities and new forms of community. In CMC, what allows
for the reproduction of social space is the malleability with which
identity can be created and negotiated. One can have multiple identities in
“cyberspace” and one can shift identities rather easily, taking on characteristics
of others’ identities. Although text-based CMC is described as an
equalizing medium because of it inability to portray social context cues, it
is evident that CMC can just as easily create boundaries and hierarchies.
He points out that one must question the potential of CMC for production
of social space. “Could it perhaps reproduce ‘real’ social relations in a
‘virtual’ medium?” (p. 14). He notes the many contradictions and problems
embodied in CMC. On the one hand it appears to foster community, or at
least the sense of community among its users. On the other hand, it embodies
the impersonal communication of the computer and of the written
Discussing synchronous or (real-time) interaction that takes place in
Multi-User Domains or Multi-User Dimensions (MUDs), Reid (1995)
notes that MUD users share not only a common virtual environment but
also a common language and a common textuality. Interaction on most
MUDs is carried out through the use of four commands known as: Say,
emote, whisper, and page, and these become the tools with which social
presence is formed on MUDs and through which social interaction is made
possible. She notes that MUD users have devised systems of symbolism
and textual significance that enable them to achieve understanding despite
the absence of conventional social context cues. With these tools MUD users
are able to read between the lines of text that make up their virtual
world. Reid remarks that these shared abilities and strategies allow her to
think of the users of a MUD as sharing a common culture, and this common
culture allows MUD users to engage in activities that serve to bind
them together as a community.
Research on social presence and CMC has indicated that despite the
low social bandwidth of the medium, users of computer networks are able
to project their identities whether “real” or “pseudo,” feel the presence of
others online, and create communities with commonly agreed on conventions
and norms that bind them together to explore issues of common interest.
157 Social Presence Theory and Implications
Student Reactions to CMC
The first study discussed here, examines student perceptions of CMC
after the conclusion of the Fall 1993 Globaled conference. Students rated
CMC using a seventeen point bipolar scale. The second study compares
two groups of students from the University of New Mexico who participated
in two different Globaled computer conferences in 1992 and 1993, in
terms of their perceptions of the medium of CMC. These findings are followed
by a qualitative analysis of UNM student reactions to social presence
and the sense of community created by the 1993 Globaled conference.
Table 1
Personal Reactions to CMC Globaled F’93
Average of All Universities
Globaled F’93
Mean SD
Stimulating 2.22 1.08
Personal 2.80 1.18
Sociable 2.18 0.96
Sensitive 3.17 0.99
Warm 2.95 0.97
Colorful 2.68 1.12
Interesting 2.07 0.98
Appealing 2.42 1.13
Interactive 2.00 1.11
Active 2.07 1.08
Reliable 2.67 0.99
Humanizing 2.87 0.92
Immediate 2.70 1.22
Easy 2.67 1.23
Efficient 2.78 1.27
Unthreatening 2.27 1.16
Helpful 2.36 1.00
1 = positive rating, 5 = negative rating.
158 Gunawardena
Table 1 indicates average ratings of students’ personal reactions to the
medium of CMC from five universities: San Diego State, Texas A&M, and
the Universities of New Mexico, Wisconsin-Madison, and Wyoming, that
participated in the 1993 Globaled conference. As can be seen from Table 1,
CMC as a whole received a very positive rating. CMC was rated fairly
highly as an “interactive” medium (Mean= 2.0), followed by “active”
(mean=2.07) “interesting” (mean=2.07), and a “sociable” medium
(mean=2.18). Although CMC is considered to be low in its ability to convey
social presence, participants in this conference rated CMC highly as an
interactive, active, and social medium. This is partly due to the social cohesion
that was created by this conference. The conference was organized
so that the first three weeks would be spent on introductions before the
scheduled activities began. In order to create the sense of an online community
and promote social cohesiveness, participants were asked to introduce
themselves and talk about their professional interests and experiences.
The second and third week of the initial introductory period was devoted
to discussing respective classes, syllabuses, and class projects so that the
participants got a sense of the online community and the work their peers
were involved in at participating universities. Participants soon connected
with those who had similar professional interests. At the end of every
week, during the first three weeks, all introductions were acknowledged by
the moderators so that students who introduced themselves felt welcome
and a part of the Globaled community.
Table 2, Table 3, and column two of Table 4, indicate how individual
universities reacted to the medium of CMC. While the majority of institutions
that participated in the Globaled conference integrated it into a traditional
face-to-face graduate class on distance education, two of the institutions
that participated in the Globaled conference: The University of Wisconsin-
Madison and Texas A&M University integrated Globaled into a
class taught by distance education technologies. At the University of Wisconsin-
Madison, the entire class was taught using CMC, and Texas A&M
University taught the class via a compressed video system. A closer examination
of Texas A&M’s rating of CMC indicates that the medium received
a positive rating as “interactive,” “interesting,” “sociable” and “stimulating.”
The University of Wisconsin rated the medium positively as “interactive,”
“interesting,” “stimulating,” “active,” “helpful,” “sociable,” and “appealing.”
In both these contexts, distance learners gave a positive rating to
the medium of CMC.
159 Social Presence Theory and Implications
Table 2
Personal Reactions to CMC Globaled F’93, San Diego State
University and University of Wyoming
San Diego State Wyoming
Mean SD Mean SD
N=18 N=10
Stimulating 2.94 1.18 1.80 0.75
Personal 3.28 1.19 2.50 1.12
Sociable 2.39 1.06 2.20 1.25
Sensitive 3.33 0.94 2.90 0.94
Warm 3.33 0.88 2.60 1.02
Colorful 3.33 0.94 2.50 1.02
Interesting 2.56 0.96 1.90 1.22
Appealing 2.94 1.18 2.10 0.83
Interactive 2.61 1.16 2.20 1.47
Active 2.33 1.11 1.70 1.00
Reliable 2.78 0.79 2.50 1.28
Humanizing 3.33 0.82 2.70 0.90
Immediate 2.89 1.24 2.70 1.62
Easy 2.44 0.90 2.40 1.43
Efficient 3.17 1.12 2.80 1.47
Unthreatening 2.05 1.03 2.29 1.42
Helpful 3.95 0.85 2.00 1.00
1 = positive rating, 5 = negative rating.
Students who participated in Globaled as a distance education experience
integrated into a traditional face-to-face classroom also rated the medium
of CMC positively. As can be seen from Table 2 and column two of
Table 3, students at San Diego State University and the Universities of
New Mexico and Wyoming rated CMC positively as an “interactive,” “active,”
“interesting,” “stimulating” and “sociable” medium. One institution
rated it highly as “unthreatening” and another as “helpful.”
160 Gunawardena
Table 3
Personal Reactions to CMC Globaled F’93, Texas A&M, and
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Texas A&M Wisconsin
Mean SD Mean SD
N=12 N=7
Stimulating 1.83 1.07 1.43 0.49
Personal 2.67 1.37 2.29 1.16
Sociable 1.83 0.69 2.14 0.99
Sensitive 2.75 0.92 3.71 0.70
Warm 2.58 1.04 3.00 0.53
Colorful 2.08 1.11 2.43 1.05
Interesting 1.67 0.75 1.43 0.49
Appealing 2.00 1.29 2.14 0.83
Interactive 1.67 0.94 1.29 0.45
Active 2.42 1.38 1.57 0.73
Reliable 3.08 1.19 2.29 0.88
Humanizing 2.58 0.86 2.43 0.49
Immediate 2.33 0.94 2.43 1.05
Easy 2.92 1.44 3.29 1.39
Efficient 2.50 1.26 2.29 1.03
Unthreatening 1.91 1.26 3.00 0.93
Helpful 1.91 1.19 2.00 0.53
1 = positive rating, 5 = negative rating.
Table 4 compares personal reactions to CMC by two different groups
of students from the University of New Mexico who participated in two different
Globaled computer conferences. In this comparison it is interesting
to note that both groups of students rated CMC the same on fifteen out of
the seventeen bipolar scales, with slight differences seen for “interesting”
and “easy.” The medium was rated highly as “interactive” and “active,”
followed by “sociable,” “interesting,” and “stimulating.” It can be argued
that since CMC received a similar rating in two separate conferences, the
results indicate social presence from a channel-effects view. However, it is
possible that if this same question was administered to other CMC groups,
the results may be different depending on the participants’ experience of
each conference.
161 Social Presence Theory and Implications
Table 4
Personal Reactions to CMC
University of New Mexico Students
Globaled Sp’92 Globaled F’93
Mean SD Mean SD
N=24 N=13
Stimulating 2.31 0.75 2.31 0.72
Personal 2.77 0.73 2.77 0.70
Sociable 2.23 0.60 2.23 0.58
Sensitive 3.23 1.09 3.23 1.05
Warm 3.00 1.00 3.00 0.96
Colorful 2.62 1.04 2.62 1.00
Interesting 2.07 1.00 2.23 0.80
Appealing 2.46 0.97 2.46 0.93
Interactive 1.69 0.48 1.69 0.46
Active 1.92 0.64 1.92 0.62
Reliable 2.46 0.66 2.46 0.63
Humanizing 2.85 1.07 2.85 1.03
Immediate 2.92 1.04 2.92 1.00
Easy 2.57 1.02 2.62 1.00
Efficient 2.77 1.30 2.77 1.25
Unthreatening 2.53 0.88 2.53 0.84
Helpful 2.30 0.63 2.30 0.61
1 = positive rating, 5 = negative rating.
Although the two Globaled conferences linked students in several universities
who had never seen or met each other, the participants soon connected
with online participants as a result of initial introductions, and the
social presence created by the participants helped to move the task oriented
conference to a more social conference toward the middle of the semester.
The collaborative learning projects in the two conferences were organized
a little differently. In the 1992 conference, after the initial introductory period,
each university was responsible for moderating a question related to
distance education that they had selected. In 1993, in order to facilitate collaborative
learning and discussion, the faculty decided that the Globaled
project would include both research and discussion components. The research
project was designed as a collaborative learning project which each
class conducted as a group at their own site. The discussion component involved
a discussion of findings from each group project with the online
162 Gunawardena
Interaction analysis of Globaled conferences indicate that both conferences
started as very task oriented ones, but moved to more social conferences
toward the middle and end of the semester. This was more so in the
1993 conference. Since the students at each university conducted similar
research projects, the discussion of the findings online became tedious. As
the task became boring the social aspect of the conference became more interesting
and the conference evolved into a social conference with a closely
knit, socially cohesive group.
Tables 1, 2, 3, and 4 indicate that there were no negative ratings for
CMC. It can be concluded that even though CMC is a text-based medium,
it can be perceived as interactive, active, interesting, and stimulating.
However, it is the kind of interactions that take place between the participants,
and the sense of community that is created during the conference,
that will impact participants’ perceptions of CMC as a “social” medium.
These findings support the view that social presence can be cultivated in
conference participants. Therefore, the impetus falls upon the moderators
of computer conferences to create a sense of online community and make
space for social interaction to take place.
A qualitative analysis of UNM student reactions to the 1993 Globaled
conference by Gunawardena (1994) indicates that it was a positive experience
for most of them in spite of the technical difficulties they experienced.
A majority indicated that they “enjoyed meeting people from around the
world and hearing their perspectives on distance education.” The discussions
on the research project, soon became repetitive and boring. However,
as a result of this, the conference expanded into topics of group or personal
interest; some very relevant and some tangential, but overall a great deal of
incidental learning took place. As one student observed: “What I found interesting
was that as the conference became repetitive and boring, the
group took over to liven it up with humor, social messages, and other topics.
We became a community with roles...” Another observed: “This turned
out to be the most interesting part because you could get to know personalities,
feelings, passions, questions, and so forth, beyond the academic
exercise...The experience has broadened my communication paradigm considerably—
now I’m interested in things like gophers, and veronica, for example,
that I never would have imagined before.”
Some students commented that it was easier to enter into conversations
on CMC, than in face-to-face contexts because there was time for input.
Another found the medium to be quite “personal” and “interesting.” A
student from Pennsylvania State university who participated and observed
the conference, remarked that there was a “strong sense of community”
163 Social Presence Theory and Implications
that developed in the group, and this was evident in the number of students
who lamented the ending of Globaled 1993, and wanted to continue the
discussions in “Eternaled,” the sequel to Globaled.
Implications for Interaction and Collaborative Learning
The results of this study indicate that although CMC is described as a
medium that is low in non-verbal cues and social context cues, participants
in conferences create social presence by projecting their identities and
building online communities. In order to encourage interaction and collaborative
learning, it is important that moderators of computer conferences
promote the creation of conducive learning environments. CMC participants
can be trained to create social presence in a text-based medium and
build a sense of community. In order to build social cohesiveness, moderators
should start the conference with introductions and social exchanges if
the system used is a listserv, or create a separate area for social chit chat in
a conferencing system. Developing protocols for CMC interaction, procedures
for signing on and using the system, etiquette for CMC discussion,
and techniques for managing information overload, will enhance interaction
and communication in computer conferences. Conference moderators
should facilitate discussions by recognizing all contributions initially, summarizing
frequently, and weaving ideas together. When the computer conference
is comprised of a cross-cultural group, individual participants
should be responsible for providing codes or legends for the idiomatic and
colloquial language they use that might only be understood in one particular
culture. A safe and friendly CMC community will provide opportunities
for many participants to engage in both academic and social interaction.
Building CMC environments that promote collaborative learning has
been a concern of many distance education designers. Constructivism has
recently begun to influence the design of technology mediated learning environments.
Jonassen (1994) observes that according to constructivists,
thinking is grounded in perception of physical and social experiences,
which can only be comprehended by the mind. The mind produces mental
models that explain what the individual has perceived. These models are
then used to explain, predict, or infer phenomena in the real world. Constructivists
also believe that much of reality is shared through a process of
social negotiation. Jonassen discusses the implications of constructivism
for instructional design and observes that purposeful knowledge construction
may be facilitated by learning environments which (a) provide multiple
representations of reality, (b) focus on knowledge construction and not
164 Gunawardena
reproduction, (c) provide real world case-based learning environments, (d)
foster reflective practice, (e) enable context and content dependent knowledge
construction, and (f) support collaborative construction of knowledge
through social negotiation. Computer conferences can be designed to promote
the construction of knowledge that is meaningful to the learner. Employing
constructivist principles, CMC environments can be designed to
provide multiple perspectives and real world examples, encourage reflection,
and support collaborative construction of knowledge through social
negotiation. However, such learning environments may promote collaborative
learning which involves the active construction of knowledge through
social negotiation, only if participants can relate to one another, share a
sense of community and a common goal. The development of social presence
and a sense of an online community becomes key to promoting collaborative
learning and knowledge building.
The studies discussed in this paper point toward social presence as a
potentially significant factor in improving instructional effectiveness in
both traditional and communications technology mediated distance classes.
However, in reviewing social presence research, it is important to examine
whether the actual characteristics of the media are the causal determinants
of communication differences or whether users’ perceptions of media alter
their behavior. It was noted that social presence can “be cultured” among
teleconference participants, a position different from the view that social
presence is largely an attribute of the communication medium. Research
has indicated that CMC users in particular develop an ability to express
missing nonverbal cues in written form. Therefore, studying a medium
from a relational communication perspective offers an approach to the process
that differs from a channel-effects view alone. A relational perspective
suggests that functional and social factors should be examined.
Results from the studies that examined students’ subjective perceptions
of CMC suggest that in spite of the low social context cues of the medium,
student perceptions of the social and human qualities of the medium
will depend on the social presence created by the instructors/moderators
and the online community. Within each telecommunications-mediated
learning context, the learner is an equal distance from the learning stimuli,
and it is only the learners’ perceptions of interaction through various media
that provide the sensation of social presence.
165 Social Presence Theory and Implications
Instructors/moderators who are used to relying on nonverbal cues to
provide feedback such as a smile, head nod, or hand gestures, and who
have a lesser-developed ability to vocalize their feedback will be at a loss
when teaching via channels such as audio teleconferencing and CMC that
do not have the ability transmit certain nonverbal cues. These instructors
need to learn to adapt to telecommunications media by developing interaction
skills that create a sense of social presence. It is these skills and techniques,
rather than the medium, that will ultimately impact students’ perception
of interaction and social presence.
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