What is Social Presence?

Given that many people, during the Covid-19 pandemic who have a teaching responsibility are now having to change from a classroom to a virtual online environment, I thought I would share my final year MA research. The key to successful online learning outcomes is 'social presence'. I hope you find it helpful.


What constitutes social presence in a synchronous on-line community of Dental Hygienists?


The construct of social presence is viewed from the perspective of post-graduate dental hygiene students, facilitators and curriculum designers in an on-line synchronous learning community.  A qualitative case study is presented from ten participants in three separate video-recorded group interviews, which took place over two weeks in July 2015.  This research compares the intra-group and inter-group perspectives with the current literature and educational theory.

The findings confirmed social presence is highly complex and is strongly bound to a sense of community, intimacy and immediacy.  In addition the participants within this community suggested that the three above factors were encapsulated within an individual perception of the associated technology.  A sense of community was dependent on emotional attachments, affected by other community experience, improved by 360- degree feedback and a belief that members of the community can affect change.  The style of teaching and learning within this virtual community contributed to the social presence and effectively reading, maximizing and interpreting non-verbal communication improved the intimacy and immediacy.

You cant replace the electric feeling when bodies are together and I dont think you can add that back in” Research Participant G1 S3.


Social presence; Dental Hygienist; Computer-mediated communication; Synchronous; Qualitative research; On-line learning.



Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Purpose of Study

As a clinical dental hygienist I have always been interested in how communication within relationships with patients can affect health care outcomes.  Learning and behaviour change in a one-to-one clinical environment is a complex mix of psychology, care and learning from the perspective of the patient and clinician and similar skills are required in a teacher/student relationship,  (Wells, Jones & Jones, 2014).  How is this student/teacher relationship affected when both are placed in a virtual environment and how does this relate to the effectiveness of the teaching and learning?

Most of my teaching is web-based utilising various media with the real-time teaching and learning situated within a virtual world of video conferencing.  The students and teachers will be in the environment of their own choosing and at the same time within a virtual one where they have little control over where they are situated and who they are communicating with.

Through experience I became aware that I had taken for granted many of the benefits of teaching in a ‘real world’ classroom, where students can more easily develop relationships within communities and learn within those communities, as indicated by Kehrwald, (2008) who also stated how important social interaction is to learning.  Vygotsky et al., (2012) also considered that learning outcomes are dependent on social interaction.  I have discovered how so much more complex teaching and learning is within a virtual environment and I have been considering how I can optimise learning for the students and teachers.

My inquisitiveness led me to discover a relatively new term, ‘social presence’, which defines “how participants (in an on-line environment) relate to one another, which in turn affects their ability to communicate effectively” (Kehrwald, 2008).  On further investigation many believe fundamental to social presence is developing a sense of community, which is key to on-line learning, Tu & McIsaac, (2002), with intimacy and immediacy being other important factors.  Immediacy is defined as “the psychological distance between two parties that is conveyed through verbal and nonverbal cues in speech”  (Walther, Anderson & Park, 1994).  Paradoxically, researchers generally disagree on a specific definition for social presence but agree that ignoring it can be detrimental to the learning outcomes in on-line learning.

On-line teaching is growing exponentially within universities internationally.  Not all teachers are given sufficient mentoring for the specific skills required within this environment and curriculum design doesn’t always consider social presence (Kehrwald, 2008).

I considered with this relatively new subjective area of research within a virtual world the critical theoretical perspective for social presence would be that of the users of this virtual social space.

Dental Hygienists have high levels of social skills as much of their practice involves patient psychology, change management and clinical practice. It follows that they would bring these skills into an educational environment (Joseph, 2015a).  I would consider these clinicians suitable participants not just from the perspective of being useful to my specific teaching and their learning but also to add to the on-going development of the theory of social presence in on-line learning.

I would therefore look to the curriculum developers, teachers and learners in my own virtual educational environment to discover what constitutes social presence.

1.2 Research Question and Organization of the Thesis.

The main research question is “what constitutes social presence in a synchronous on-line community of Dental Hygienists?” The research is organized as follows: the first chapter looks at the researcher’s background and interests. Chapter 2 details a literature review with reference to distance education a virtual community, immediacy, intimacy and social presence.  Chapter 3 highlights the research plan, design and process and incorporates case studies, qualitative methodology, data collection, ethical concerns and validity, informed consent, confidentiality and privacy, research process and analysis of data.  Chapter 4 examines the research findings and chapter 5 discusses the findings.  Chapter 6 presents the conclusion, the limitations of the study and recommendations for future research.

Chapter 2: Engagement with the Literature

2.1 Overview of Chapter

This chapter presents a picture of on-line learning seen through both theoretical and social perspectives.  The dialogue begins with distance education and travels through the virtual community and then looks at communication and learning within the intricacies of social presence and a sense of community in a virtual world.

2.2 Distance Education

Distance education was first attributed to Sir Isaac Pittman when in the 1840’s he set up a course where students would send and receive coursework on shorthand writing via postcards.

The first exclusive distance learning university opened up in 1946 at the University of South Africa to give black and so called coloured students an opportunity for education during apartheid.  In 1969 the Open University modernized distance education by offering a range of student support services, media and teaching initiatives.  The focus was originally on serving the adult population who missed the limited opportunity of undergraduate education.  It has now approximately 1.5 million graduates with a variety of learning needs (Tait, 2003).

The development of the World Wide Web introduced many new technologies associated with distance education to support collaborative learning such as chat and video conferencing.  “The challenge for learning institutions and instructors is to provide a sense of community with constructive feedback and provide open forthcoming communications as well as recognizing membership and feelings of friendship, cohesion and satisfaction among learners”  (Desai, Hart & Richards, 2008).

2.3 The Virtual Community

Howard Rheingold is attributed to first expressing the term ‘a virtual community’ in the book of the same name and defines it as “a social network of individuals who interact through specific social media, potentially crossing geographic and political boundaries in order to pursue mutual interests or goals” (Rheingold, 1993).

Synchronous and asynchronous on-line education.

Asynchronous E-Learning uses very modern communicative technology but is built around constructivism; a hundred year-old theory, which considers humans, create knowledge when their ideas are combined with their own real life experience.  This student-centered approach to learning where the focus is on self-development was initially seeded by John Dewey whose passion was democracy.  Through this he considered that all children should be able to impact on their own curriculum (Dewey, 2004).

Carl Rogers continued this work by moving his psychological theory of patient centered-care into the classroom through ‘student-centered’ education. “The only learning which significantly influences behavior and education is self discovered”  (Rogers & Freiberg, 1994).

Asynchronous E-Learning uses blogs, discussion boards, and wiki’s and relies on peer-to-peer support.  A wiki is an on-line community, which collaborates on a database.  Synchronous E-Learning usually has additional media such as text, chat and video-conferencing where students and tutors can meet in virtual spaces.

Developing a synchronous community.

A model for the evolution of an on-line learning community was developed by  Waltonen-Moore et al., (2006) where the students journey was mapped through  stages of “(a) Introduction, (b) Identification, (c) Interaction, (d) Involvement, and (e) Inquiry.”  Initially they are asynchronous as the class wiki is created and are names without meaning.  As the class becomes asynchronous and develops, participation increases through group identity to the point of “thinking out loud” and self directed inquiry begins.

In the author’s experience of on-line education, initial formative outcomes are related to individual student confidence with asynchronous technology such as wikis. This may affect how they proceed to being effective users of the synchronous technology and becoming a confident member of an on-line community.  This can lead to frustration with some students and many have gone on to say their biggest achievement was conquering the technology.  The model for evolution of learning suggested by Waltonen-Moore et al., (2006) confirmed students needed to be comfortable with the technology prior to fulfilling learning potential and expressing themselves as they would wish to do so.  Confidence and technology was linked to learning outcomes and demonstrated by Taipjutorus, Hansen & Brown, (2012) and Bower et al., (2015).  This would be something to return to in this research after analysing the data.

Dental hygienists are usually very good communicators as much of their practice is centered around patient care and with these well-developed ‘people’ skills it could be postulated that they would prefer and excel at synchronous learning where they could participate virtually rather than being ‘hidden’ from their colleagues in an asynchronous environment.  A study of post-graduate pharmacists in a blended learning programme at the University of Wisconsin by  (Buxton, 2014) confirmed the above statement, when it was concluded that students when given the choice, preferred synchronous learning as it gave them more control over the timing of learning.   Hrastinski, (2008) researched students studying knowledge management through synchronous and asynchronous on-line seminars and concluded that specific types of learning were suited to one or the other and that synchronous and asynchronous learning complemented each other.  For example asynchronous learning was preferred for reflection whereas synchronous would be better used for planning.  It was demonstrated that a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning as researched by Hrastinski, (2008) and Bower et al., (2015) was preferred, as it gave the students more options to learn.

2.4 Social Presence

The initial idea for social presence is attributed to Isaac Asimov in the fictional novel ‘The Naked Sun’ which was published in 1957.  The theme is inter-planetary warfare where the characters despise personal contact and generally live on their own. Communication is via ‘holographic telepresence’.  Over 50 years later the term has become a mainstream expression for on-line educators and is now often referred to in modern research involving e-learning.

Wei, Chen & Kinshuk ( 3 ), (2012) concluded in a study of students with experience of on-line learning that “social presence has significant effects on learning interaction which in turn has significant effects on learning performance”.  A study undertaken at Indiana University by Robert & Dennis, (2005) resulted in the phrase ‘paradox of richness’ where they demonstrated that media low in social presence decreased motivation but increased the ability to process information and media high is social presence increased motivation but decreased the ability to process information.  Mathieson & Leafman, (2014) looked at the teacher’s perception of social presence when compared to the student’s perception in a large study of medical and dental related students at the University of Arizona.  They concluded that students felt much lower levels of social presence than the instructors perceived.  Strategies to improve social presence were incorporated after discovering this information.

All of the above studies indicate that social presence is very important in the virtual world but few offer a definition to what constitutes social presence.

In a review of research involving social presence Oztok & Brett, (2011), stated “There is a need for a well-explicated conceptualization of social presence both to provide a more Holistic understanding of individuals in mediated environments and to systematically investigate social presence as a complex, multi-layered, and multi-faceted construct.  Indeed, developing a systematic theory will in turn enable development of appropriate measures of social presence.”  They also express that without a commonly agreed theory, it is something, which is difficult to measure and the vast majority of historical research has been quantitative in its nature and that going forward, more qualitative research may help us gain a greater understanding.

Developing a sense of community and social presence.

A group of dental hygienists learning in a virtual environment whilst utilising asynchronous and synchronous technologies adheres to the framework of a ‘community of practice’ described by Etienne Wenger where “…collective learning results in the practices that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and attendant social relations” (Wenger & Snyder, 2000).  According to Etienne Wenger there are 3 key aspects to creating a community of practice, which are the domain, the community and the practice.  The domain refers to a shared interest amongst the community, the community refers to the development of relationships through learning together and the practice refers to a creation of understanding or a shared practice (Wenger, 2007).

Some researchers believe that the responsibility for creating a social presence belongs to certain individuals.  Gunawardena et al., (2009) considered the role of a teacher should be a facilitator of learning to create a social environment, which would then generate a sense of community.  Aragon, (2003) suggests that students have a big role in developing a sense of community and the creation of a social presence is not the sole responsibility of the teacher.  Rourke et al., (1999) believed the creation of social presence is the responsibility of the teacher and should do this by “…making group interactions interesting, engaging, attractive and rewarding.”  The authors considered the support of cognitive learning would generate a social presence.

Wenger, (2007) might argue that all the participants would create social presence within their community, as it would be the responsibility of the community to learn and develop theory together.

A study of 72 doctoral graduate on-line learners looked at a sense of community and personality based learning style.  Results demonstrated that facilitators with a friendly and open communication style was linked to a sense of belonging to a community and therefore positive learning outcomes from the students (Rovai, 2003).  This is confirmed by Osterman, (2000), who observed where educational establishments fostered a sense of belonging demonstrated a positive correlation to student behaviour at various levels and those that neglected to promote a sense of community identified the opposite outcome.

2.5 Immediacy and Intimacy

Real-world learning relies on using all the senses whereas in an on-line environment the curriculum design and facilitators are required to create a social presence, which makes-up for the loss of the physical presence, social and psychological aspects of the real world.  Research indicates that immediacy and intimacy contribute to social presence and it is recommended that the teacher should make the difference between the technology and the human aspect of learning (Gunawardena et al., 2009).  It could be stated that this parallels with the zone of proximal development (ZPD), a theory developed by Vygotsky et al., (2012) which describes, “…The difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help.”  This author’s expression of immediacy is an imaginary line where the two worlds can be drawn together.  The closer they become, the better the social presence and the greater the learning potential.

2.6 Summary of Chapter

On-line learning is growing exponentially in places of learning.  Technology allows classes to meet virtually whilst the learners and facilitators are in their own environment.  Researchers agree that social presence is key to successful outcomes in on-line learning but have not yet established a construct and are therefore unable to measure it successfully and unambiguously.

Chapter 3: Research Design & Process

The research question is: what constitutes social presence in a synchronous online community of dental hygienists?

3.1 Overview of Chapter

The purpose of this chapter is to outline the research design and method.  Two key aspects of social presence are identified; a perceived sense of community and immediacy and intimacy through the lens of the student, the facilitator and the curriculum designer.  The two different perspectives are then compared to current literature and research.  A Qualitative methodology was used within a case study approach.  A case study approach and qualitative methodology is discussed as it relates to this study and the data collection methods.  Ethical concerns, validity of the research, a summary of the research process and data analysis strategies concludes this chapter.

3.2 Case Studies

“A case study provides a unique example of real people in real situations, enabling readers to understand ideas more clearly than by simply presenting them with abstract ideas or theories”  (Cohen, Morrison & Manion, 2001).   Bill Gillham., (2010), describes a case study as an investigation of an individual or group in a specific location.  The reason for the investigation is to answer a specific question, which may initially be loosely structured and uses a variety of evidence and sources to discover the answer.  A case study doesn’t set out find evidence to support a theory as the theory is generated from the data generated by the study.  Yin, (1981) considers that there is ambiguity in defining a case study and is sometimes confused with an experiment.  He describes the distinguishing characteristic of a case study “…that it attempts to examine: (a) a contemporary phenomenon in its real life context, especially when (b) the boundaries between phenomenon and context are clearly evident.”  The author goes on to explain that experiments separate the context from the phenomenon.  Creswell (1994), cited in  (Cohen, Morrison & Manion, 2001) defines a case study as a “single instance of a bounded system.”  Verschuren (2003), cited in (Cohen, Morrison & Manion, 2001) agrees there is ambiguity in the definition as it can be bound or less so.  In this case study the phenomenon (social presence), which occurs on-line is being studied in its natural setting, so the boundaries between context and phenomenon are clearly defined.  Stake, (1994), in attempting to bring uniqueness and generalization within case studies closer together, developed three types of case study: intrinsic, instrumental and collective.  This research is an intrinsic case study because I as the researcher have an ‘intrinsic’ interest in the students, teachers and curriculum.

3.3 Qualitative Methodology

Qualitative research is associated with interpretivism or constructivism.  Blaikie (2004) cited in Salmon (2015) p. 20, states, “the premise of interpretivism often used synonymously with constructivism is that we ‘interpret’ our experiences in the social world to produce and reproduce meanings.”  This creates knowledge with an understanding that isn’t just based on observable phenomenon.  Schwandt (2007) cited in Salmon (2015) p. 21, continues, “Knowledge acquisition occurs when people interpret their observations of the world and invent concepts, models and schemes to make sense of the experience and continually test and modify these constructions in light of new experience”.

This research values the interpretations, perspectives and experiences of the students, teachers and curriculum developers in an on-line community and looks to these participants to generate their own knowledge.  An alternative positivist approach using a fact-based investigation would be inappropriate as there is no starting hypothesis to prove and this research is essentially a study of behavior.  Qualitative research provides a more appropriate methodology to answer the research question.  The research question could be worded differently in order to discover aspects of social presence in a quantitative framework such as in the study by Wei, Chen & Kinshuk ( 3 ), (2012) but this would have generated more quantitative research which Oztok&Brett, (2011) would find frustrating as they stated in their review of social presence. “Yet another gap we identify is the lack of a qualitative understanding of social presence. The review indicates that while social presence has been extensively studied quantitatively, qualitative exploration of social presence is lacking”.

In order to validate the data within a qualitative framework, triangulation was used by asking similar questions to different groups containing participants with differing levels of experience, as indicated by Denzin (1970) cited in (Cohen, Morrison & Manion, 2001).  Groups were deliberately ‘cross-infected’ with ideas presented by previous groups in order to understand the overall arching sense of social presence.  Inviting the research participants to view and listen to the data after the interviews would strengthen the validity of the data. Participants were then invited via email to change, confirm, add or delete any comments that were made.  It was asked of the participants to send confirmation of the email even if they had nothing additional to add.

A semi-structured interview format was used as it allows the researcher to explore perceptions of the students. The creation of a conversational atmosphere can be created within a loose framework whilst also considering the researcher’s own agenda and theoretical perspective (Brown & Dowling, 1998).

Observational interpretation of the data would be included to enable a rounded picture to the reader of the researchers interpretation of the case study (Bill Gillham., 2010).  Brown&Dowling, (1998) suggested ‘in the real world’, some students give very little away with regard to emotional expression.  I was aware that observing on-line is far from straight forward and more complex so it would be easy to misinterpret information without the range of sensory cues that are available in a real classroom setting.  It was planned to get a second opinion of any expressions that were interpreted from the data.

3.4 Data Collection

Computer mediated communication (CMA) - on-line interviews.

Video recorded interviews were chosen primarily to match the phenomenon of the study.  “Research questions that explore an online phenomenon are strengthened through the use of a method that closely mirrors the natural setting under investigation” Geiser (2002, p. 3, cited in Salmon 2015, p. 40).  The participants were also located in a variety of locations and bringing them together for the interviews would have been impossible.  Notwithstanding this, the first option would have been a CMA as this would have been a familiar environment for the participants, which would give the research its best potential Griber, Szmigin, Reppel and Voss (2008, p. 257-258, cited in Salmon 2015, p. 39).

3.5 Ethical Concerns and Validity

The researcher worked within the educational institution and was familiar with many of the research participants and had developed familiarity and relationships with them to varying degrees.  This could potentially create bias within the research and interviews as it could potentially allow prior experience with individuals to affect questioning and also the interpretation of data.  It was therefore important to mitigate against this bias as much as possible and be transparent when transcribing the findings.  It was planned to discuss all procedures, findings and interpretations with the supervisor.  An application for the project approval was submitted to the University Medical Education Department, which contained the proposed interview questions (see appendix 4 for the questions).  An application for ethical approval was submitted to the University Ethics Committee.  An approval letter was received dated 25th June 2015.


3.6 Informed Consent

“The principle of informed consent arises from the subject’s right to freedom and self-determination.  Being free is a condition of living in a democracy and when limitations and restrictions are placed on that freedom they must be justified and consented to, as in research”  (Cohen, Morrison & Manion, 2001).  In this research, to ensure self-determination, a letter was sent via email to students, facilitators and curriculum designers with experience in on-line synchronous learning, requesting volunteers to participate in the research.  Adhering to the four elements of informed consent by Diener and Crandall (1978) p. 57, cited in (Cohen, Morrison & Manion, 2001), was achieved by describing the research, it’s aims and methods and the participant’s role in the process in an explanatory letter.  This included a statement indicating that withdrawal from the research was acceptable at any stage. “Thus informed consent implies informed refusal”  (Cohen, Morrison & Manion, 2001).  (See appendix 1 for the letter of invitation and appendix 2 for the information sheet).  Written consent was obtained prior to any data collection, (see appendix 3 for the informed consent form).

3.7 Confidentiality and Privacy

“Privacy is a primordial value, a basic human need” Caplin (1982, p. 320, cited in  (Cohen, Morrison & Manion, 2001).  The right to privacy was expressed in the letter of information explaining the participants right to leave the research at any stage.

All participants were ensured of their confidentiality following the group interviews and non-traceability of the data.  Codes were allocated to each individual when referring to them.  Following the group interviews it was requested of the participants to respect the privacy of the fellow participants and keep their confidentiality.  As registered clinicians, this is something participants were familiar with.

3.8 Selection of Participants

An email was sent to all students and staff of a dental hygiene distance learning institution asking for research volunteers.  The email contained a letter of invitation (appendix 1) and the participant information sheet (appendix 2).  The email also contained a consent form (appendix 3) which volunteers were requested to sign, photocopy and return via email.  Twelve signed consent forms were received.

The participants were divided into three groups and assigned codes.  Group one initially represented five students who had experienced on-line synchronous education.  Two failed to attend the interview.  Two participants were current students and one was a graduate. They were assigned codes G1 S1, G1 S2 and G1 S3.  Group two represented two curriculum designers and assigned G2 C1 and G2 C2.  Both were experienced teachers and curriculum designers.  Group three represented five facilitators and all had experienced on-line synchronous education as students and teachers.  Group three were assigned G3 F1, G3 F2, G3 F3, G3 F4 and G3 F5.

3.9 Technology

Vsee Video Conferencing Software was used to host the group interviews.  This was chosen for its low bandwidth requirements and versatility on a variety of platforms.  The interviews were recorded using Quicktime on a Macbook Air.  The recording was stored in an icloud using Dropbox, which the researcher only had access to.  A copy was made within the Dropbox, which was shared with the research participants.  No hard copies of the interviews were created and nothing was stored on any computers.

3.10 Analysis of Data

Data analysis within a qualitative framework is highly subjective and there are no clearly defined rules as in quantitative research, Spencer, Ritchie, and O’Connor (2003, cited in Salmon 2015, p. 252).  The analysis of the data was not a linear process but one of deep reflection and an attempt to make connections and to develop broad themes.  “There is no particular moment when data analysis begins” Robert Stake (1995, cited in Salmon 2015, p. 252).

The content analysis followed the guidelines presented by Bill Gillham., (2010), although in this case the research involved viewing the visual aspect and listening to the spoken word, not the written, so the guidelines were modified to suit a recording of a videoconference.  The subjectivity created by ‘video-graphic’ interpretation and any subsequent bias generated would need to be explained  (Cohen, Morrison & Manion, 2001).  Immediately after each interview, initial notes were taken.  Each video was then viewed several times as objectively as possible without internal reference to the literature that had been previously engaged with.  Extensive notes were taken (semi-transcribed) for each video to be used as reference points for future viewings.

Themes were gradually developed for the each individual interview (intra-group) and then for all the interviews combined (inter-group).  The themes produced from the interviews were then related back to educational theorists, literature and the initial research questions.

3.11 Summary of Chapter

A qualitative methodology was used within a case study approach.  CMA was used to collect the data via on-line recorded interviews using VSee software and stored on an iCloud.  Invitations to participate were sent via email to all students and faculty studying and learning at an on-line institution for dental hygienists.  Ethical approval was gained and informed consent was requested from all participants.  Confidentiality and privacy was adhered to.  The data was analysed through a mulit-viewing method and the development of themes.

Chapter Four: Findings

4.1 Overview of Chapter

The themes drawn out of the three groups separately are presented first as the intra-group themes.  The themes drawn out of all three groups are then presented as the inter-group themes.

4.2 Intra-Group Themes

Group 1 (G1) Students.

Distraction: an interruption; obstacle to concentration” (McLeod 1987, p. 288).

Two participants failed to attend. Three participated.

One of the students (S3) had a time delay on the videoconference of about 5 seconds, which resulted in her continually interrupting the two remaining students.  She was aware this was happening and attempted to counter this by putting up her hand to communicate she wanted to speak. This didn’t always work.  The other two students, both used to this technical issue, understood what was happening and reacted with what I perceived to be an understanding and a sense of humour displayed by their facial expressions.

The subject of distractions was raised by S1 and gave an example of a student taking part in a class whilst on a ski lift.  S1 indicated the other student might not have considered this a distraction.  S3 felt that there were distractions in the real world and gave an example of someone answering a cell phone during an appointment compared to someone going off screen during a video conference and acted this out whilst talking during the interview.  She felt the distractions were different in the real world compared to the virtual world but both were present.  S3 felt that it was a distraction that in her class her fellow students didn’t say enough.  She felt this was due in a lack of confidence and being shy.  G1 S3 discusses distractions again during the topic of verbal communication where she expresses her concern that the other participants may not understand what she is saying and she is aware they have to concentrate to listen to her.

Respect: an attitude of deference, admiration or esteem; regard’” (McLeod 1987, p. 851).

“(Deference: compliance with the wishes of another”, (McLeod 1987, p.255)).

Two of the students (S1 & S2) were current students in different classes and one was a graduate (S3).  None had met before the interview.  I was mindful throughout the interview that they could be polite because I as the interviewer was in a position of power, which may affect responses.  Throughout the interview S3 had a technical issue with her video connection and had a delay of about 5 seconds.  This meant unintentionally continually interrupting S1 & S2.  Both handled the situation really well and at one point on being interrupted S1 actually stopped and said,

go ahead”.

Later on, when discussing a topic of allocating students equal time to speak S3 stated that she was appreciative of the patience of S1 and S2 during this interview.  At the beginning of the interview when asked a general question about what was it like studying in a virtual environment, S2 immediately stated,

It was nice to meet people that live a distance away that share the same interests and doing similar things”.

S1 indicated he agreed with S2 about interacting with different people in different areas before going onto discuss problems with technical issues.

When asked whether if there were students he didn’t like, S2 said,

I wouldnt say I disliked anyone”.

He had a wry smile on his face and went onto say

I have developed a closeness to some people more than others.”

This reluctance to speak poorly of other students or teachers when given an opportunity, continued throughout.  On the topic of peer feedback, S3 discussed a mutual respect with other students and when she considered the feedback of poor quality, she went onto defend the individual to indicate she was aware of difficulties people would have due to individual circumstances.  There was very little disagreement throughout and any was handled in a very courteous and respectful manner.

Group 2 (G2) Curriculum Designers.

Mindful: keeping aware; heedful”, (McLeod 1987, p. 635).

Both invited curriculum developers (C1 & C2) participated.

Central to this interview was a sense of being mindful, especially to the students.  Several subjects were discussed and the emphasis of conversation was generally maneuvered towards the student.  When asked the initial question relating to learning and teaching in a virtual environment, both gave a caveat of the technology and related the answer from the perspective of the students.  C1 gave an example of her brother who is taking an asynchronous on-line educational course where he feels alone, whereas she was aware that in her synchronous classes students were able to develop immediate relationships, which enhanced the educational experience.

When comparing the real class to a virtual class, C2 described how the technical constraints of class size in a virtual classroom (usually a maximum of 6 students on a computer screen) created a huge difference in allowing each student more time and also created an environment ideally suited to reflective learning.  This was confirmed by C1 who compared a large lecturing environment, which was ‘teacher led’ to a small virtual classroom where it was ‘student led’.

The Mindful discussion continued and weaved itself effortlessly into the next theme:

Adaptability: to adjust to different conditions or modify to suit a new or different purpose”, (McLeod 1987, p. 13).

When discussing the intricacies of body language, C2 discussed how certain students might have ‘roadblocks’ depending on how they processed information.  She stated, whilst moving her arms above her head,

If someone is highly visual and they need to see the total person they will feel a disconnect when they cant see anyones hands or feet and for those not highly visual, they might not even need to look at the screen, if I was hearing you I could process just fine. In a virtual world we have various disconnects for various reasons but they will be there in the real-world but in a different way.”

C2 then went on to describe how we (teachers) can try and overcome it by becoming highly in-tune with how they process information and speak to them how they want to be spoken to.

Understand who the community is and ensure nobody is left out”.

Sometimes I have to do a little of this”, whilst waving arms in the air, she then sits still,

And adjust my body language to students who are not excitable”.

When discussing feedback and comparing reflective learning in a virtual world to traditional learning in a classroom, S1 stated,

In some cases the students are surprised at the feedback. When they discover it enhances their learning it encourages them to keep going and helps build their self-esteem.  Many of them are afraid to go back to school with the bad experience they had in a traditional brick and mortar school but once they experience the feedback they embrace it and take off with it.  At the beginning they are very hesitant but once they realize its a safe environment they just sort of run with it.”

When discussing peer-to-peer feedback, S2 explains that

Some students are initially reticent but when they discover that their words are important and their opinion matters and are encouraged to share or not diminished in anyway, they blossom and come out of their shells.”

Emotion: any strong feeling, as of joy, sorrow or fear”, (McLeod 1987, p. 323)

When discussing behavior in the virtual classroom when compared to the real world, S1 stated,

I have seen a lot more emotion, they (the students) get very excited and they get animated and very excited when things change.  I think the emotional connection is different in a virtual classroom compared to a traditional classroom.  There is an emotional attachment to each other and wanting to know whats happened to the other classmates.  They are excited to find out whats happening. I think the emotional attachment is invaluable to learning.

S2 agreed and said, whilst demonstrating her own emotion,

The excitement is tangible and it is notable when someone really gets something you know it and they want to show their experience.  In some cases in an ah hamoment there are tears and deep emotion.”

She went on to explain that the students had a genuine interest that the other students understood specific issues.

They want one another to succeed, they dont want someone to fail.”

Group 3 (G3) Facilitators.

Affinity: a natural liking, taste or inclination for a person or thing”, (McLeod 1987, p. 19).

This was a difficult theme to pin-down and could easily have been ‘belonging’ ‘kinship’ or ‘alliance’.

There was a real sense of all the above in relation to the institution they belonged to, their colleagues, their faculty and their students.  All five participants have been on-line students and on-line facilitators at the same institution.

During the introductions, all participants expressed their fondness of the institution and there was great empathy and understanding between them.  They were very open in expressing their feelings, F4 stated,

I agree the technology was intimidating to me however the instructors being so good about it just made the world of difference to me. I was terrified, I didnt know what I was doing, you were amazing with us and now seeing another teacher with her class, shes so good with them, you dont feel you are doing something wrong, they teach you dont worry about it, otherwise I love the experience and I love the smaller classroom. Im shy and introverted so for me it was much easier to be open and honest and was able to ask questions that I wouldnt have in a bigger setting or even in person.

F3 in reply discussed how technology has opened up educational options and said,

“…To be exposed to so many great colleagues and great educators that I wouldnt other wise meet.”

F1 was able to explain how he felt his nervousness had the effect of making him talk too much and the virtual environment allowed him to be more comfortable with this and went to say how exciting it was for him to meet other students and teachers.  F5 discussed how she enjoyed learning from the other students and had established relationships outside the virtual classroom.  F2 expressed a ‘them & us’ situation,

“…The outsiders dont understand so we are challenged… and I think I learned more about myself in this class… and I dont think the people Im surrounded with really understand what it is to really learn.”

F4 thought this was a great point and all participants nodded in agreement.

4.3 Inter-Group Themes

Some of the above themes have already been discussed in the intra-group themes and some alluded to.  First explanation is given as to how they appeared separately in all groups.

Time: the continuous passage of existence in which events pass from a state of potentiality in the future, through the present, to a state of finality in the past”, (McLeod 1987, p. 1049)

Time is continually referred to in all three interviews and time disaggregates the interviews.  Participants are answering questions in real time whilst considering past events and offering suggestions for the future.  They are in a virtual world answering questions about the world they are in, whilst actually being in a different place of their own choosing.  The interviews were conducted at different times and video recorded, so the participants could view them back at a time of their own choosing.  Additionally G1 S2 highlighted virtual classrooms can be attended by people in different time zones and when discussing distractions, G1 S1 discussed occasionally there was an echo of his own voice coming through; a distraction associated with time.  The time delay incident in G1 led to one student being conscious of how it was affecting the class and the other two learning how to interpret the situation.

Interpretation: the act or process of interpreting or explaining; elucidate”, (McLeod 1987, p. 529) (“Elucidate: to make clear; clarify”, (McLeod 1987, p. 321))

All participants were attempting to answer the questions presented by an insider but it is impossible for the researcher to know if they were being interpreted as the researcher considered they would be.  It can only be assumed from the answers given whether this was happening but not all participants responded to all questions.  This also applied when participants would ask questions for each other.  In addition participants were interpreting other student responses in conversation, body language, past experiences seen through the lens of their current situation and some actually discussed the subject of interpretation.

Body Language – “is a means of transmitting information, just like the spoken word except that it is achieved through facial expressions, gestures, touch, physical movements, posture, embellishments (clothes, hairstyles, tattoos, etc.) And even the tone and volume of ones voice” (Balistreri, 2014).

G1 S2 when asked about the differences between the real and virtual worlds initially expressed body language.  She suggested that it wasn’t as apparent in the virtual world as in the real one as she could only see the head and shoulders of people.  G1 S1 agreed with this.  G1 S3 explained how she could pick up body language in the virtual world and focus better because she could see everyone’s faces but a traditional real classroom layout prevented her from doing this. In a virtual world she could see everyone at the same time, which made it easier.

Technology: the application of practical or mechanical sciences to industry or commerce”, (McLeod 1987, p. 1031).

Techno stress is a modern disease of adaption caused by an ability to cope with the new computer technologies in a healthy manner”, (Jena, 2015).

Technophilia refers generally to the enthusiasm generated by the use of technology, particularly new technologies, such as personal computers, internet and mobile phones”, (Osiceanu, 2015).

In many circumstances these themes were the first thought of the participant.  For example when asked the opening question, what’s it like learning through a computer, G3 F2 replied

The technology was intimidating at first but once I got over that, which took two or three sessions I think, then I was more open to saying what I wanted to say without the intimidation”.

G3 F4 agreed with this statement. G3 F3 felt that the technology had made education exciting.  G3 F5 found her experience,

Technology glitches aside, wonderful”.

One of the students in her class had ‘dropped out’ because of technology issues.  G3 F1 felt it was exciting.  G1 S1 believed it was more difficult for people to learn effectively who weren’t used to the technology.  When asked the same opening above question, G2 C2 replied,

Learning through a computer for me has been frustrating but this was more based on the technology than the material and once you work through the frustration of getting the technology to work the learning experience can be more beneficial”.

G2 C1 agreed synchronous learning was better when the technology was working.

I now explain how I interpreted the above themes as connected strands, inter-woven where two, three or four themes were being represented at the same time.  Please consider ‘time’, ‘interpretation’, ‘body language’ and ‘technology/techno stress/technophilia’ whilst reading the following.

G3 F1 when discussing the subject of body language suggested in a real classroom it was more noticeable and useful but the closeness of people in a virtual classroom made up for this.  He re-counted a story of a fellow student who covered her face with a piece of paper for the first few on-line meetings but eventually with time gradually uncovered her face.  His interpretation for this behavior was that she found the virtual classroom confrontational.  G3 F4 interpreted this behavior as an invasion of her home and with time became comfortable with the group and was fine.

G2 C1 in a different group interview recounted the same story and demonstrated using a piece of paper how the student prevented anyone from seeing her by covering the screen.  Her interpretation of this situation was that she wasn’t comfortable seeing herself on the screen but with time learned to accept it.  Interestingly the student had the option of turning off her camera but chose not to.

G3 F1 had expressed earlier in the interview how he could see how comfortable everyone one was and G3 F2 countered later on,

You cant see what my hands are doing right now (holding up a pen), Im twiddling with a pen”;

Indicating this was her outlet for nervous energy.

The discussion of body language had been going on for several minutes and G3 F1 judging by his body language was eager to say something.  When invited to do so, he expressed that he didn’t think that interpreting body language would improve the learning experience.

The researcher recounted the comment made in an earlier interview by G2 C2 when she said,

The particular words that we use only make up about seven per cent of the communication and the intonation, the pitch and the pace, the tone, the body language we use and the visual cues are more how we communicate and how people process it.”

G3 F1 said,

Thats coming straight out of a book and this is a totally different environment we are learning from and we have learned to think outside the box havent we?

After having more time to consider this subject and after having viewed the video, G3 F1 wrote to me in an email,

Body language is a valuable tool, perhaps giving clues to how a student is responding or feeling, however, it can be misread.  I have had students who are very quiet, do not contribute much in class, and have looked disinterested, yet gone on to achieve excellent marks during their training and excelled afterwards.”

There were examples of participants re-counting examples of being misconstrued.  G3 F3 said, when discussing body language,

There was one time that I confess, one of the students I was mentoring, mentioned that in her hygiene school they only talked about brushing and flossing for oral health and I caught myself rolling my eyes and I thought that could be construed that I think shes really stupid… but I thought I need to be more careful in the future. Im alone here but Im not really alone because Im with you guys.”

When asked to compare behavior in a real classroom with a virtual classroom, G3 F2 demonstrated she had interpreted the question as I hoped she had by expressing her difficulty in answering the question and then went on to explain how difficult it was to elucidate comparisons with such a large distance in time between them.

Im having a hard time with this question because Im comparing my experience to a classroom fifteen years ago where I was a different person. Then it was all about me and now its about other people, so I dont know if its a maturity thing on my part so Im having a tough time with that question.”

G3 F5 in the same discussion confirmed the comments of G1 S3 earlier that it was quicker to read body language on a virtual classroom,

There is more interaction going on because I can scan these faces (whilst exaggerating sideways head movement) in a shorter amount of time so I think there is more group feedback or at least perception of what people are reacting to, more than a classroom environment because my eyes dont have to move this far (pointing her finger back and forward in the direction of her eyes). Its just a little tick of the eyeball and I can get all these reactions.” 

G2 S2 indicated that the technology limited each class to a maximum of six students and interpreted this as the reason, which created an environment that promoted more interaction and also gave more time for students to express themselves.

G1 S1 indicated in the interview, which was experiencing the time delay,

“…Sometimes due to technical faults and signal strengths things could be mis-interpreted”.

G2 S1 when discussing body language stated that there had been times when the technology ‘failed’ and she used a phone as a backup.  She expressed how difficult it was when relying only on sound with no facial expressions and struggling to identify the students that were speaking.

When discussing the learning environment, G2 S2 discussed how students had approached her privately about other students with technology issues and how it was disrupting the class.  Her interpretation was interesting as she felt that she had to remind the other students not to feel guilty for the students with the technical issues as they were trying to help-out the other student by trying to contact them via a phone during the class time.  She had to remind them that it wasn’t their responsibility to deal with the other student’s technical problems.  When asked if she thought the situation would be similar in a real classroom, if a student were having issues, which were preventing them from learning or getting to class on time, she thought that it would be different and the other students would start judging the disruptive student.  She felt that everyone has much more empathy with people having technical problems and will therefore allow it to impact on their learning experience more.

4.4 Summary of Chapter

The researcher identified intra-group themes were:

Group 1 - Students: distraction and respect.

Group 2 - Curriculum Designers: mindful, adaptability and emotion.

Group 3 – Facilitators: Affinity.

The researcher identified inter-group themes were:

Interpretation, body language, time, technology, techno stress and technophilia.



Chapter Five: Discussion

5.1 Overview of Chapter

The discussion returns to the initial question to consider how does the obtained data help answer the questions of what constitutes social presence in a synchronous on-line community of dental hygienists and how does this relate to the concepts of immediacy, intimacy and community obtained from the discovered literature, research and theorists?

5.2 Immediacy and Technology.

When looking at the introduction of ICT into classrooms Aviram, (2000) states, “Education systems have failed to develop coherent strategies based on a broad cultural understanding of the ICT revolution and of the potential negative and positive influences of ICT.  This has prevented the mindful and productive integration of schools into postmodern ICT-based society”.

G2 C1 & C2 demonstrated the opposite in their consideration of the impact of ICT and how it has benefited, in their opinion, the student experience.  G2 C2 also made the observation that the current limitations relating to the size of a home computer and in some cases portable hand held devices created the necessity of small class sizes.  G2 C1 then indicated that the small class size created the environment to become more student-focussed where the teacher listened more and facilitated the learning.  In 1969 Carl Rogers wrote “I believe that all teachers and educators prefer to facilitate this experiential and meaningful type of learning, rather than the nonsense syllable type.   Yet in the vast majority of our schools, at all educational levels, we are locked into a traditional and conventional approach which makes significant learning improbable if not impossible”, (Rogers & Freiberg, 1994).

On this topic G2 C1 confirmed the research outcomes of Rovai (2003),

The reflective style in the virtual world is key, not just the virtual world.  They (the students) hold themselves accountable to the results they are getting.  The virtual world could still be a lecture with no interaction”.

The concept of learning through reflection and reflective practice is attributed to Donald Schon, where he challenged practitioner’s educational perspective and the priority of their ‘technical knowledge’ to a more artistic and humanistic value belief system, (Schon, 1983).  This was indirectly and consistently acknowledged by many of the participants and highlighted by G3 F4 when she said,

I like on-line schooling.  I prefer the open-ended questions.  I just cant explain how much more I learned from seeing other people grow and change.  Theres so much more value I feel I got out of it, patients noticed the change in me before I even noticed it was happening and Im still learning about it even with mentoring.”

Having demonstrated the participants perceived connection of how technology links learning styles and the virtual classroom and how this may affect the perception of social presence I will now describe the further complexities of this environment seen through the eyes of the research participants.

All research participants, when extolling the benefits of the virtual classroom gave a caveat relating to the technology working effectively and some gave examples of how technology was responsible for distracting their learning.

A paper written on classroom distractions by Behnke et al., (1981) defined a distraction as, “those events, which take teachers and/or their students off the intended instructional tasks. This includes any behavior, activity, or event that comes to the attention of either the teacher or his/her students.”  Distraction is a subjective term, is difficult to analyze as it may be internal, external and be extremely variable.  G1 S3 highlighted this when she expressed how non-communicative students were distracting to her.  In the above paper, the author looked at and listed distractions and possible coping mechanisms where the teacher could reduce the impact of these distractions.  Many of these relate directly to the ‘real classroom’ environment and many of the coping mechanisms combine prevention, reaction and classroom management skills.  Any research relating to distractions within the virtual classroom was not available.



5.3 Intimacy and Technology.

All participants related body language to video conferencing and understood its value when all the senses were unavailable within this unique environment.  A study of 100 experienced teachers demonstrated they understood the value of understanding body language and concluded that they would have benefited from specific body-language training when at university (Benzer, 2012).  This would indicate that there is awareness amongst teachers that some educators are better than others at interpreting it.  Another study concluded that body language is more important than facial expression to interpret someone’s emotional state and people usually rely on both (Meeren, van Heijnsbergen & de Gelder, 2005).

When discussing body language in an on-line environment G3 F4 raised an interesting point when she said,

As a hygienist, Im used to focussing on a persons face and I guess Im in-tune to concentrating on the neck-up and maybe thats why this environment works for hygienists”. 

She went on to express

Thats not to say I dont see a patients fist clenched on the chair”,

Demonstrating also that she understood the requirement to take in the whole picture for a clear understanding.

During the interviews, participants demonstrated their ability to read emotions, expressed emotion and attempted to interpret past emotional situations.  They were all very positive and diplomatic in their conversations.  This thoughtful behavior of these experienced clinicians would indicate high levels of emotional intelligence.  When discussing dental hygienists and emotional intelligence, Joseph, (2015b) expresses three key areas where hygienists’ may excel. “1) Emotional awareness, including the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others; 2) the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem-solving; and 3) the ability to manage emotions, including your own, and the ability to cheer up or calm down another person, thereby raising your level of empathy.

When looking at on-line learners, Yinus, (2015), identified a correlation between emotional intelligence and success.  It was considered, within traditional education, curriculum designers have neglected emotions and feelings when planning outcomes and it is believed the emotional intelligence of the student is the key component, which will dictate “a person’s life satisfaction, the quality of interpersonal relationships and success in occupation”, Zeidner and Olnick-Shemesh, (2010, cited in Yunus et al., 2015).

Having identified the research participants high levels of emotional intelligence gained from their clinical experience and its positive effect on social presence, running congruent to this are examples of both positive (technophilia) and more commonly negative emotions (techno stress), which would potentially affect their learning  (Taipjutorus, Hansen & Brown, 2012).  In a study of faculty in a higher education institution, Kruger & Blignaut, (2013) explored the links between emotional intelligence and technology.  They concluded that positive emotions improved individual learning abilities of new technology and these individuals utilized coping strategies to deal with the ‘techno stress’. It was suggested to mitigate for negative emotions, instructors should guide the learning so that it teaches self-efficacy.

5.4 A Sense of Community

When initially exploring the literature to discover what constituted a sense of community amongst individuals within communities, the three key factors that were agreed upon amongst researchers were relationships, emotional attachment and the ability to affect change within the community, (McMillan & Chavis 1986).  Vygotski also believed that human’s higher cognitive development is built around social interaction and relationships, (Vygotsky et al., 2012).

As indicated in the findings a sense of community was demonstrated through the desire of the participants to develop positive relationships through their respect and affinity towards each other corroborating the work of (Osterman, 2000).  An emotional attachment to the community was emphasized by G3 F2 when, as discussed previously, she expressed a ‘them & us’ situation and participants in this group agreed with the statement.

There was a positive correlation between the ability to affect change and a sense of community.  When discussing feedback G1 S1 stated,

I wouldnt have finished the class had I felt my opinion wasnt important as I leave environments where Im being shut down”.

G3 F3 indicated that she made suggestions to improve the student learning which was acted upon.  She indicated that making a contribution was empowering.  G2 S1 and S2 both discussed an expression of peripheral participation where the creation of an environment in a virtual community where feedback was common practice and accepted behavior was not without problems.  Participants of a community are encouraged to move from the periphery to a more central participatory area demonstrating increased learning within that community, (Lave & Wenger, 1991).  G2 S1 and S2 believed a slow ‘movement’ of some students from the periphery towards the centre was related to personalities where quiet students might be initially less likely to express opinion and might be more reluctant to be involved in peer-to-peer feedback or offer feedback to faculty.  G2 S1 believed this reluctance might be an expression of their low-esteem working environments and G2 S1 and G2 S2 both considered that an open reflective learning environment might also be new to many students so acceptance of this may take time.  All these discussions indicate an acceptance that they are participants within a virtual community, have emotional attachments to the community and have a perception of a desire for a direction of travel within the community (Lave & Wenger 1991).  G2 S1 and S2 are also suggesting that working and educational experience in other previous and present communities may contribute to their behavior within a virtual community.

Chapter Six: Conclusion

The participants in the three interviews representing students, facilitators and curriculum designers all contributed to developing a theory of social presence in their on-line synchronous learning environment.

It is beyond the purpose of this research to actually define social presence although it can confirm Oztok & Brett, (2011) when they said, “social presence is a complex, multi-layered, and multi-faceted construct”.  The interpretation of the important factors, which constitute social presence as determined by this synchronous community of on-line dental hygienists can also be stated.

  1. The sum of the components, which makes up the technology to create the virtual environment affect the emotions of the users, both directly from a practical perspective and indirectly through the cognitive process. Positive emotions improve the social presence.
  2. A reflective, student centered approach to teaching and learning within a virtual classroom improves social presence.
  3. Effectively reading, maximizing and interpreting non-verbal communication in a virtual classroom improves the social presence.
  4. Mitigating internal and external distractions improve social presence.
  5. A sense of community in a virtual classroom is created through emotional attachments within the community and personal experience within other communities may affect behavior within a virtual community. A virtual community where positive feedback in all directions is encouraged improves social presence. If participants within the virtual community can affect change, the social presence is improved further.

6.1 Limitation of Study

The study relies on the information from a very small sample from one institution and as such should be considered appropriately.  The study size was restricted due to the availability of participants and a very limited time period to conduct the research.

Can it reasonably be expected of a person to compare the past with the present in order to compare two completely different learning environments?  Was this a fair question from a novice researcher?  The comments made by G3 F2 when she expressed how difficult this was for her was highly illuminating in this research.  She indicated that her perspective and motivation was completely different several years ago to how it is now.  There were participants for whom it would have been easier for them to make this comparison having recently left school, so does this make their comments more valuable or would the insight demonstrated by G3 F2 be indicative of her ability to see through the problem?  This is just one example, which demonstrates the complexity of insider research and the subjectivity when analysing the data dependent on the interpretation of the researcher.

When reflecting on the value of individual contributions made by all participants, my ability as a first time research interviewer and my ability to analyse the data, I can only conclude that this, like all education is highly open for discussion and represents a point in time along a journey where hopefully something was learned by everyone who was involved in the process.

6.2 Recommendations for Future Study

If the objective of this research were to generate more questions than answers, then this would be a success.  It was hypothesised that dental hygienists may potentially be better on-line students because of their experience of reading facial expressions and body language in a clinical environment.  It was also postulated that their level of emotional intelligence might improve their perception of social presence.  If this were correct, would this apply to similar medical professions and/or any other students with specific personality traits in an on-line environment?  Would specific ‘virtual learning’ training in body language and facial expressions benefit on-line teachers and therefore their students and would the inclusion of virtual learning in the curriculum of an undergraduate and postgraduate teaching degree, improve social presence?  If mitigating distractions were an acceptable outcome, then research to determine how distractions in a virtual learning environment differ to a real classroom would benefit virtual teaching and learning.  As indicated by Oztok & Brett, (2011), there is requirement for more qualitative studies in perceptions of social presence in on-line synchronous communities of different student groups in order to establish a greater understanding of the subject in order to create a comprehensive theory.




6.3 Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the University of Bedfordshire Medical Education Professors and staff for their guidance and support over the last three years, for approving this final research project and the University Ethics Committee for their research approval.

Special thanks to O’Hehir University for giving permission for the research and providing the participants for the research.

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  1. Appendices

8.1 Appendix 1: Letter of invitation to participants


Dear Colleague,

I am writing to invite you to participate in a small educational research project about your views on the virtual environment at O’Hehir University.

This research will shape my Masters dissertation entitled ‘social presence in synchronous on-line communities: how might a community of dental hygienist students perceive social presence on a distance learning dental hygienist course?’

This is the final module of Masters in Medical Education, which I am undertaking at the University of Bedfordshire under the supervision of Dr Martina Behrens, Principal Lecturer in Clinical Education & Leadership. Ethical approval for the study has been applied to the University of Bedfordshire’s Research Ethics Committee. O’Hehir University has approved the research.

I have attached an information sheet to provide details on this research project and a consent form to be signed, if willing to participate. However, if you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

In the meantime, I look forward to the opportunity of working with you on this research.

Yours faithfully,


Tim Ives RDH, BSc (Hons) FHEA









8.2 Appendix 2: Participant information sheet.

“Social presence in synchronous on-line communities: how might a community of dental hygienist students perceive social presence on a distance learning dental hygienist course?”

You are being invited to take part in a research study. Before you decide it is important for you to understand why the research is being done and what it will involve. Please take time to read the following information carefully. Please talk to other students and tutors if you wish and do not hesitate to contact me if you need any further information.

What is the purpose of the study?

This project sets out to discover if our students’ perception of social presence concurs with current evidence. Social presence in an on-line virtual environment is considered to be a perception of community and the difference in the sensory cues that a student would encounter in a real class environment. If a difference in current research as compared to our student perception is demonstrated, recommendations to make curriculum changes can be made to improve student learning.

Who is conducting the research?

The research is being undertaken by me as part of my Masters in Medical Education at the University of Bedfordshire. I will be supervised by Dr Martina Behrens, Principal Lecturer in Clinical Education & Leadership at the University of Bedfordshire.

Why have I approached you?

I am inviting all the students of O’Hehir University to participate.

What do you have to do?

I would like you to take part in a group discussion, focusing on community and communication in an on-line environment. The discussion will be audio and visually recorded and chaired by me.

What will happen to the information that I give?

The data will only be accessible to me, the ethics committee at the University of Bedfordshire and the Tutors at the University of Bedfordshire. It will be kept securely in accordance with the data protection act. An analysis of the data will form part of my dissertation and may be published in a journal/web site. You are welcome to see a copy of the dissertation or articles prior to publication.

Will my taking part be confidential?

Yes, completely. All data and the reporting will be anonymised and no-one will be named or identifiable in any way in the dissertation or the reports of the study.

What if I wish to withdraw?

Your participation is entirely voluntary and you can withdraw at any time you wish, without giving a reason. However, if you withdraw I reserve the right to include any information that you had given prior to leaving the study.


You will not be required to incur any expenses.

Yours faithfully,


Timothy Ives, MA Med Ed Student, University of Bedfordshire

Contact information:

Phone: Removed by author.

E mail: [email protected]














8.3 Appendix 3: Participant consent form

Invitation to Participate in Research for Masters Dissertation

Informed Consent Form



Please initial boxes:



I confirm that I have read and understand the information sheet for the above project. I have had the opportunity to consider the information, ask questions and have had these answered satisfactorily.



I understand that my participation is voluntary and that I am free to withdraw at any time, without giving reason.



I understand that the data is being used for my Masters dissertation project and may be published in dental hygiene and educational journals/web sites and shared with O’Hehir University and the University of Bedfordshire.



I agree to take part in the above study.




By signing this consent form, you have not waived any of the legal rights, which you would otherwise have.






Participants Name (Printed)




________________________            _______________________


Signature                                            Date signed



When completed:


Please keep 1 copy.


Please scan and email 1 copy to: [email protected]

8.4 Appendix 4


Social Presence in Synchronous Online Dental Hygienist Communities


Questions for Group Interviews:


  1. Learners Opening Question:

How does online learning differ from learning in a real classroom?

Section A: Sense of Community – drawing on the elements of community according to McMillan & Chavis’s theory, (McMillan & Chavis, 1986)

How would you describe your online relationships with your classmates and facilitators?

How would you describe your connection/emotional attachment to your fellow students and facilitators?

To what extent do you feel that you can effect change in your classmates and within your course?

Section B: Immediacy in an online environment.

Thinking about the specific virtual classroom as compared to the real classroom environment:

How would you describe the ways that verbal communication can affect your learning?

How would you describe the ways that visual communication can affect your learning?

What types of behaviour from fellow classmates and facilitators are important and why?

How does the behaviour of fellow classmates and facilitators affect your online learning?

  1. Facilitators Opening Question:

How does online learning differ from learning in a real classroom?

Section A: Sense of Community – drawing on the elements of community according to McMillan & Chavis’s theory, (McMillan & Chavis, 1986)

How would you describe your online relationships with your students?

How would you describe your connection/emotional attachment to your students and faculty?

To what extent to you feel you can effect change in your students and within the course?

Section B: Immediacy in an online environment.

Thinking about the specific virtual classroom as compared to the real classroom environment:

How would you describe the ways that verbal communication can affect teaching & learning?

How would you describe the ways that visual communication can affect teaching & learning?

What types of behaviour from students and facilitators are important and why?

How do you believe the behaviour of students and facilitators affects online learning?

  1. Curriculum Developer Opening Question:

How does online learning differ to learning in a real classroom?

Section A: Sense of Community – drawing on the elements of community according to McMillan & Chavis’s theory, (McMillan & Chavis, 1986)

How do you consider the online relationships between students and facilitators affects their learning?

How would you consider the connection/emotional attachment between students and facilitators affects their learning?

How would you consider the influence students have on their classmates and the university affects their learning?

Section B: Immediacy in an online environment.

Thinking about the specific virtual classroom as compared to the real classroom environment:

How would you describe the ways that verbal communication can affect teaching & learning?

How would you describe the ways that visual communication can affect teaching & learning?

What types of behaviour from students and facilitators are important and why?

How do you believe the behaviour of students and facilitators affect online learning?


McMillan, D.W., & Chavis, D.M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), pp. 6-23.