Bridging the Distance: How Social Interaction, Presence, Social Presence, and Sense of Community Influence Student Learning Experiences in an Online Virtual Environment

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Brian K. Walker (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Samuel Miller

Abstract: Online instruction has become part of the core of higher education and a voluminous literature has developed establishing that online instruction is just as effective as face-to-face learning. Simultaneously, however, pervasive reports of isolation and attrition among online learners, attributed to the presumed inability of online classes to support the substantive social interaction and sense of community among learners, have led some to conclude that online learning is not suitable for students who highly value interaction and who cannot function well independently. This study, however, explores how innovations in online instructional media and design may heighten interaction and community building among online learners. This study examines how the use of an online virtual environment impacts on student learning experiences in terms of four constructs: Presence, social presence, social interaction, and sense of community. During this ethnography, the online class proceedings of four hybrid classes were observed over the course of three academic terms. The transcripts of the proceedings, some conducted in the virtual environment and some in an asynchronous discussion forum, were subjected to content analysis to examine how the constructs manifested themselves in the virtual environment, how the environment impacted on their manifestation, how they mutually influenced one another, and how they mutually impacted upon student learning experiences. In addition, the researcher conducted interview and focus group sessions with key informants. The results indicated that the MOO demonstrated stronger manifestations of the constructs than did Blackboard, primarily due to the fast-paced, synchronous exchanges and the ability to display slides which the MOO supported but Blackboard could not. The results suggested that the presence and social presence supported by the MOO promoted the growth of social interaction in both forums which, in turn, promoted the development of sense of community among learners which minimized students' sense of isolation and combated attrition. However, the results also established that the use of the virtual environment was not a panacea, and that the manifestation of the constructs was also dependent upon the pedagogy and degree of involvement and investment in the online forum of both the instructor and the students.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2007
Online Distance Learning, Interaction, Community Presence

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