By Amy Garrett Dikkers, Aimee Whiteside, and Somer Lewis
North Carolina Virtual Public School teachers show you how to engage students and become socially
present in your online learning environments.
Get Present Build Community and Connectedness Online
T he relationships you build with your students are key to their academic success. Despite their likes, dislikes, or academic achievements, students yearn to feel
a sense of belonging, a connection to someone or something within schools and classrooms. Whether a learning
environment is face to face or online, students want to feel
present. But with the challenges of online learning and
socialization, support, and other activities that contribute
to a sense of belonging, a virtual teacher has to work harder
to provide students with a cohesive environment and the
social connections that foster academic success.
Learning from NCVPS
The North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) offers
traditional, early calendar, and occupational courses; test
preparation; career exploration; and credit recovery. The
NCVPS targets students in grades 9–12 but also maintains
a limited number of courses for students in middle school.
All NCVPS courses are online and use the Blackboard
learning management system. Most student–teacher or student–student interaction is asynchronous because students
can access courses 24/7. Course structure provides a variety
of learning experiences, including individual assignments
and collaborative projects.
With course enrollment numbers showing consistent
growth in online learning for the state of North Carolina,
USA, we wondered if NCVPS teachers, many of whom
teach both face to face and online, feel compelled to create
a sense of community and connectedness in their virtual
classes. When asked, teachers responded with a resounding
“Yes!” and provided a plethora of strategies to create a community of learners invested in their own and their peers’
learning. Comments and strategies in this article came out
of an online survey of NCVPS teachers that we conducted
in spring 2011. Of the approximately 400 NCVPS teachers,
more than half responded to our survey.
Social Presence Model
So how can you build connections in an online course
community? We introduced NCVPS teachers to the
Social Presence Model.
The Social Presence Model provides a framework to
establish increased social presence, or connectedness,
among teachers and students for a more enriching educational experience. We define social presence as an integration of five key elements that motivate participants
to take active roles in their own and their peers’ online
1. Affective Association (AA)
2. Community Cohesion (CC)
3. Interaction Intensity (II)
4. Knowledge and Experience (KE)
5. Instructor Involvement (IV)
When we see our students face to face, we see facial
expressions and body language. Teachers want to
know how to “see” these aspects when teaching online.
Thankfully, there are elements you can build into your
online course to support this type of communication.
NCVPS teachers identified strategies, such as posting
announcements, promoting discussion forums, using
asynchronous and synchronous contact (instant messages, text messages, phone conversations, and email),
and providing personalized feedback on assignments
as strategies to promote positive affective association in
an online classroom.
Most teachers cited praise, motivation, and recognition of their students as keys to building these emotional
connections. One teacher created a space called “Scholar
Holler,” where she posted a wide variety of motivational
messages about her students’ successes in the course.