“Being There” in Online Courses

Fostering Community Online

One of the encouraging messages that emerges from research on online learning is that instructors matter. In particular, students’ perceptions of your social presence in a course strongly correlates to perceptions of learning and instructor satisfaction (Richardson & Swan, 2003, Swan & Shih, 2005). Social presence is the extent to which members of an online community perceive each other to be “real” and feel connection to one another (Cobb, 2009). Through intentional development of your social presence, you can help foster a sense of community in your online course, similar to what you accomplish in an on-site course.



Ways to increase social presence in your online courses include:

  • Setting the tone: Model communication with your students that takes on a less formal, more conversational tone. Address your students by name and share your own personal experiences.
  • Connecting faces to names: Consider posting a brief, introductory video of yourself, and ask your students to do the same. Use students’ names in your communication.
  • Designing online discussion questions and tasks to elicit personal responses: Ask your students to relate course content to their own relevant personal experiences.
  • Fostering community: Construct discussions and activities to encourage students to collaborate, address the class as a community (using “we”), and acknowledge contributions to the group.
  • Most of all, being present: Build relationships through regular interaction, including privately interacting with students; provide constructive and prompt feedback; and encourage students’ knowledge building.


By intentionally monitoring how you project social presence, you can enhance the sense of community in your online course, encouraging your students to meaningfully contribute to the conversation and value the responses of their classmates — ultimately resulting in more engaged learning.



Cobb, S. (2009). Social presence and online learning: A current view from a research perspective. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 8(3), 241-254.

Richardson, J. and Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Online Learning Networks, 7(3), 68-88.

Swan, K., & Shih, L. F. (2005). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(3), 115–136.