The Role of Social Presence in Online Communities

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Online learning is emerging as a solution for professional staff development in public school systems that are looking for ways to improve the capacity of their teaching staffs. As teachers begin to take more online courses as a way of improving their skills, we must continue to study the dynamics of teaching and learning in an online environment. To that end, there is a need to examine the various factors that affect online courses and professional staff development for teachers.

This dissertation explores the role of social presence in an online professional development course for teachers. It focuses on the threaded discussion of 26 teachers enrolled in an online course and compares their self-reported online behaviors with the written discussion threads. The data were analyzed based on a modified version of Garrison, Anderson, and Archer's (2001) indicators of social presence. In addition, this research focused on the written responses of the online moderators to understand the relationship between their responses and the ones provided by the teachers as online community members.

Content analysis of the discussion threads revealed that there was a range of social presence in the textual responses of the community members. The results of the study showed that there are levels of social presence in the written communication of the online community. In this research the levels of social presence appeared to be affected by outside influences such as the governing policy of the community itself and the more expansive district-wide policy of the school system. The results also suggested that moderator behaviors in this research had an effect on the policy governing the members of the online community. These results confirm previous research findings that suggest the purpose of the community and the types of questions used in asynchronous discussions can have an effect on the levels of social presence within the online community.