Online learning is education that takes place over the internet, and it is, at times, referred to as e-learning (Croxton, 2014). Traditionally, training has always taken place in a classroom setting. However, the onset and advancement of technology have seen new methods and approaches adopted to complement the conventional mode of learning. Online learning attracts as much criticism as it attracts support. Some feel it is a great way to break away from the monotony of classroom studies, whereas critics feel that online learning has no place in the academic instruction modes spectrum going forward (Croxton, 2014). In the evaluation of online learning, one of the most important aspects of concern is the social element of e-learning. Online interaction has always faced the question of social presence. It has also faced criticism on the effectiveness of the virtual relationship between the instructor and the learner. Experts have tried to a great extent to evaluate and offer an opinion on the social aspects of e-learning. Social presence is a fundamental e-learning concept that must not come under duress; achieving social presence naturally is an excellent thing for learners and instructors.
In any mode of instruction, social presence is a fundamental concept that has to be highly considered (Mathieson & Leafman, 2014). Social presence is the natural connection that exists between the learner and the instructor. Also, the relationship should exist among learners. The online system's impersonal nature takes away a part of the instructional process that plays a great role in creating understanding. Mathieson and Leafman (2014) argue that there has been a great lack of human connection because the social presence is a bit absent. Online learners take instructions privately from their homes or offices; in a class of fifty, everyone is lonely in their corner. This virtual relationship reduces the level of satisfaction and creates a negative perception of online learning. Instructors and learners would almost agree that some of the essential elements contributing to success are satisfaction and a positive impression.
Cui (2013) evaluated online social presence as a subjective and objective measure and how it applies to better learners' and educators' experience online. The available standards of objective and subjective measurement of social presence are said to be unreliable in the online sense. They cannot conclusively be used to explain the online phenomenon. However, Cui (2013) views social presence as a subjective experience and is all about perception. Therefore, different learners are likely to carry different views and opinions about the social presence in e-learning. In all these, there should be a harmonizing approach that ensures there is enough to meet every learner's interests. The instructor’s style and personality can have a significant impact on the learning process, and this may not always be the case in online classes.
Social presence is essential in online classes, not only for the learners but for the instructor too. The interaction between the instructor and the learners is crucial and may have a significant effect on the learners. Preisman (2014) assessed the impact of a teacher's social presence and its impact on a student's performance. Contrary to major believes and views about social presence, Preisman (2014) concluded that it is not a worthwhile investment to create a more prominent presence for the instructor in teaching online classes. This position contradicts Mathieson and Leafman (2014), who believe that social presence is a prerequisite for success in online classes. However, it may depend on the tools that an instructor decides to use to enhance social presence in their online classrooms.
Different tools have undergone evaluation as possible approaches to improving social presence in online classes. Preisman (2014) discussed several methods that instructors have tried, such as online videos where learners can hear and see the instructor, and instructor’s participation in online discussion forums. These approaches would help boost the online presence of the teacher. Pollard et al. (2014) made similar conclusions that a teacher's online presence does not significantly change learner performance. Therefore, it could be a misconception that people have about the social presence of instructors in e-learning. Simple things like images, video clips, and audio clips can go a long way in changing learners’ views and perceptions. Simply put, visual and audio features can help in improving social presence in online classes.
The engagement and interaction of learners and teachers in online classes cannot be the same as the one experienced in physical courses. Some experts feel that the deliberate attempt to create a real experience in an online class is a misguided idea. Pollard et al. (2014) posited that online classes have an intentional configuration to achieve what physical classes could not get. However, online classes' objectives have been mutilated by the desire to make the effect of an online class feel similar to that of a physical class. E-learning is designed differently. People should try as much to understand the instructional mode in its unique way rather than try and fix it into the same scope as traditional classroom setup (Croxton, 2014)s.
Emergence and growth of social media are some of the main contributors to e-learning. Through these networks, learners can connect. They can also link up with information from different quarters. Institutions have also used social networks to try and improve online learning methods. The platforms provide an easy route for communication, and since learners highly embrace them, they help them in their day to day learning activities. Arshavskiy (2018) assessed how social media could be used successfully for e-learning purposes. The video-based platforms like YouTube provide instructors with an excellent opportunity to improve their social presence in the online classes. The ease of access to social media platforms is a factor to consider in developing and providing e-learning to those who subscribe to the system.
The standard learning management systemsare not as easy to access as the social media platforms. Arshavskiy (2018) reports that the learning management systems have the protection of layers and layers of firewalls, a correct assertion. Therefore, e-learners can take advantage of social media features to improve their interaction and engagement with each other. For instance, learners can form a WhatsApp group from where they can easily engage in discussions privately away from the learning management system. Fir better interaction and connection, they can use platforms like Skype and Zoom for video calling and participate in discussions where they can e=see each other. Therefore, social media acts as a complementary system to the existing learning management systems.
Online learning must follow the basic rules of engagement and best practices. Some basic concepts should never be left behind in any online class. An online discussion forum, regular feedback, video lectures, and a student profile should always come into consideration as basics. As such, they classify as primary best practices of online engagement between learners and their instructors. Detachment from the conventional mode of instruction means that online learning must utilize other factors favoring its execution. Therefore, the listed best practices should come in as great aid to learners and instructors. Their engagement could receive a boost.
As the debate rages on about the social aspect of online learning, it essential that people disentangle their views about e-learning from those of a physical classroom. If the two modes of instruction get distinct separation from each other, the benefits of e-learning will get the appreciation it deserves, without the usual comparison. With or without a social presence, those who opt for online classes ahead of physical levels have their reasons for the choice. In that case, they understand the difference, the challenges of each, and the benefits of their selection. Therefore, it would not make much difference for them, centring the argument of their choice on social presence. However, this does not mean that they would not appreciate social presence in the e-learning process.
Online learning is a fast-growing instructional mode, and acceptance is skyrocketing by the day. The world is at a time when technology plays a significant role in day-to-day lives, and e-learning is part of that technology process. At such a time when the world is experiencing tremendous challenges battling the global coronavirus pandemic, online learning has risen from an alternative option to the primary short term option. It is interesting because recreating the physical classroom feeling is almost impossible with e-learning. A majority of learners have never experienced e-learning, and they have to adjust to the demands of online classes to gain anything from a lesson. Social presence has never been in doubt when it comes to physical classrooms, but it is a huge challenge with online classes. However, those who choose to go the way of online courses understand the dynamics of e-learning, and a significant percentage is not affected by the difference. Amidst the real and perceived challenges, they find a way and succeed in their classwork like they would have done in a typical physical classroom. Online learning may not be majorly affected by the presence or lack of social presence, and this does not overrule its importance.
Arshavskiy, M. (2018). Social Media And eLearning: How To Improve Formal Learning With Social Media - eLearning Industry. eLearning Industry. Retrieved 31 May 2020, from https://elearningindustry.com/improve-formal-learning-with-social-media-social-media-elearning.
Croxton, R. A. (2014). The role of interactivity in student satisfaction and persistence in online learning. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(2), 314.
Cui, G. (2013). Evaluating online social presence: An overview of social presence assessment. Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange (JETDE), 6(1), 3.
Mathieson, K., & Leafman, J. S. (2014). Comparison of student and instructor perceptions of social presence. Journal of Educators Online, 11(2).
Pollard, H., Minor, M., & Swanson, A. (2014). Instructor social presence within the community of inquiry framework and its impact on the classroom community and the learning environment. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 17(2).
Preisman, K. A. (2014). Teaching Presence in Online Education: From the Instructor's Point of View. Online Learning, 18(3), n3.
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