Social Presence in Online Learning (A Special Contribution to D-E.c)

June 3, 2012

Dr. Stephen Kemp

Excerpted on 5/16/2012 from Kemp, S.J. (2012).  “Social Presence in Online Learning,” chapter in Mark A. Maddix, James R. Estep, and Mary E. Lowe (Eds). Best Practices of Online Education:  A Guide for Christian Education.  Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Fifteen years ago, many academic leaders thought it was impossible for students to have truly meaningful community interaction in an online distance education environment.  Ironically, one of the biggest struggles today for many traditional campus professors is to keep their students off Facebook during class!


Academic discussion at the end of the twentieth century about the legitimacy of distance education was largely represented by 355 studies showing that there was “no significant difference” between traditional campus-based education and distance education (Russell).  This was recognized as good news for distance education, but it was short-lived because of the increased emphasis on the central role of interactivity in higher education.  Russell’s collection of research focused almost entirely on comparisons of content delivery.  The new questions about legitimacy were related to formation and interactivity in a learning community.

Social presence, defined as a learning community characterized by interactivity between students and faculty, emerged as a primary concern of most accrediting agencies.  The assumption by accreditors that it was impossible to have true learning community through technologically-mediated forms led many distance educators to fear the impending demise of their programs.  However, minimum standards for interactivity in distance education courses emerged and creative attempts to comply were developed.

The mentored online seminar has emerged as a new genre of distance education course that goes beyond what is possible in a traditional classroom, particularly in terms of social presence.   For instance, online students may participate in discussion through asynchronous threaded forums.  This means that students may post comments in a structured manner that allows them to be more thoughtful and deliberative, not just quick and impulsive.  It allows (and usually requires) that all students participate substantively in each discussion because there is no place to hide or be overlooked.  Conversations can last throughout the entire course, not just during a brief window of time.  It is even possible to search for key words that have been written or retrieve any statement or conversation that anyone has written during the entire course.  Vibrant and substantive personal interaction between students and faculty is a hallmark of the mentored online seminar course.

Whether one can have truly meaningful community interaction in an online environment is largely a question of the past.  We now live in a world that is being shaped by the use of nearly ubiquitous online communication (e.g. uprisings in North Africa).


Concern for social presence has often been at the center of distance education learning theory, most notably through the Michael Moore’s work on transactional distance.  His theory of distance education focuses on the variables of Dialogue, Structure, and Learner Autonomy to describe the interactions that take place for a student in a distance education environment (Moore, 1997).  Moore quotes Saba’s systems dynamics hypothesis to summarize.   “When structure increases, transactional distance increases and dialog decreases.  When dialog increases, transactional distance decreases and structure decreases.”  However, as Saba also notes, “with new interactive technology we have potential for dialog between learners and a new form of learner-learner autonomy reducing the transactional distance for each student” (Moore, 2006).  Thus, because mentored online seminar courses increase both structure and dialogue, transactional distance is significantly decreased and social presence is significantly increased.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of learning theory related to social presence in online learning is related to the very definition of distance education firmly established by Moore and others.  Traditionally, distance education has focused on technological mediation of the separation of teacher and learner.  This concept is turned upside down by Marianne Mount in her dissertation titled “Presence in Distance:  The Lived Experience of Faith Formation in an Online Learning Community.”  Mount refreshingly defines distance education in terms of what is present for the learner rather than what is absent.  She asks “what is the lived experience of adult faith formation in an online learning community?” and seeks “to uncover presence in the life-world of distance education, as dwelling within technology, as richness in absence, as solitude, silence, text, home, place, time, and community” (82).  Gibson devotes an entire chapter of her early book called Distance Learners in Higher Education to “The Distance Learner in Context.”  She states that “as we look at the distance learner, we must remember that these learners exist in a broad social context—a social context which can profoundly affect the success of the distance teaching-learning transaction” (1998, 113).  Ormond Simpson’s research (2003) on retention of students of the Open University demonstrates that family and friends are the most important source of external support, greater than tutors, other students, employers, and the institution.  He claims that “it appears that the most important single form of support for Open University students is outside institutional control (and may be largely ignored by institutions)” (Simpson, 1999, p. 121).  In my recent article in Christian Education Journal, I attempt to explain the educational theory of situated learning and practical examples of how real life learning communities can be used to optimize academic objectives (Kemp, 2010).

In my 2008 presidential address to ACCESS, the Christian distance education association, I congratulated our organization on the fact that we have arrived because of the educational quality of our distance education programs.  However, I also cautioned us about being complacent because there may be other destinations at which we should arrive.  If we are going to take social presence seriously, then perhaps we shouldn’t be satisfied with the vibrant online community of mentored online seminars alone.  Perhaps we should strive for even more.

[Editor’s Note: In a forthcoming excerpt, Kemp addresses Best Practices in Online Learning.]


Gibson, C. C. (1998). Distance learners in higher education: Institutional responses for quality outcomes.  Madison, WI: Atwood.

Kemp, S.J. (2012).  “Social Presence in Online Learning,” chapter in Best Practices of Online Education:  A Guide for Christian Education.  Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Kemp, S.J. (2007).  Experiential learning and the role of primary social relationships as contexts for situated learning in distance education courses of evangelical theological education institutions.  Ph.D. Dissertation.  Loyola University/Chicago.

Kemp, S.J.  (2010).  Situated learning:  Optimizing experiential learning through God-given learning community.  Christian Education Journal, 7 (118-143).

Moore, M.G.  (2006, October 27).  “Evolution of Theory of Transactional Distance.”  Presentation to the European Distance Education Network.  Retrieved on July 6, 2011 from…/Michael_Moore.ppt.

Moore, M. G.  (1997). “Theory of Transactional Distance,” in Keegan, D. (Ed.) Theoretical Principles of Distance Education, 22-38.

Mount, M. (2008).  Presence in distance:  The lived experience of adult faith formation in an online learning community.  Ph.D. Dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic University.

Privateer, P. M. (1999, January/February). Academic technology and the future of higher education: Strategic paths taken and not taken.  Journal of Higher Education, 70(1).

Russell, T. L. (1999). The no significant difference phenomenon: A comparative research annotated bibliography on technology for distance education as reported in 355 research reports, summaries and papers.  Montgomery, AL: The International Distance Education Certification Center.

Simpson, O.  (2003).  Student retention in online, open and distance learning.  London:  Kogan Page.

Simpson, O.  (1999).  Supporting students in online, open and distance learning.  London:  Kogan Page.

Dr. Stephen Kemp joined BILD International in November 2002 to help partner churches obtain academic credit from formal institutions for their non-formal church-based theological education.  In September 2006, he became the founding Academic Dean for BILD’s Antioch School of Church Planting and Leadership Development.  The Antioch School is the first truly church-based and truly competency-based ministry training institution to be accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council.  Kemp serves on the DETC Research and Educational Standards Committee.  He also served on the Criteria Review Committee of the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges (AABC), now known as the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).

Formerly he served as Vice-President and Dean of External Studies for Moody Bible Institute, overseeing its massive correspondence school, extensive off-campus sites, global online courses, and Radio School of the Bible.  Previously, he served for nine years as Associate Dean of Nontraditional and Distance Education for Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He continues to teach online courses for Moody Bible Institute, having taught 1415 students in 140 sections of 16 courses.

Kemp has served on the D.Min. thesis committees for six leaders of church-based theological education programs, including several associated with the largest church planting movements in India.  He currently works with these and others leaders to implement and sustain truly church-based and competency-based training programs.

He has served in various capacities for ACCESS, the Christian distance education professional association and is currently the President. He has given seminars on topics such as “Instructional Design and Spiritual Formation,” “Experiential Learning in Distance Education,” “The 24/7 Learning Community:  In-Context Learning,” “Making the Most of God-Given Learning Communities,” “The Wide World of Educational Partnerships with Churches,” “Learning Communities in Distance Education,” and “Being Where?  Culture and Formation in Ministry Training.”

Steve has served both as a pastor and church elder in various churches in Illinois.   He currently serves as a house church leader and a network leader of the Ames-Des Moines CityChurch in Iowa.

He completed the Ph.D. Higher Education program at Loyola University with a dissertation on “Experiential Learning and the Role of Primary Social Relationships as Contexts for Situated Learning in Distance Education Courses of Evangelical Theological Education Institutions.”  Recently, he has contributed “Situated Learning: Optimizing God-Given Learning Communities” for Christian Education Journal and “Social Presence in Online Learning” for Best Practices of Online Education: A Guide for Christian Education.

Steve and his wife Judy have two children, Michael and Sarah, one dachshund named Mack, and reside in Ames, Iowa.