Lowenthal, D. A., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2010, April). A Mixed Methods Examination of Instructor Social
Presence in Accelerated Online Courses. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Education
Research Association, Denver, CO.
A Mixed Methods Examination of
Instructor Social Presence in Accelerated
Regis University / Colorado Department of Education
Patrick R. Lowenthal
University of Colorado Denver / CU Online
Social presence is a theory that explains the ability of people to present
themselves as "real people" through a communication medium. Most
studies on social presence focus on how students present themselves
and/or are perceived as “real” people online. However, to date, only a
handful of studies have focused specifically on how online instructors
establish and maintain their own social presence online; and there are no
studies to date that focus on how instructors accomplish this in accelerated
online courses. The following study explored the phenomenon of
instructors’ social presence in accelerated online courses. The results
suggest that the construct of presence is more complicated than previously
thought which has implications for how we teach and design online
In the late 1990s, as the popularity of online education increased, people began to
fear that online learning would eventually replace the “teacher” and that students would
soon be taking teacherless online courses (Shank, 2008; Wilson & Christoper, 2008). As
the initial fears and hype decreased, proponents of online learning began to show what an
important role a teacher plays in the success of any online learning course (Dunlap, 2005;
Wilson, Ludwig-Hardman, Thornam, & Dunlap, 2004). Teaching online, though,
involves a different skill set than teaching in a face-to-face environment (Palloff & Pratt,
1999). While to some degree good teaching is good teaching, regardless of the
environment, the role of a faculty member changes when teaching online.
Researchers and practitioners alike have suggested that effective online teachers
are facilitators of learning rather than simply conveyers of information (Kearsley, 2000;
Palloff & Pratt, 1999, 2001, 2003). Dabbagh and Bannan-Ritland (2005) even went so far
to suggest that an online teacher is “an advisor, a coach, a moderator, and a facilitator of
learning” (p. 48). As a result, the cliché that a good online teacher is a “guide-on- the-
side” rather than a “sage-on-the-stage” became popularized. This cliché has however
been take to extremes; that is, there is a fine line between being a guide on the side and
being absent in an online course (Anderson, 2004).
Research on social presence and teaching presence illustrate the importance of
being “present” when teaching online. Researchers have shown—in varying degrees—a
relationship between social presence and student satisfaction (Gunawardena, 1995;
Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Richardson & Swan, 2003), social presence and the
development of a community of learners (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001;
Rovai, 2002), and social presence and perceived learning (Richardson & Swan, 2003).
However, while there has been a great deal of research on social presence—specifically
focused on studying faculty and students as supposed “equals”—there has been relatively
little research on how faculty establish their own individual social presence differently
Purpose of the Study
There are hundreds of studies on social presence but only a few dozen on teaching
presence. Sadly, there are even fewer studies on the overlap between social presence and
teaching presence—or what I refer to as instructor’s social presence (see Figure 1). To
make matters worse, research on social presence and teaching presence suffer from a few
limitations. First, the majority of research on teaching presence (e.g., Shea, 2006; Shea,
Fredericksen, Pickett, & Pelz, 2003; Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006; Shea, Pickett, & Pelz,
2003; Shea, Swan, & Pickett, 2005) has been conducted by the same researchers, at the
same institutions. The problem with this is not the quality of resesarch conducted by prior
scholars. Rather it is the belief that online learning in general and social and teaching
presence specifically can likely manifest itself differently in different contexts (e.g.,
undergraduate vs. graduate, traditional vs. non-traditional, 8 week vs. 16 week courses)
(Lowenthal, Lowenthal, & White, 2009; Lowenthal, Wilson, & Parrish, 2009). Second,
the majority of the research on social and teaching presence—just like the majority of
research on online learning in general (Goldman, Crosby, Swan, & Shea, 2005)—has
relied predomiantly on self-report data. Researchers, for the most part, are not studying
social and teaching presence with qualitative, multiple, and/or mixed methods. Studying
social and teaching presence from a mono-method approach can be problematic because
researchers often do not get a complete understanding of the phenomenon they are
studying (Lowenthal & Leech, 2009). Therefore, there is a need to use multiple methods
of analysis to better understand presence—whether that be social presence, teaching
presence, or instructors' social presence--in various online environments. In addition, to
date, very little research has been conducted on how time and course format influence
presence. As more and more institutions begin to offer accelerated online courses (i.e.,
6-9 week courses), faculty and instructional designers need to better understand how
instructor’s establish their own social presence in accelerated online courses. Given this,
the purpose of this study was to explore the construct of instructors' social presence in
accelerated online courses.
This study was framed by three key concepts. That is, how the presence of an
online instructor, the course format, and the course duration all affect the overall success
of an online course. In the following paragraphs these three concepts are addressed
An Instructor’s Presence
The concept of teaching presence evolved out of research on teacher immediacy
and social presence. Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) were the first to differentiate
social presence from teaching presence. They conceptualized teaching presence as one of
the three components of their community of inquiry model (see Figure 1). They defined
teaching presence as,
the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the
purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile
outcomes. Teaching presence begins before the course commences as the teacher,
acting as instructional designer, plans and prepares the course of studies, and it
continues during the course, as the instructor facilitates the discourse and provides
direct instruction when required. (p. 5)
They went on to break down teaching presence into three main components: instructional
design and organization, direct instruction, and facilitation of discourse (Anderson,
Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001). Research suggests that teaching presence—both
when designing and facilitating online courses—is a key component of an effective
online course. However, equally important is the way that faculty establish their own
social presence through their instructional design and facilitation efforts.
This study focuses primarily on exploring how faculty establish their own social
presence (or instructor’s presence) through facilitation because while effective
instructional design is a key component—it’s a component that many faculty might not
have much control over. At many universities, like the one where this study was
conducted, faculty often teach online courses that are designed by others. So while
effective instructional design is critical, more and more faculty find themselves teaching
courses they did not design and cannot modify (Lowenthal & White, 2009). Therefore, it
is important to study the nature of instructor’s social presence in situations likes these
where facilitating discourse might be the primary method to establish and maintain their
own social presence.
Figure 1. Community of Inquiry Framework (adapted from Garrison, Anderson, &
Format of Online Learning and Presence
The design or format of an online course can influence how faculty and student’s
develop and perceive social presence in general and teaching presence in particular
(Anderson et al., 2001). For instance, we contend that having online faculty meet his/her
students face-to-face before a course begins can effect a students perception of presence.
In addition, whether or not a student is part of a cohort can also influence how presence is
developed and perceived. However, past research on social presence and teaching
presence has not focused enough on how details like these can influence an individuals
perceptions of presence. This study set out to explore the nature of instructors social
presence in completely online asynchronous courses where students do not meet face-to-
face and are not part of a cohort.
Time and Presence
The issue of time also needs to be considered when researching presence. Time,
similar to course format, can and should influence an instructor’s presence (Tu & Corry,
2004). For instance, whether faculty and students spend 5 weeks, 8 weeks, or 16 weeks
communicating online should influence how social presence is developed, maintained,
and perceived. However, often these details are glossed over in research on presence.
More and more institutions are beginning to offer accelerated online courses (i.e., courses
that are less than a traditional 10 week quarter or 15 week semester). In Colorado, public
institutions like Colorado State University, non-profit private institutions like Regis
University, and for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix all offer accelerated
online courses. Researchers need to begin to study how social presence and teaching
presence develops in these accelerated online courses.
To study the nature of instructor’s social presence in accelerated asynchronous
online courses, three online courses were randomly selected from all of online courses
offered during the spring at a private university which we will call Private University
(P.U.). Following the lead of Anderson et al. (2001), one week of each section was
purposefully identified for analysis. Multiple methods of analysis were used to explore
the data in an effort to get a detailed understanding and an accurate depiction of
instructor’s presence in an accelerated course.
A mixed methods exploratory methodology (Miles & Huberman, 1994;
Onwuegbuzie & Leech, 2005) utilizing both quantitative and qualitative methods was
used for this study. Exploratory methods have traditionally been related to qualitative
methods, and confirmatory methods to quantitative methods. However, Onwuegbuzie and
Teddlie (2003) illustrate that both quantitative and qualitative data analyses can be used
to understand a phenomena. In order to explore instructor's social presence effectively,
online course discussions were analyzed with multiple forms of data analysis—
specifically, word count, then content analysis, and lastly constant comparative analysis.
Using multiple forms of data analysis enabled the researchers to more effectively explore
how instructors establish their presence in accelerated online courses.
The course discussions from all three courses were compiled and downloaded
from the course management system. Names were changed to protect anonymity. The
transcripts were initially explored with word count to get an overall sense of the data.
Then the online discussions were analyzed using content analysis and codes emerging
from the online discussions. Finally, constant comparative analysis was used to search
for themes and trends that did not emerge with the previous forms of analysis.
Multiple methods of analysis were used to explore the data in an effort to get an
indepth understanding of how faculty at P.U. establish their social presence when
teaching accelerated online courses that have already been developed by another
instructor. The first type of analysis used was a type of word count. Traditionally word
count involves identifying deductively a word or words from the literature on a subject or
inductively identifying from the data specific words that seem out of place or hold special
meaning and then counting the frequency of these words. Instead of counting the
frequency of specific words, the student’s postings in the discussion forum and the
number of words used were counted and compared to the faculty postings and number of
words used to compare the involvement of faculty and students in the discussion forum.
The numbers were collected and compiled from the discussion forum in Course
Management System for each course. As illustrated in Table 1 and Table 2, the word
count revealed that students were responsible for 88.78% of the postings and 94.45% of
the words posted online. While these results do not address the quality of either the
student or the faculty postings, these results do illustrate the quantity or frequency of
participation of faculty versus students in the online discussion forum. More specifically,
while faculty had a higher frequency of postings (an average of 11.37 per faculty
member) compared to students (an average of 7.69 per student), faculty posted fewer
words in the discussion forum (1464 words used by faculty compared to 24,912 used by
students). These results show that students posted more as a whole than the faculty in the
courses in question. The results could possibly even be interpreted to suggest that
students led or dominated the majority of the discussion in the online forum; however,
further analysis is needed to better understand this basic data. For instance, the variation
in the frequency of postings could be due to multiple students asking the same question
and the faculty responding to all students with one posting.
Total Number of Postings
ED 501 ED 502 ED503 Total
Number of students 13 14 8 35
Number of student postings 109 103 57 269
Number of words in student postings 11228 11712 1972 24912
Number of faculty 1 1 1 3
Number of faculty postings 12 15 7 34
Number of words in faculty postings 1009 299 156 1464
Total number of participants 14 15 9 38
Total number of postings 121 118 64 303
Total number of words 12237 12011 2128 26376
Frequency of Postings as an Entire Case
Total participants % of Postings % of Words
Student 35 88.78% 94.45%
Faculty 3 11.22% 5.55%
Total 38 100% 100%
The second type of analysis conducted was classical content analysis. Classical
content analysis is similar to constant comparison analysis. However, instead of creating
themes, the focus is to identify the frequency of codes. This type of analysis is helpful
when there are a lot of codes. Classical content analysis helps identify which codes are
used most often and it is complimentary to constant comparative analysis.
To conduct classical content analysis, the data are partitioned into small chunks,
as in Table 3. Each chunk is labeled with a code, or descriptive label; due to the unique
nature of online postings, descriptive coding was used to capture the type of posting. For
example, “post chart here” and “using REPLY post bulleted list of points here” were both
coded as “directions,” whereas the following was coded as “questioning”: “Do you think
that parents often do not want to accept or acknowledge the problems that their children
Example of Chunking the Data
Data Chunked Code
Post chart here Directions
Using REPLY post bulleted list of points here. Directions
Using REPLY post your discussion here. Directions
Since there are eight students in the class, Number of students
our groups Inclusion
will really be pairs. Groups of two
I need Teacher request
an email address for you. Contact information
Elden Closing remark
Are you accustomed Questioning
to writing assignment in APA format? Writing style
If not, I would like you Teacher request
to learn to use the APA format for citations and are Writing style
references. Here is a wonderful website Resource
that makes that easy to do. Make easier
Here is a website that is a great tool for Resource
helping you get your reference page correct Make easier
according to APA. http://www.citationmachine.net/index.php Writing style
Elden Closing remark
might have?” As shown in Table 4, the codes are then counted to assess which concepts
(represented by codes) are used most frequently; for example, “closing remarks” was
used most frequently (see Table 5 for the complete list and frequency of the data coded).
Results from a Classical Content Analysis
Code Number of Times Used
Closing remark 14
Positive feedback 11
Answering question 5
Elaboration / clarification 5
Writing style 3
Number of students 2
Inclusive language 2
Teacher request 2
Colorado law 2
Faculty seeking feedback 2
Contact information 1
Classical content analysis revealed that “closing remarks” were used the most (14
times), followed by “Directions” (12 times), and “Positive feedback” (11 times). Table 4
illustrates the frequency of each descriptive code in the faculty postings. While greetings
and closing remarks as types of online communication are not that interesting, the fact
that faculty spent most of their time giving directions and giving positive feedback online
is important. This suggests that these faculty were not spending much time on
establishing their own presence or conducting in direct instruciton. This analysis also
suggests that the facuty were spending very little time welcoming, negotiating, or
accommodating students needs online.
The final and main type of analysis conducted was Constant Comparative
Analysis. Constant Comparative Analysis is useful when trying to explore and understand
the big picture of a phenomenon like teaching online (Lowenthal & Leech, 2009). In
constant comparative analysis, the researcher reads the data and partitions it into small
chunks, as can be seen in Table 5. For example, the following post was chunked into six
I love the educational environments you have created this week. Educators and
students should always be the ones who create our schools.
It is inspirational to see so many of you create from the schools you have been in
or are currently in.
Thanks for your creativity!
Each chunk is then labeled with a code while constantly comparing new codes with
previous ones. For instance, the previous example yielded the following six codes: (a)
Greeting, (b) Positive feedback, (c) Elaboration / Clarification, (d) Positive feedback, (e)
Positive feedback, and (f) Closing remark. The codes are then grouped together. Once
the codes are grouped together, the researcher identifies a theme that has emerged from
Results from Constant Comparative Analysis
Codes Grouping of codes
Closing remark Course logistics
Positive feedback Writing style
Greeting Number of students
Questioning Teacher request
Answering question Colorado law
Elaboration / clarification
Writing style Greetings and Salutations
Number of students Greeting
Inclusive language Closing remark
Colorado law Teaching / Facilitation
Faculty seeking feedback Questioning
Empathy Answering questions
Welcoming Elaboration / clarification
Negotiation Positive feedback
Faculty seeking feedback
The most prevalent theme that emerged from the constant comparative analysis is the
While faculty at P.U. have to deal with day to day course logistics, such as
directions on how to complete assignments and course expectations, they play
more of a role of as a facilitator through the use of questioning,
elaborating/clarifying, and giving positive feedback than as a instructor or giver
All three types of analysis—the word count, the classical content analysis, and the
constant comparative analysis—offered some insight how these instructors
communicated online and the degree to which they strive to establish their own social
presence in the course discussions. While all three types of analysis offered a different
perspective or glimpse of the truth space, classical content analysis and constant
comparative analysis did a better job of highlighting how these faculty communicated
online. These two types of analysis illustrate that these fauclty did spend some time
establishing their own social presence. For example, greetings, postive feedback,
questioning are all examples of social presence (Rourke et al., 2001). So even though
these instructors are teaching acccelerated 8 week courses designed by others, they show
evidence that even in an accelerated term faculty can begin to establish their own social
presence. However, we caution the reader from generalizing too much from these
findings. To date researchers have not identified what the appropriate amount of social
presence is in an online course—let alone an accelerated online course. Therefore, more
research is defintely needed.
Faculty traditionally establish his or her own social presence in online course
discussion forums. Thus, it is important, significant, and common place to explore faculty
behavior in online discussion forums. But unfortunately faculty can also establish their
presence in other ways (e.g., one-on-one emails and feedback on assignments).
Therefore, the fact that this study only looked at course discussions is a notable limitation
of this study. Additional weeks and course sections need to be analyzed to support the
findings of this study. Also more research needs to be done to triangulate the results in
this study with other things such as student perceptions of online faculty as well as
instructors perceptions of their own social presence.
Scholarly Significance of The Study
While the main purpose of this study was to investigate instructor's social
presence, a secondary purpose was to test a mixed methods approach of studying online
discussions. Thus, the scholarly signifiance of this study lies not only in its investgiation
of an often overlooked area of study (i.e., instructor's social presence in accelerated
online courses) but also (and arguably more importantly) in outlying a way in which
other facutly can use word count, content analysis (whether with predefined codes or
having the codes emerge from the discussions) and constant compartive analysis to study
online discussions. Through using mixed method approaches of study, we believe
researchers can begin to get a better idea of what happens in online courses (whether over
an 8 week term or a 16 week term).
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