Precis: Social Presence in Online Learning (Sung & Mayer, 2012)

This is an installment in a series of summaries of journal articles that I have been reading.

Sung, E., & Mayer, R. E. (2012). Five facets of social presence in online distance education. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 1738–1747. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2012.04.014

CC Image courtesy of Markus Spiske /

Social presence, the learner’s connectedness to others in the learning environment, has been well studied in the literature and found to influence learner achievement and satisfaction.  Despite these relatively consistent findings, the factors that comprise social presence have varied from study to study. The purpose of this study was to identify and validate the factors of social presence to serve as a framework for future research.

The sample consisted of 612 undergraduate students from 2 online universities.  The students completed an Online Social Presence Questionnaire (OSPQ) consisting of 30 items which they rated on a 5-point Likert scale.  The questionnaire items were selected from previously tested indicators of social presence and collected data on student perceptions.

The authors used exploratory factor analysis (EFA) and confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) to identify and validate the social presence factors.  They identified five factors: social respect, social sharing, open mind, social identity, and intimacy.  Then, using CFA, they found that the five factors were consistent across groups.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of this study is its definition of social presence.  Much of the research in social presence in the field of education cites a basis in social presence theory from the field of telecommunications, which suggests that media which supports more nonverbal cues will allow participants to more positively view their interactions (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976).  In telecommunications social presence is an attribute of the medium, but education researchers have appropriated this theory and adapted its definition.  The authors’ study clear redefines social presence for the field of education as the, “degree of feeling emotionally connected to another intellectual entity through computer mediated communication” (Sung & Mayer, 2012, p. 1739).

Although the authors’ evidence provided well conceptualized and appropriately analyzed support for the identification of the social presence factors, the authors overextend their discussion by identifying design strategy recommendations based on these factors.  Their research does not provide support for these recommendations, and the authors note the need for future research in them.  Additionally the design recommendations seem to focus on instructor-student interaction and largely ignore the potential of student-student interaction as a possible way to influence or foster feelings of social presence.

This study serves as a solid framework for future research.  These factors could be explored in conjunction with relationship factors such as group cohesion and social interdependence to identify the relationship between the two.  Examining perceptions of social presence over time using these factors could help researchers understand how social presence can be strengthened regardless of instructor intervention. Finally social presence in small groups should be explored, because it may provide a way for students to more quickly feel connected to each other.


Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. London: John Wiley and Sons.


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