Academic journal article International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education

Study Protocol for a Scoping Review on Social Presence

Academic journal article International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education

Study Protocol for a Scoping Review on Social Presence

Article excerpt


Education is a social event and replicating online the social interactions experienced in a face-to-face environment can be a complex undertaking. To help define these interactions, scholars have advanced the concept of social presence. However, social presence was originally conceived for learning environments characterized by email, discussion, and chat when online communication was relatively rudimentary (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001; Yen & Tu, 2004). Consequently, the understanding of what comprises effective affective communication (i.e., social presence) has become a more complex multi-faceted phenomenon. This is in part, because the construct is characterized by multidisciplinary research in the fields of higher education, social psychology, educational psychology, information technology, and computer science (Chen, Fang, & Lockee, 2015). As a result, the construct of social presence lacks clarity, with definitions tending to fall along a continuum making it difficult to aggregate findings to determine what is working and what is not (Chen et al., 2015; Kreijns, van Acker, Vermeulen, & van Buuren, 2014; Kreijens, Kirschner, & Vermulen, 2013; Lowenthal, 2010).

To address this problem, a scoping review of the social presence research literature will be conducted to help determine how social presence has been defined, described, and developed in online learning environments. Using this rapid review of the literature, the scoping review will attempt i) to develop a better understanding of what constitutes social presence through the mapping of a conceptual framework and ii) to identify some practical guidelines for instructors and course developers in how to create and use social presence to strengthen student's learning in quality online learning environments.

The purpose of this paper, then, is to report the research protocol for the social presence scoping review. Scoping reviews of primary research are increasingly becoming popular as a way to map relevant literature in-depth, clarify conceptual limitations, and articulate working definitions (Colquhoun et al., 2014; Peters et al., 2015). They are particularly useful when there is a large complex body of heterogeneous research that does not lend itself to the rigors of a systematic review (Arksey & O'Malley, 2005; Peters et al., 2015). The reporting of a research protocol is common practice for systematic reviews and is increasingly becoming a preferred practice for scoping reviews (Colquhoun et al., 2017). This is desirable as scoping review protocols inform the research community of research in progress, while providing methodological guidance and the development of a more rigorous approach to knowledge synthesis.

Literature Review

Part of the challenge in maintaining quality learning environments, is keeping pace with the plethora of social communication tools characteristic of the medium available that can facilitate social processes and authentic learning experiences (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009). To help understand social and interpersonal communication in an online environment the construct of social presence was developed. Social presence has long attracted attention of those involved in online learning typified by collaborative learning environments. One of the primary objectives for online learning has been the creation of an environment where the learner is at ease and experiences comfort in their communications with others (i.e., social presence). This is viewed as desirable because evidence suggests that when learners experience a high degree of social presence, they are more likely to engage their cognitive presence in higher order thinking (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000; Garrison, Cleveland-Innes, & Fung, 2010); actively participate in online communications (Cui, Lockee, & Meng, 2013; Danchak, Walther, & Swan, 2001); are less likely to drop out of their classes (Bowers & Kumar, 2015; Robb & Sutton, 2014); and are more satisfied with their learning experience (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Moallem, 2015; So & Brush, 2008). …

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