Social presence, community, and engagement

Online courses are much more than just websites housing content, instructions, and assessments. Good online courses create mental and emotional spaces in which course community members all interact. If you imagine your online course as a room or physical space, what does a student experience when they arrive in that room to check in with the course? Do they feel alone in the space? Or do they feel as though there is a full community of people, including many other students, who are present with them? Social presence begins with the feeling on the part of students that other people whom they can trust and get to know are involved in the course along with them. When students interact with each other, they build a sense of social presence in your course.

Social presence is the ability of participants to identify with a group, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop personal and affective relationships progressively by way of projecting their individual personalities.
(Garrison, 2011)

For this reason, student-student interaction boosts both cognitive and emotional engagement. Cognitive engagement is enhanced by increasing the diversity of perspectives on various topics, creating opportunities for students to teach and learn from each other, and allowing students to share learning strategies that can help boost achievement. Emotional engagement is also enhanced when students share their interest and investment in a subject with one another, commiserate and strategize about challenges in learning certain materials, and add a sense of personality and camaraderie to the course.

The life cycle of student-student interaction

The role that student-student interaction plays in generating engagement is not static during a course but changes as the course moves forward. Since the early days of online education, researchers have observed that student-student interactions in online courses typically go through three major phases (Brown, 2001; Downing, Lam, Kwong, Downing, & Chan, 2007):

  1. Socially formative phase, where students get to know each other and form social bonds
  2. Socially instrumental phase, where students interact mainly to help one another learn course materials and (if required) work on projects together
  3. Withdrawal phase near the end the course, when student-student interaction tends to wane, but their engagement and focus has typically increased

The role of student-student interaction with respect to engagement differs between these various phases.

Two students chatting virtually

Phase 1.
Socially formative phase

Students get to know one another and form social bonds

two students working on online content independently

Phase 2.
Socially instrumental phase

Students interact for the purposes of learning content and/or working on projects

one student reading a book and the other writing a paper

Phase 3.
Withdrawal phase

Student-student interaction recedes somewhat as students focus on final assignments, exams, etc.

We will explain the nature of these phases in more detail momentarily. Naturally, the dividing lines between the phases are not exact, but in general you can expect students to interact with each other according to this basic sequence as the term progresses.

Socially formative phase and emotional engagement

The socially formative phase of student-student interaction takes place at the beginning of an online course, usually in the first one or two weeks. During this early phase, students interact mainly to get to know one another, getting a sense of who else is in the course, determining what (if any) pre-existing social connections they might have with other students, and getting a picture of the people with whom they might be most socially compatible. Ideally, during this phase students form bonds of friendship that will connect them throughout the rest of the course (Brown, 2001).

Two students chatting virtually
Phase 1: Social and emotional connection

Encouraging students to get to know one another is essential for cultivating emotional engagement in online courses. Students will have plenty of time during the rest of the course to talk about content and potentially work on projects together. In the early weeks of your course, the most important task is to help students feel engaged with the course as a community and social space, creating social presence between them in the course. As we have already shown, this sense of support and connection has an immensely beneficial impact which will help facilitate student learning through the rest of the course (Garrison, 2011). While students tend to report that content-based social interactions are the most helpful for their learning, they nonetheless indicate the importance of social and emotional connections online for success (Yukselturk & Top, 2006).

Student-student interaction in this first phase nearly always takes place using the digital tools identified in the previous section, especially text-based discussion forums, and at times also using other communication channels like email or social media. In the next section we will discuss a number of strategies that can help you facilitate social discussion, which is particularly important for fostering engagement during the early phase of your course.

Socially instrumental phase and cognitive engagement

The second stage [in the social life of an online course] is one of community conferment or acceptance, occurring when students are part of a long, thoughtful, threaded discussion on a subject of importance

(Downing et al., 2007)

During the socially instrumental phase of an online course, students begin to interact more purposefully in the interest of learning course material, and (if the course includes group projects) they start working together on assignments. Here, the bonds that students have formed during the first phase of student-student interaction will become a part of how they meet the challenges of the course and achieve their learning goals.

two students working on online content independently
Phase 2: socially instrumental
and cognitive engagement

As such, continued student-student interaction throughout a course remains important for supporting emotional engagement. However, during the socially instrumental phase, student-student interaction begins to contribute much more to cognitive engagement as well. Well-facilitated student-student interaction activities create an opportunity for students to learn from one another, to share metacognitive strategies, and to indicate the value they are finding in course materials — all key considerations for heightening cognitive engagement with course content. Moreover, these student-student interactions provide important learning and growth opportunities for students to

  • have their perspectives constructively challenged,
  • challenge the perspectives of the course author and facilitator, and
  • encounter more variety with respect to activities and course materials, thus helping to improve focus and engagement overall.

Interaction withdrawal phase and overall engagement

one student reading a book and the other writing a paper
Phase 3: Interaction withdrawal
and deep engagement

The withdrawal phase of student-student interaction in a course might be the most surprising to new online facilitators — perhaps even alarming at times. Experienced online educators are likely to have recognized intuitively that in the final few weeks of any course, students' behavioural engagement with the discussion activities is reduced, with students participating less and appearing to interact with each other less frequently, as a general rule.

However, research suggests that a winding down of student-student interaction near the end of a course need not be seen as a problem.

Students take a pragmatic approach to [the withdrawal] process, disengaging when they feel they have all the information they need to complete the summative assessment tasks they are set.

(Downing et al., 2007)

In other words, some decline in student engagement near the end of a course may well indicate that students are accomplishing their primary learning goals and are shifting attention to the last assessments that will demonstrate their mastery. While they may change focus from conversation with one another to individual final projects, exams, and the like, the benefits of earlier student-student interaction for overall engagement in the course are likely to linger during this phase and result in better outcomes for all.


Brown, R. E. (2001). The process of community-building in distance learning classes. Journal of asynchronous learning networks, 5(2), 18-35.

Downing, K. J., Lam, T., Kwong, T., Downing, W., & Chan, S. (2007). Creating interaction in online learning: A case study. Research in learning technology, 15(3), 201-215.

Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Yukselturk, E., & Top, E. (2006). Reconsidering online course discussions: A case study. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 34(3), 341-367.