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An exploratory study of teacher perception of social presence: Design and instructional practices for new online teachers

Dissertation
Author: Mark Pugsley
Abstract:
The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the perceptions of high school teachers regarding social presence in online instruction. Participants were nine teachers, all new to teaching online. The influence of an Online Social Presence Rubric was studied along with other variables that affected understanding of social presence during one teaching semester. Five primary questions guided the research with the intention of furthering knowledge about social phenomena in the field of online education: (I) What do teachers identify as the central constructs to social presence; (II) How does the Online Social Presence Rubric affect teachers' understanding of social presence; (III) In what ways do teachers perceive, use or adopt the rubric as an instructional tool; (IV) What other variables influence the teachers' perceptions and practices of social presence; and (V) What did teachers learn about social presence after teaching their first online course? Participants were experienced classroom teachers in a large urban school district who were part of a high school's transition to online course delivery. The research design compared analysis in semi-structured and open interview questions before and after the online classes were taught. Observation of each online class within the learning management system took place at the end of the semester. Due to the exploratory nature of this research, the small number of participants and its specific geographic context, this study offers only descriptive and speculative findings on how teacher social perceptions influence design and instructional practices. The findings included what teachers learned after a significant loss in social presence occurred during instruction and includes suggestions for improving social presence in online courses.

TABLE OF CONTENTS List of Figures .................................................................................................... xi List of Tables .................................................................................................... xii Chapter 1 Introduction ..................................................................................... 1 Social Presence ............................................................................................... 2 Rubrics ............................................................................................................. 5 Problem Statement........................................................................................... 6 Research Questions ......................................................................................... 8 Significance of Study ........................................................................................ 8 Limitations of Study .......................................................................................... 9 Chapter 2 Literature Review .......................................................................... 11 Broadening the Theoretical Context ............................................................... 11 Definitions of Social Presence ........................................................................ 14 Measurement of Social Presence .................................................................. 19 Social Presence and Learning Outcomes ...................................................... 28 Social Presence and Interaction ..................................................................... 30 Background to Assessment ............................................................................ 34 Background to Rubrics ................................................................................... 38 What is a Rubric. ........................................................................................ 38 Rubric determination. ................................................................................. 39 Rubric design. ............................................................................................ 40 Rubric validity and reliability. ...................................................................... 41 Rubric Studies. ........................................................................................... 46 Chapter 3 Methodology .................................................................................. 49 Introduction .................................................................................................... 49 Research Site ................................................................................................. 51 Research Participants .................................................................................... 51 Research Design ............................................................................................ 52 Overview of the Online Social Presence Rubric’s Design .............................. 55 Instrumentation .............................................................................................. 56

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Data Collection ............................................................................................... 56 Data Analysis ................................................................................................. 57 Dependability and Trustworthiness ................................................................ 58 Chapter 4 Analysis of Data and Findings ..................................................... 60 Study Context ................................................................................................. 60 School setting. ........................................................................................... 60 Online Training. .......................................................................................... 60 Researcher reflections and bias. ................................................................ 61 Transition to teaching online classes. ........................................................ 62 Presentation of data and results ..................................................................... 64 Question I: What do instructors identify as the central constructs to social presence? .................................................................................................. 65 Question II: How does the Online Social Presence Rubric affect teachers’ understanding of social presence? ............................................................ 70 Question III: In what ways do teachers perceive, use or adopt the rubric as an instructional tool? ....................................................................................... 79 Question IV: What other variables influence the teachers’ perceptions and practices of social presence? ..................................................................... 83 Question V: What did teachers learn about social presence after teaching their first online course? ..................................................................................... 94 Chapter 5 Summary and Implications ........................................................ 118 Introduction .................................................................................................. 118 Summary of Research Findings ................................................................... 119 Question I................................................................................................. 119 Question II. ............................................................................................... 121 Question III. .............................................................................................. 122 Question IV. ............................................................................................. 123 Question V. .............................................................................................. 125 Limitations of the Study ................................................................................ 127 Implications .................................................................................................. 128

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Future Research .......................................................................................... 131 Closing Remarks .......................................................................................... 132 References ...................................................................................................... 134 Appendixes ..................................................................................................... 148 Appendix A: Model and Template for Assessment of Social Presence ....... 149 Appendix B: Tierney & Simon Three Guiding Questions ............................. 151 Appendix C: Online Social Presence Rubric ............................................... 154 Appendix D: First Interview Questions ........................................................ 156 Appendix E Course Observation Guide ....................................................... 158 Appendix F: Second Interview Questions .................................................... 160

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List of Figures Figure 1. Online Social Presence Rubric design and application assessment categories. ............................................................................................... 71 Figure 2. Rubric revision considerations were identified in four areas that had to do with descriptive language precision, scaffold rubric meaning, application strategies, and identification of rubric potential to be counterproductive. ................................................................................... 77 Figure 3. There was a significant change in topic and scope between the first and second interviews caused by the disruption in social presence that took place during the online classes. ............................................................... 84 Figure 4. The five broad variables that teachers identified as influencing perceptions about social presence during the first interview are provided in the figure. ................................................................................................. 85 Figure 5. In the absence of social presence in the online classes, more than half of the participants made statements regarding how this circumstance affected the class in detrimental ways. .................................................... 93 Figure 6. Eight categories were identified as reasons to why social presence was disrupted and why teacher social expectations about their online classes were not achieved. ................................................................................... 96 Figure 7. The participants identified four categories that related to instructional design and teacher practices that influenced online social presence. ... 105 Figure 8. All of the participants, after teaching their online course, had many ideas about how to solve the social presence problems encountered. .. 110

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List of Tables Table 1: Teaching experience ............................................................................ 52 Table 2: Research Design .................................................................................. 54

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Chapter 1 Introduction As one high school teacher in this study suggested, “You have to get their hearts before you get their minds.” While the link between social phenomena and teaching content to many educators appears obvious, research studies have found the subject complex and difficult to prove or refute. The accelerating use of computer-mediated communication in education is raising new questions about the role of social presence and relationships in learning. What role should social presence play in online courses? Does social presence provide value to academic learning? How is social presence being lost, gained or leveraged by instructors and students who are experimenting with a variety of communication and social networking tools? Communication, through the use of language, symbols and non-verbal cues, “arose out of social interaction” (Argyle, 1969) and is based on “universal principles of semantics, syntax and phonology” (Lenneberg, as cited in Argyle, 1969, p. 65). Communication is constructed out of an agreed-upon language of symbolic representations of meaning. Herbert Blumer’s (1969) third premise of symbolic interactionism is the “use of meanings by a person in his (or her) action involves an interpretative process” (p.5). To communicate, whether imparting information, ideas or associations with another person face to face, or through the use of a communication tool, is to some extent a psychologically mediated process. The advancement of communication devices is largely dependent upon the human capacity to mediate and infer meaning. The definitions of communication in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) ("Communication," 2010) are undergoing revisions that are more representative of the revolution taking place with the use of Web 2.0 social and interactive devices: “The transmission or exchange of information, knowledge or ideas by means of speech, writing, mechanical or electronic media, etc.” One of the OED illustrative quotations is taken from The New York Times (2008): “Every day they (youth) interact with

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friends through multiple channels of communication including cell phones, text messages, instant messages, e-mail and face-to-face conversations.” Social Presence What is social presence, and in regards to this study, what is social presence in the context of computer-mediated communication and online education? To summarize post-Internet definitions, which will be discussed in greater detail in the forthcoming literature review, social presence is an interactive human phenomenon where cognitive, affective and identity attributes can be reciprocally projected and received between two or more persons. These are foundational social capacities necessary to construct such outcomes as affective connection, co-awareness, a sense of belonging or knowledge collaboration, and construction in an online course or learning community (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Picciano, 2002; Swan & Shih, 2005; Tu & McIsaac, 2002). What has evolved from Lascaux Caves, Silk Road, maritime explorers, Pony Express, the telegraph, the telephone, television and computer-mediated communication is the capacity to exchange more information at greater speeds. Humans cross the divide of space and time and communicate with each other and share social cues that more closely emulate face-to-face interactions. On the other hand, when a professor was recently asked the difference between distance and face-to-face education, he promptly replied the former was like a love letter (B. Noll, personal communication, April 2, 2009). Nevertheless, advances in technology are changing how we communicate, interact and learn. People are able to project, as well as receive, identities through computer- mediated communication to build meaningful relationships and online communities of practice (Gunawardena, 1994). What is socially lost or gained by advancements in computer-mediated communication is ongoing with research and debate. Social presence, within the distance education context, is a complex concept. Social presence has undergone the scrutiny of many researchers, yet

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an agreed upon meaning continues to be elusive. This is partly attributed to the nature of the concept itself. Blumer (1969) points out the research challenge involved: In view of the nature of our problems, our observations and our data in social psychology, I expect that for a long time generalizations and propositions will not be capable of the effective validation that is familiar to us in the instance of natural science. Instead they will have to be assessed in terms of their reasonableness, their plausibility and their illumination. (p.182) In addition to the validation problem, social presence, or one of the representations of social presence, has been studied by diverse disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and education (Rice, 1992). Each discipline’s particular orientation and emphasis is convergent, divergent or hard to correlate with each other. Yet these perspective differences may help illuminate this multifaceted phenomenon. Rather than one point of view disproving the other, a mature understanding may necessitate the allowance of some ambivalence. Social presence is the type of complex psychological whole (a phenomena related to thought and language) that Lev Vygotsky (1986) argued not to reduce and study only elements, because the whole phenomena itself may be lost. It (psychological wholes into elements) may be compared to the chemical analysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen, neither of which possesses the properties of the whole and each of which possesses the properties not present in the whole. (p. 4) For Vygotsky, a method of analysis in research is to study complete units, which keep their properties and integrity as holistic systems. Social researchers continue to struggle with this dichotomy: How does one understand the component parts that make up a phenomenon such as social presence, while at

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the same time maintain the integrity of this type of interdependent system? An emphasis in one direction may have an unwanted result of the invalidation of the other. This dilemma is made clear in the phenomena of distance education. It is difficult to isolate and identify the causal learning relationships. On the one hand, teaching is a craft of multiple experiences (background, education, culture, institution and myriad other factors) that any quantifiable reduction would miss and evade the messy social confluence that amalgamates into one learning moment. Or can computer-mediated communication reduce some of the unpredictability of teaching and learning outcomes? Content can be distributed through technology with little to no social interaction, such as in the form of a tutorial that does not extend beyond content management sharing. Computer- mediated communication is not inherently interactive (Eastmond, 1995). A hypothesis one could argue is how the content can be transferred more efficiently to students with less time given to irrelevant social interactions. On the other hand, one of the identified problems with online learning is that it can be a cold, impersonal and isolating learning environment (Rourke & Anderson, 2002). Swan (2003) argues how interaction is essential to learning: “Socio-cognitive theories of learning maintain that all learning is social in nature and that knowledge is constructed through social interactions” (p. 25) and “no matter what learning theories we hold–behaviorist, constructivist, cognitivist or social– reciprocal events and mutual response in some form must be integral to our notions of how we learn” (p. 16). The research dilemma remains: What specifically about social interaction contributes to learning, and how does one accurately maintain Vygotsky’s salient systems perspective? The crossing from theoretical debates and research on social presence to instructional application is circuitous. A great deal seems to get lost in the translation of interpretive process. For example, when we consider K-12 education and the existent pressures on summative testing, the curriculum is largely content driven, while social processes are given marginal attention in the

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course assessment process (Black & Wiliam, 1998). Stiggins, Chappuis, Chappuis, and Arter’s (2006) distinction between assessment of and for learning is a meaningful one regarding the instructional culture, what assessment type is valued, and curriculum design. Assessment of learning occurs after the learning has taken place. Assessment for learning occurs while learning is under way. The latter places greater value on formative assessment and an increased emphasis on the social interactions that contribute to learning, such as the self- esteem of students, self-assessment practices by students, and dialogue between instructors and students that are reflective and promote deeper student understanding (Black & Wiliam, 1998). Assessment for learning requires consideration of how to evaluate beyond rote and subject content quantity learning. Rubrics The use of rubrics to assess socio-affective-cognitive learning is a continuation of a 3,000-year history in performance assessment (Stiggins et al., 2006). Rubrics are effective instruments to assess performance criteria, develop descriptive scoring schemes, define learning targets for teachers and students, and provide clarification to observable application of knowledge (Arter, 2000; Jonassen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999; Moskal, 2000; Popham, 1997; Stiggins et al., 2006). It is hard to find assessment instruments for online learning that covers course social dynamics that are valid and can be readily utilized for instructional learning purposes. Rubrics have been used to assess social interaction in distance courses (Roblyer & Wiencke, 2003, 2004). I developed an online social presence with a collogue, Michael Rulon, that originated out of this study’s literature review (see Appendix C). We identified from the research five overarching descriptive areas that are operative and significant to the understanding of online social presence. A number of drafts and revisions took place in designing the rubric’s descriptive language and the behavioral performance criteria to be conveyed explicitly and concisely.

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In this exploratory study, the rubric is introduced as one of the many resources and influences encountered by a group of teachers new to online education. The rubric was made available to a group of high school teachers in an online pedagogy training and investigated, through qualitative methods, how instructors perceived, experienced and incorporated social presence before and after teaching an online class. This study will not seek to achieve instrument validity or reliability, but rather investigate a wider field of study that covers the preliminary knowledge that goes into constructing a performance assessment instrument like a rubric, such as exploring what social presence means to teachers in the context of teaching online and reactions to a developed rubric on this topic. The research intends to further the discourse concerning how teachers conceptualize social presence and the methods to teach, measure and assess this phenomenon in online education. Problem Statement The problem this study addresses is the inherent difficulty to operationalize the complex social presence phenomenon within an online course context into valid observable and measurable parts, and to understand the multifaceted relational systems involved. Social presence is usually not part of curriculum assessment and thus not recognized or sufficiently leveraged by instructors for learning purposes. In distance education, many of the social interactions found in the face-to-face classroom occur within the instructor’s repertoire of personality, style, gesture, tone and tacit knowledge. As the use of learning technologies has rapidly grown, a current workforce of educators is largely unprepared to translate important social characteristics of their teaching approach into the online learning environment. While there are many encouraging indications that collaborative enterprises are taking place globally, brought about by the use of new communicative tools, there is also the risk of unwittingly marginalizing the social underpin to learning existent since the origins of human development. A variety of societal and educational pressures can be indentified today that might seek to reduce the “unquantifiable” instructional

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social variable by administering greater technological control over instruction justified by educational cost reduction, academic performance improvement, uniform measurement of achievement standards, specificity of subject matter and devaluation of holistic development. There is a general consensus in the literature that social presence is a complicated human relational phenomenon and that advancements in communication technologies are presenting new questions about its role and value within an online educational context. Technology-mediated learning has grown at such an accelerated rate that it is becoming ubiquitous throughout all levels of education. The accessibility and utilization of technology is not uniform by any means throughout and between countries. Chongwony (2008), in his dissertation that investigated Social Presence in Postsecondary Learners Enrolled in Online Learning Environment, remarks how the transition from face- to-face to web-based instruction is often haphazard, with little to no training in eLearning pedagogy. The author goes on to paraphrase the research done by Tu in addressing how the changeover to online instruction occurs “without serious consideration and examination of factors that encourage, sustain and enhance students’ learning and satisfaction in an online learning environment (Tu, 2002a)” (p. 20). Researchers have had difficulty in agreeing on what social presence means and the overall influence it has on learning. This has been historically true in the face-to-face classroom, though teacher immediacy behaviors have demonstrated a positive correlation to learning (Gorham, 1988). With the addition of technology-mediated learning, the task of understanding social presence becomes more complicated but at the same time offers new advantage points to re-examining this concept’s correlation to learning. This does not mean a change in instructional practices is forthcoming. Researchers have struggled to design and administer instruments to measure social presence (Tu, 2002b), and instructors are often uncertain how to transfer an abstract concept into a pragmatic lesson plan. Social presence is often undervalued, marginalized or

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underutilized in educational environments (Swan, Shen, & Hiltz, 2006). When one considers the soaring high-school dropout rates in the United States and the high attrition rates that may occur in online courses (Committee on Education and Labor, 2009), the stakes are high to evaluate the learning environment and incorporate teaching practices, which are able to leverage available online interactive-collaborative tools successfully for learning outcomes. Research Questions This study introduced a social presence rubric and explored the affects of that rubric and other variables on instructors’ understanding of the social presence concept. The following key questions were addressed:

I. What do teachers identify as the central constructs to social presence?

II. How does the Online Social Presence Rubric affect teachers’ understanding of social presence?

III. In what ways do teachers perceive, use or adopt the rubric as an instructional tool?

IV. What other variables influence the teachers’ perceptions and practices of social presence?

V. What did teachers learn about social presence after teaching their first online course? Significance of Study The results of the study will add to the limited number of available instructional tools that address the phenomenon of online social presence. The aim is to further develop a scoring rubric that will assist instructors in how to introduce, leverage, monitor or assess a complex multifaceted social phenomenon for instructional purposes. This study examined teacher experience

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and knowledge in this subject area that can in turn be used to construct assessment tools that can effectively cover complex psychological and relational processes that are connected to teaching and learning. Future studies may build upon this research and provide additional data in the development of effectual, valid and reliable online social presence instructional and assessment tools. Limitations of Study Qualitative research attempts to understand human experience with depth and describe a given phenomena holistically although the resultant weakness is generalizability and the criticism of the amount of researcher subjectivity involved. This study did not fully investigate instrument validity or inter-rater reliability. While there are political and academic pressures to show instrument validity and inter-rater reliability, an instrument’s validity first must be determined. The complexity involved in studying an instrument’s capacity to measure online social presence requires an initial emphasis toward validity with the understanding that further research will be required beyond this study. The exploratory nature of this study initiated dialogue among online instructors about further developing an online social presence rubric and its practicality in an online or blended course. The study was conducted over a finite time frame that affected the amount of data gathering and the capacity to saturate certain areas of interest to the study. The introduction of the Online Social Presence Rubric may have narrowed the field of focus in developing the constructs that make up the phenomenon. The sample size was nine high-school teachers. The participants are from one high school that is undergoing a change to an entirely online school. Some instructors will be new to online learning. These considerations will influence and limit the degree of generalizability outside the circumstances and conditions found within the parameters of this study. As the researcher of this study, I carried a number of assumptions and biases about social presence and online education based on a multiplicity of factors, such as my own instructional online background and education, this study’s literature review, and from the process of synthesizing information into

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the development of social presence rubric. I think social presence is a valuable component to online instruction and that learning experiences will improve if instructors are better equipped to design and incorporate social presence into their online classes. I recognize this as a personal assumption and will discuss more in the methods chapter how I intend to strive toward understanding and maintaining standards of quality and verification during this study.

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Chapter 2 Literature Review This review of the literature begins with a brief examination of several social theories that either were not referenced, or given only periphery reference to, in the computer mediated social presence literature. Further consideration may offer additional insight to the field and future research. The literature review will examine the existing research relevant to the problem. Thematic areas covered will include definitions of social presence, measurement of social presence, social presence and learning outcomes, background to assessment and background to rubrics. Findings from this literature review will establish the need for additional educational research in the area of this study and will address and provide rationale for the research methodology discussed in Chapter 3. Broadening the Theoretical Context Short, Williams, and Christie (1976) founded social presence theory in their landmark publication of The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. The authors hypothesized that communication mediums varied in their interpersonal exchange capacity based on the degree of non-verbal cue transmission. They closely related their work to two social psychologists: Michael Argyle’s approach- avoidance theory of proximity and Albert Mehrabian’s research into the effects of implicit communication. Many social presence studies in computer-mediated communication begin the theoretical discussion with Sort et al. and the two psychology concepts of intimacy (Argyle & Dean, 1965) and immediacy (Wiener & Mehrabian, 1968). While these are important concepts to consider, having only two social psychological perspectives represented from the literature is conceivably a limiting theoretical foundation. There are exceptions. Biocca, Harms, and Burgoon (2003) incorporate Goffman’s concept of “co-presence” to better understand how awareness operates as a construct in social presence. The Short et al. social presence theory has undergone re-examination by educational researchers as online education has come into existence. There is

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an apparent need to broaden the theoretical base to social presence and consider additional perspectives to understand this multifaceted phenomenon. The perspective of symbolic interactionism (SI), by authors (James, Baldwin, Cooley, Thomas, Dewey, Mead) who share a social ontology “about how the individual develops a self and a mind, that the dialectical relationship of the individual who possesses a self and a mind to the society in which he or she lives” (Musolf, 2003, p. 3) provides an encompassing theoretical backdrop to any study on social interaction, social presence or social learning. As will be later explored in this literature review, a number of researchers are exploring the influence of culture on social presence. Symbolic interactionism beginning with James and followed by contributions by Baldwin, Cooley, Thomas, Dewy and Mead recognize the importance of culture on human development, the self and mind (Musolf, 2003). Cooley’s (1922) concept of “a looking glass self” argues that we develop a self-concept through how other people view us. These people may not be immediately or physically present and they may also exist as imagined others. This concept of knowing self through how others perceive us has particular relevance to computer-mediated communication, as there are greater margins to project meaning about how one is being perceived in relational interactions. With fewer social cues there is more latitude for a person to imagine how they are being perceived and construct meaning about self. There are potential advantages and disadvantages to this type of computer-mediated communication arrangement. It is beyond the scope of this review to investigate all the contributions made from symbolic interactionism to social presence theory. A reason why more perspectives from symbolic interactionism are not existent in social presence literature is theoretical overload. Yet, continued review of certain symbolic interactionism perspectives would likely contribute significantly to future research. As this literature review will explore, there is disagreement in the social presence research findings regarding to what extent social presence contributes

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to learning. The research by Vygotsky (1978, 1986) demonstrated how social interaction is foundational to learning processes, language, cognition and the construction of knowledge. “In our conception, the true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the social but from the social to the individual” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 36). Whiteside (2007) used Vygotsky as a guiding framework in her dissertation research on Exploring Social in Communities of Practice within a Hybrid Learning Environment. She found Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory and the principles of “inner speech” and “zone of proximal development” as socially relevant learning concepts in computer- mediated educational environments. Vygotsky’s research redirects the research question about social presence from “Does social presence affect learning” to “How does social presence affect learning?” Lewin’s (1951, 1997) Field Theory and its adaption by Gestalt Psychology (Kirchner, 2000) is understood as, “The field concept believes that all organisms exist only in environmental contexts with reciprocal influences on each other. As a corollary, no individual is understood independently of his/her surrounding field” (para. 12). This field concept, when applied to human interaction with computer mediated communication, can open many exploratory research avenues. For example, what are the reciprocal influences active in a virtual environment, a relatively recent technological invention? Lewin’s field-theoretical approach is characterized by a number of approaches that have continued to gain traction in social science: constructive method, dynamic approach, psychological approach, analysis beginning with the situation as a whole, and behavior at the time it occurs is a function of the field (Lewin, 1997). This helps illuminate how social presence operates in distance educational settings. Another philosophical foundation to Gestalt psychology is Martin Buber’s (1996) I and Thou concept. In an article covering gestalt theory, Kirchner (2000) succinctly captures Buber’s philosophy of dialogue: Buber’s philosophy of dialogue, dialogic element in the form of the I-Thou relationship, was innovative for integrating the “between.” As Buber noted,

Full document contains 174 pages
Abstract: The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the perceptions of high school teachers regarding social presence in online instruction. Participants were nine teachers, all new to teaching online. The influence of an Online Social Presence Rubric was studied along with other variables that affected understanding of social presence during one teaching semester. Five primary questions guided the research with the intention of furthering knowledge about social phenomena in the field of online education: (I) What do teachers identify as the central constructs to social presence; (II) How does the Online Social Presence Rubric affect teachers' understanding of social presence; (III) In what ways do teachers perceive, use or adopt the rubric as an instructional tool; (IV) What other variables influence the teachers' perceptions and practices of social presence; and (V) What did teachers learn about social presence after teaching their first online course? Participants were experienced classroom teachers in a large urban school district who were part of a high school's transition to online course delivery. The research design compared analysis in semi-structured and open interview questions before and after the online classes were taught. Observation of each online class within the learning management system took place at the end of the semester. Due to the exploratory nature of this research, the small number of participants and its specific geographic context, this study offers only descriptive and speculative findings on how teacher social perceptions influence design and instructional practices. The findings included what teachers learned after a significant loss in social presence occurred during instruction and includes suggestions for improving social presence in online courses.