September 11, 2020

The Importance of Social Presence in Hybrid and Virtual Learning

Kevin Dorsey, Ed.D.
Student smiling at her computer while learning at home

The start to the 2020 school year is already looking different compared to previous years due to the COVID 19 virus. Students who are in hybrid or all virtual learning environments run the risk of lack of socialization with their peers. This is where the concept of social presence becomes such an important aspect of hybrid and virtual learning. The ultimate goal of maintaining a social presence is to turn an online class into an online community in which student activity and interaction leads.

Why Social Presence?

Some may ask why social presence is so important. Research has shown that students who feel discounted from their course or do not engage are more likely to perform poorly and withdraw from the online course. As a result, it is important for instructors to set clear expectations of activity in virtual and hybrid learning environments. Requiring students to provide clear, on-topic discussions and constructive feedback in both discussion boards and synchronous sessions is a must. What makes online instruction unique is that almost everything is recorded in some fashion.

By encouraging students to start off each course with introductions through creating a short video recording or even a basic discussion board allows students of all ages to share important information about themselves to their peers. During this important step of introductions and virtual getting-acquainted activities, students can be asked to either upload a photo of themselves or an avatar. Various free tools allow students to make recordings, including Screencastify and Loom. It is important that the recording software an instructor chooses to use with their students is approved by the school’s administration and is hopefully standardized across the organization.

Teachers should not fear remote instruction as schools require teachers to provide a robust online learning experience. There are several strategies in which a teacher can help build a classroom full of engagement and virtual collaboration. Through the theory of Community of Inquiry, instructors have the opportunity to post questions, contribute to discussion boards, and push students to develop their thoughts at a higher level. This is not a simple response to each student, but posing a question (inquiry) in each post to increase student critical thinking.

Tools and Apps for Building Community in the Classroom

Additionally, through GoGuardian Teacher™, instructors can use Video Conferencing to build a sense of community and presence through synchronous class meetings. School is not academics only; it also includes social and emotional growth through interaction. In addition to using GoGuardian Teacher to build a sense of community, consider the following apps:

  • Avatar Maker – Some students may be shy and would prefer to use an avatar instead of a photo of themselves. Through Avatar Maker, students are able to create a basic avatar. The student would then download and upload the avatar to their profile picture for the LMS or other online tools.
  • Flipgrid Flipgrid is a great way for students to make short video clips around a topic and share them with the class. Each student receives the assignment created by the teacher, but instead of writing a response, students create a video and post it to the grid. Students can learn the tool by using it right from the start with creating an introduction grid.
  • Google Docs – Instructors who utilize Google Docs can assign group work and view through the history to see the contribution of each student. During this process, the teacher has the ability to provide continuous feedback and push the students to a higher level of critical thinking.
  • WeVideo – Students can use the free version, allowing them to make videos up to five minutes in length. Although the free version doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that the paid version has, there are enough features to share short student-created video clips. Please note that the free version will also have a watermark on the final output.
  • GoGuardian Teacher Video Conferencing – Video conferencing through GoGuardian Teacher provides students the opportunity to meet virtually with the students in their class, and the teacher can remain in control of the meeting session while accessing additional classroom management tools. Teachers also have the ability to conduct a lecture and lock all students remotely into the presentation for asynchronous instruction. Students can elect to turn off their camera and mic for privacy. Administrators can enable the option for teachers to record sessions, as well enable mics and cameras to be turned on district-wide.

At a time when social distancing is the best option, social presence in virtual classrooms can have a positive impact on student connection and the overall digital learning experience. In the past, technology might have been frowned upon as a replacement for social interaction, but in a different time and circumstance, it’s what connects us through the distance.