CE Toolkit Logo

Distance Teaching with Service Learning and Civic Engagement BETA

A Toolkit from University of Maine at Augusta, and University of Southern Maine

Print Version of the Toolkit: uma.edu/faculty-cedoc

About Social Presence

Fostering Connection for CE Learning in Distance Courses (Social Presence and Social Interaction Design)

Fully online civic engagement places individual students or student groups in the field and requires that all reporting and reflection work be done entirely online. As a result, students may never interact with their peers, unless the design requires it.

Peer-to-peer and student-to-instructor interaction in any educational experience, whether fully online, partially online or entirely classroom-based, is critical. Social presence is defined by the originators of the research in the field as “degree of salience of the other person in the (mediated) interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships.” [1] At the time Short, Williams and Christie researched the impact of social presence (1976), the focus of their study was on the telecommunication industry. Research has expanded the original concepts to include web-facilitated technologies and distance education. For example, the perception of a lack of social interaction in online course design can negatively impact student engagement. [2] Likewise, the facilitation of social interaction and the intensity of that interaction has been found to have a significant correlation to student success. [3] Simply put, building relationships through shared goals helps students stay motivated, creates a support structure to solve problems and--at its best--can create an emotional investment in their education. This phenomenon may be characterized as social presence in online civic engagement.

In distance courses that include a Civic Engagement or service learning component, the perception of social presence and the social interaction design must necessarily include:

  1. Interaction between the learner and the faculty member

  2. Interaction between the learner and other learners

  3. Interaction between the learner and the Community Partner

  4. And (perhaps to a lesser degree) interaction between the Community Partner and the faculty member


Fortunately, telecommunication technology is constantly improving the ease with which we can design these events. We can use the discussion and reflection journal features of our learning management system to create strong learner-to-faculty and learner-to-learner interactions. We can use other digital technologies, like social media sites, chat rooms, desktop or mobile video-conferencing software, or plain old email to facilitate learner-to-community and community-to-faculty interactions. The trick is preparing the spaces for these interactions up front so that learners and partners recognize them when they arrive to interact. In a face-to-face classroom, this is created by the many cues we take for granted: an open door, a round-table with chairs around it, light shining on these tables, papers in the middle of each with instructions about what to do. In a distance classroom, though, we don’t have doors and tables. We have to create the cues that signal to our learners and partners that the door is open to discussion and where that discussion can be held.


  1. Short, John, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie. The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. New York: Wiley, 1976. Print.
  2. Muilenberg, Lin Y. and Zane L. Berge. “Student Barriers to Online Learning: A Factor Analytic Study.” In Distance Education, 26(1). Routledge: May 2005, pp. 29-48. Web.
  3. Kožuh, Ines, et al. “Social Presence and Interaction in Learning Environments: The Effect on Student Success.” In Educational Technology & Society, 18(1). 2015, pp. 223-236. Web. http://www.ifets.info/journals/18_1/19.pdf

Online Interactions arrow right

arrow left Civic Engagement Supports