How to Increase Participation in Social Learning

The problem with social learning and virtual learning environments is the difficulty in creating an environment in which people feel like they are part of a group and that people get a reasonable feeling that other people are also present. Without this "presence," a virtual classroom (virtual learning or social learning environment) is just another e-learning course in which an individual learner takes in the content on a one-on-one basis (whether by listening to a presenter in a live ILT session or reading slides in an asynchronous e-learning session).

Golden Present Jewellery Box with Bow Isolated
I said, "Presence" Not "Presents."
There can be no doubt, and most of us know this from personal experience, that the face-to-face interactions we experience with peers and instructors in training classes contributes to our experience. In face-to-face training, it is obvious to see that others are present. In fact, in social presence theory, face-to-face interactions rank highest in terms of presence. 

This "presence" is more difficult to achieve in e-learning (whether social learning or in virtual learning environments). Certainly virtual classrooms and virtual learning environments (and even enterprise social networks) make presence easier to achieve. But it takes deliberate design to achieve. And I think social presence theory sheds some light on how LX Designers can improve social and virtual learning designs.

Social Presence Theory

Social Presence Theory dates back to 1976 and is well-accepting is academic distance learning courses as a means for creating a sense that other students (and the instructor) are present in the course. Social Presence Theory (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976) shows the degree to which learners are perceived by peers as present. 

Why is this important? Because higher levels of social presence is related to higher levels of interaction? 

So what? 

While it does not reach the level of a like to performance, as us HPT'ers would like, social presence theory can help instructors address a common problem of improving learner participation. 

In a 2002 study, researchers showed a positive relationship between social presence and online instruction. Well, that is good news. The study also noted that social presence is not about frequency of participation. Social presence is about a social context, online communications, and interactivity. In other words, are there productive social relationships among peers, can participants operate the communication tool, and do participants interact with each other in an effective manner. 

There is much more to be written on this topic, namely how LX designers can use social presence to increase learner interactions in virtual and social learning interventions, but I thought I would provide some food for thought here to get your juices flowing.

I think this topic is worth pursuing. What do you think?


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

Tu, C.H., McIssac, M.. (2002). The relationship of social presence and interaction in online classes. The American journal of distance education 16(3). 131-150.