Media and presence in distance education

For some people e-mail as well as offering the chance to think before "speaking" also offers a sense of "presence" (Photo by janetmck)

In this post I want to move beyond the earlier one “How’s my presence?” where I argued that presence is not a binary state, but a graduated one. We can be more or less present. Here I will summarise briefly some fascinating research by Steve Wheeler at the University of Plymouth, make some suggestions arising out of my understanding of his work, and so prerpare for discussing a course I am preparing and teaching in (a) future post(s).

Wheeler, Steve. “Creating Social Presence in Digital Learning Environments: A Presence of Mind?.” In Learning Technologies 2005 Conference: Combined Presence. Queensland, 2005. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.99.7721&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

Wheeler investigated 305 first year education students (272 females and 33 males so more women than would be typical in theology classes) most were mature students with full-time jobs, with a mean age of about 40. So apart from the gender imbalance not unlike the “distance students in my classes. They completed two sets of questionnaires, at the start of their studies and 6-9 months later.

Photo by timparkinson

The real surprise, it should not have been – with the usual 20/20 hindsight it makes good sense, was that students with different approaches to learning showed striking differences in their perceptions of “presence” in differing media. So autonomous and tenacious students had strikingly different perceptions and responses to face to face learning. Autonomous students “neither need nor experience a great deal of social presence” in this setting (p.6), while tenacious students do experience high levels. For e-mail the results showed similar tendencies. Curiously for telephone these figures tended to reverse, with autonomous students experiencing presence and preferring this medium. He speculates that this difference reflects an autonomous student’s need to feel in control of the process (student initiated telephone call).

At the least this means that different students will perceive “presence” differently with different mixes of media, and therefore a course that uses varied media will be more likely to promote a feeling of participation across any varied group of students.

neither need nor experience a great deal of

social presence