Academic journal article Research in Learning Technology

Social Presence in Online Learning Communities: The Role of Personal Profiles

Academic journal article Research in Learning Technology

Social Presence in Online Learning Communities: The Role of Personal Profiles

Article excerpt


Social presence in online learning communities: the role of personal profiles

Karen Kear*, Frances Chetwynd and Helen Jefferis

Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

(Received 14 September 2012; final version received 20 May 2014; Published 7 August 2014)


Online communication is increasingly used in education, but it is not without problems. One significant difficulty is a lack of social presence. Social presence relates to the need for users of technology-based communication to perceive each other as real people. Low social presence can be a particular issue in text-based, asynchronous systems such as discussion forums, leading to feelings of impersonality and disengagement from online learning. Features of online communication systems have the potential to increase social presence. One possibility, advocated in the literature on online learning, is the use of personal profiles and photos to help participants to learn something about each other and feel more connected. This paper discusses the question: To what extent do personal profiles enhance social presence in online learning communities? It presents research findings from two studies which investigated learners' use and perceptions of personal profiles in online forums. The findings suggest that personal profiles and photos help some online learners to feel in touch with each other. Other learners, however, do not feel the need for these facilities, have privacy concerns or prefer to focus on the forum postings.

Keywords: personal profile; online community; learning community; social presence; distance learning

*Corresponding author. Email:

Research in Learning Technology 2014. © 2014 K. Kear et al. Research in Learning Technology is the journal of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), a UK-based professional and scholarly society and membership organisation. ALT is registered charity number 1063519. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) License (, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Citation: Research in Learning Technology 2014, 22 : 19710 -


In recent years there has been considerable interest among educators in the use of online communication tools for learning. Online communication is now used to support learning and build community in universities, schools and many other organisations. This has considerable benefits for learners and for teachers, but it also raises problems (Kear 2011; Palloff and Pratt 2007). One common difficulty is that learners can find text-based online environments impersonal, because of the lack of communication cues such as facial expression and tone of voice. In asynchronous online environments (for example, discussion forums), the possible delays between a contribution and any responses can exacerbate the problem. These issues are important because they affect levels of participation and interaction, and therefore have an influence on learning. Unless students feel comfortable when communicating online, they may not participate openly, and so may not gain the benefits that an online learning community can provide.

A feeling of impersonality when communicating online has been characterised as a lack of 'social presence' (Short, Williams, and Christie 1976). Social presence relates to whether participants feel that they are interacting with real people, even though the communication is mediated by technology (Gunawardena and Zittle 1997; Lombard and Ditton 1997). …

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