Social Presence

Topic Progress:

Recall from the previous course that the Community of Inquiry framework is an example of a ‘Social Constructivist’ learning theory. The idea of cognitive presence is focused primarily on the cognitive processes required to construct knowledge. Building from that foundation, the idea of social presence is related to the ‘social’ requirements of effective learning environments.

Early conceptions of the social aspect of online and distance learning focused on the difficulties associated with sustaining meaningful discourse and a sense of community in an environment that is focused solely on text-based communication as opposed to traditional f2f models which prioritize oral communication. It seems intuitive that the reliance on text in online education would lead to a relatively impoverished community because text lacks (lacked?) all of the visual and tonal cues that communicate a great deal about ourselves and what we mean when we say something.

But is this actually true? Are learners and faculty in a text-based environment condemned to an isolated experience? Is it possible to overcome the barriers presented by both geographic and temporal distance? If so, what do appropriately social learning environments look like?

In their original article on the CoI, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer used the following definition of social presence:

Social presence is the ability of learners to project their personal characteristics into the community of inquiry, thereby presenting themselves as ‘real people.’ The primary importance of this element is its function as a support for cognitive presence, indirectly facilitating the  process of critical thinking carried on by the community of learners.1

Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes, and Garrison2 argued that the ability of members to project their personal characteristics into the community is vital to their success in online learning. By creating an open community and promoting social cohesion in the CoI, instructors are setting the climate necessary for students to engage in critical discourse and thereby construct meaningful knowledge. So social presence is much more than simply being friendly and inviting as an instructor, it is critical to student success because it provides the means by which cognitive presence is developed.

More recently, Garrison3, (p. 34) presented the following definition of social presence:

the ability of participants to identify with the group or course of study, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop personal and affective relationships progressively by way of projecting their individual personalities.

Notice the different emphases in the two definitions? Originally, the emphasis was on individuals presenting themselves as ‘real people’ in an effort to support a sense of community, which in turn, supports higher level cognitive skills.

The new emphasis is on group identity such that the academic goals of the group precede the development of social relationships.

A key implication of this shift is that the initial days of an online course may not best be spent focused on developing social connections, but rather promoting the academic purposes of the learning environment.


  1. Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2, 87-105. doi:10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6
  2. Vaughan, N., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Athabasca: AU Press. Retrieved from
  3. Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.