Does social presence motivate learning?

By Natalia Matusevscaia, Instructional Designer at Ellicom

In Adam Waytz’s blog post 2014: What Scientific Data Is Ready for Retirement, he addresses Aristotle’s famous aphorism: humans are by nature social animals. Waytz puts some conditions to the interpretations of the aphorism. He does not deny the human need for socialization: rather, he questions whether being social is easy, automatic, or infinite. Would you agree with Waytz’s thoughts?

For me it all makes sense. We each build our own understanding of the surrounding world through socialization with other people. In the 21st century our happiness, life satisfaction, and professional success depend on connections with others.

All this is well described and explained in a fun and easy-to-read book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” written by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. I hear you saying, “People are different: not all of them need to be social” or “What about introverts? They are not very open to socialization”. Here is where Waytz’s idea comes handy. As a psychologist, he explains that humans possess “social brains” and “social cognition” which are vital for the development of social processes.  However, the social brain and cognition MUST be triggered before they do anything for us.

You may see these ideas just as scientific jibber jabber, but I am sure they are worth a closer look while creating online learning solutions. One of the most important practical questions for an instructional designer is how to create an atmosphere of social presence*using social brain triggers. Would you like a few tips? Here they are:

  1. Show who the learners are. You can ask them to write about themselves in a short bio, create their in-course learner’s portfolio, make a video clip, or share a 3-slide presentation about who they are.
  2. Provide opportunities to connect. Some activities may ask learners to find if there are other participants who share the same interests, create posts with great ideas to share, work collaboratively on the course wiki, or build groups to complete tasks.
  3. Make results visible. Leaderboards are great for visible results. Learners can use their avatar names if they wish. This approach to educational competition will create an atmosphere of social presence and encourage learners to strive for excellence.

*Social presence was first described in Isaac Asimov’s novel “The Naked Sun”. Today social presence is understood as “the degree to which participants in computer-mediated communication feel affectively connected one to another” (Swan & Shih, 2005, p115) and is recognized as one of the most important factors of an effective asynchronous online course.


Waytz, A. (2014). 2014: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

Christakis, N., & Fowler, J. (2009). Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives.

Swan, K., & Shih, L. (2005). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions.

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