Online Forum Among Distance Learners Education Essay

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Social presence in distance learning environment is the degree to which a learner feels personally connected with each other and to perceive each other as real people in an online learning community. One of the key factors that determine the successful of distance learning is the feeling of social presence in online interaction among the distance learners (Rouke et al., 2001).

Distance learning has been promoted as being more cost effective and convenient rather than conventional learning environments as well as providing opportunities for the learners to continue their education to the higher level. However, one of the major challenges of distance learning is the instructors and learners are in the difference places (Moore & Kearsley, 2005). Therefore, learners found that distance learning environments impersonal, resulting in low levels of engagement and participation and hence less effective learning (Kear, 2010). Students also felt isolated, dominated by other learners and anxious about presenting their ideas in public (McConnell, 2006).This feeling of impersonality can be characterised as a lack of 'social presence' (Short, Williams & Christie, 1976).

This issue is important because it affect learners' levels of participation, interaction and engagement in learning, also it give influence to their performance in learning (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000; Halter, Kleiner & Hess, 2006; Kear, 2010). Richardson & Swan (2003) found that high degree of social presence affects learners' perceived learning and increase their satisfaction in online learning experience. Besides, it may lead to a greater emotional satisfaction through a sense of well.

In distance learning, learners use multiple tools of text-based asynchronous communications such as bulletin boards, online forum, listservs, and email to interact with each others. Low social presence could be a particular problem in asynchronous tools due to the lack of body language, delays between messages, lack of visual and auditory cues (Rowntree, 1995; Kear, 2010). Social presence theory relates to whether the learners feel that they are interacting with the real people when they are online (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997), even though the communication is mediated by communication technologies (Lombard & Ditton, 1997).

Based on the social presence theory, social presence plays an important component in distance learning environment. Learners need to feel the presence of others in the groups and feel they are a part of their group to ensure the meaningful of learning. During the online learning process, they could develop a sense of belonging, social-emotional bonds, and good relationships among each others. We believe that social presence could increase students' involvement, satisfaction, interaction and perceive of learning in distance learning environment.

Therefore, the intent of this study was to explore the manifestation of social presence in online forum among the distance learners. The study is focusing on the following questions:

How do the students express themselves emotionally in online forum?

How do the students communicate interactively with others interactively in online forum?

How do the students initiate group cohesiveness in online forum?

Social Presence Measurement

This study used social presence measurement adapting from Rourke et al. (2001). According to them, there are three types of communicative responses to measure social presence;

Affective Response

Affective response refers to the expression of emotion, feeling and mood (Garrison et al., 2000). In online interaction, the capacity to express affective response is reduced as body language, facial expressions and vocal intonations are eliminated (Rouke et al.,2001). In computer conferencing, affective can be expressed in many ways such as use of emoticons, humor and self-disclosure (Kuehn, 1993; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997)

Interactive Response

Interactive response provides evidence that people are paying attention and involved in the interaction. It is includes interpersonal support, encouragement and acceptance of one another. It occurs when participants reply to a message, quote directly from the messages and refer explicitly to the content of messages

Cohesive Response

Cohesive response refers to activities that sustain a sense of group commitment. Rourke et al. (2000) defined the category by three indicators; phatics and salutations, vocatives and addressing the group as 'we', 'our' or 'us'. Phatics are defined as communication used to share feelings or mood of sociability rather than to communicate information or ideas. Phatics served to confirm ties of union and encompass communicative acts such as inquiry about other's health or comments about trivial matters. Vocatives mean addressing participants by names. The use of vocatives would establish closer ties between addressers and addressee (Eggins & Slade, 1997). The use of pronouns such as 'we' or 'us' to address group member would increase feeling of closeness and association among the participants.






Expression of emotions

Conventional expressions of emotion, or unconventional expressions of emotion, includes repetitious punctuation, conspicuous capitalization, emoticons

"I just can't stand it when ...!!"

"Anybody out there?"

Use of humor

Teasing, cajoling, irony, understatements, sarcasm

The banana crop in Edmonton is looking good this year


Presents details of life outside of class, or expresses vulnerability

"Where I work, this is what we do...''


Continuing a thread

Using reply feature of software, rather than starting a new thread

"Subject: Re"

Quoting from others' messages

Using software features to quote entire message or cutting and pasting selections of others' messages

"Martha writes:"

Referring explicitly to others' messages

Direct references to contents of others' posts

"In your message, you talked about Moore's distinction between ..."

Asking questions

Students ask questions of other students or the moderator

"Anyone can help me?"

Complimenting expressing appreciation

Complimenting others or contents of others' messages

"I really like your interpretation of the reading"

Expressing agreement

Expressing agreement with others or content of others' messages

"I was thinking the same thing. You really hit the nail on the head"



Addressing or referring to participants by name

"I think John made a good point"

Addresses or refers to the group using inclusive pronouns

Addresses the group as we, us our group

"Our textbook refers to ..."

Phatics, salutations

Communication that serves a purely social function; greetings, closures

"Hi all"

"That's it for now"

Table 1 Social Presence Measurement


A case study approach was used in this qualitative study. Document analysis technique was used to analyze the responses. The participants of the study consisted of five students who enrolled in distance learning programme in one of the public universities in Malaysia. Cecilia, Jee, Lee, Ong and Wong are Semester Four undergraduate students and taking the same course. They are chosen out of 40 students in their group by using purposive sampling. Distance learners at that university totally use online learning tool which is Learning Management System (LMS) as their communication medium to interact with lecturers and friends despite of face to face learning mode which held twice in a semester.

Data was collected from students' responses in the online forum in LMS. Researcher used the tool to collect data because all of the students have an equal access to use LMS and they have to participate in online forum in the LMS which contribute 5% to their examination marks. There are three questions posted by the lecturer throughout the semester and all of the students have to response to each of the question. When one student responses to a question, other students can response to their friends answer.

Researcher collected and coded all the responses posted by five of the participants as the data to explore the manifestation of social presence in distance learning environment. In coding processes, each response from the online forum was reviewed and coded according to social presence measurement adapted from Rourke et al (2001).


Themes in this study fells into three categories; affective, interactive and cohesive category. Within each of the category, data were coded according to the indicators and based on the description in the instrument. The findings are discussed according to the research questions and the indicators in each category.

Below are the examples of students' response in the online forum. Researcher gives numbers to each coded messages according to the numbers of indicators in the instrument and the numbers do not show any value or rank.

Examples of Online Forum and Coded Messages:

Re: Meaning of Reflection [4]

Posted By     :


Reply To       :


(Hi,) [12]

I agree [9] that the practice of reflection after teaching and learning process is very important for all teachers to assess themselves [5]

Indicators: [4] Continuing a thread/ [5] Quoting from others messages/ [9] Asking questions/ [12] Phatics, salutations

Re : Re : Forum 1 Answer [4]

Posted By     :


Reply To       :


Hi and 1 Malaysia [12] Nomme [10]. Thank you for your views [8]. Personally, I can say that most of the teachers do not do reflection after teaching and learning process. So, do not be surprised if we [11] see the teachers only refer to the text books to deliver content or just finish up the syllabus without looking at the acquisition of knowledge and the ability of students [6].

Indicators: [4] Continuing a thread/ [6] Referring explicitly to others' messages/[8] Complimenting expressing appreciation/ [10] Vocatives/ [11] Addreses refers to the group using inclusive pronouns/ [12] Phatics, salutations

Of the 202 coded messages, 112 (55.5%) were coded as interactive response and 90 (44.5%) as cohesive response. There was no affective response found in the online forum. The following results are categorized and displayed according to each category and indicator:





Expression of emotions


Use of humor




Total Affective Responses



Continuing a thread


Quoting from others' messages


Referring explicitly to others' messages


Asking questions


Complimenting expressing appreciation


Expressing agreement


Total Interactive Responses





11.Addresses or refers to the group using inclusive pronouns


12.Phatics, salutations


Total Cohesive Responses




Table 2

The top three indicators used the most across all the study were 'Continuing a thread' (Interactive Response) followed by 'Phatics, Salutations' (Cohesive Response) and then 'Vocatives (Cohesive Response)'. Students were required to start a new thread to answer the questions posted by the lecturer and they were also encouraged to reply to their friends' threads and discuss the responses. Students initiated phatics and salutations by greetings to others and say thank you at the end of the responses that posted by them. Students also addressed others by called his or her friend's name but most of the time they called their friends 'cikgu' to show their intimacy with each other. Furthermore, the students' names will appear automatically due to the software features when they click the button 'Reply'.

*[Q1] Question 1/ [Q2] Question 2/ [Q3] Question 3

Interactive Responses

Students were found to be interactively responsive in the online forum. There were 112 messages coded as interactive responses.

Indicator 4: Continuing a Thread

Replying a thread is a basic component in text-based interaction. In this study, the five students responses to their friends threads were counted and were coded under the continuing a thread indicator. There were 51 threads replied by the students. In average, each student replied ten times for the three questions posted by the lecturer throughout the semester. Example 1 and 2 show the case:

Example 1

Re: Microteaching [Q2: Cecelia]

Example 2

Re: Forum 1 [Q1: Ong]

Indicator 5: Quoting From Others' Messages

The students were also quoting other students' point of view. It showed that the students acknowledge the view given by earlier students when they have same opinion with them or they want to argue the opinion. Examples of the case are shown below:

Example 3

Reflection can help to identify strengths and weaknesses in teaching and learning also to improve the quality of teaching and learning. [Q1: Student A]

Reflection is not only to identify strengths and weaknesses in teaching and learning, but it also can use to plan, to improve or to enhance the quality of teaching and learning in the future. [Q1: Wong]

Example 4

Reflection is important to be implementing as a self-assessment to the teachers or to examine the strengths and weaknesses of themselves, also to make sure the learning objectives achieved. [Q1: Student B]

I agree that the reflection is very important to be implementing by the teachers to assess their strengths and weaknesses in teaching. [Q1: Cecilia]

As seen in the Example 3 and 4, Wong and Cecilia quoted the views given by Student A and B in order to state their point of view.

Indicator 6: Referring Explicitly To Others' Messages

Findings indicated that, great number of students in this study referred explicitly to the content of a message by not quoting them directly. The following Example 5 and 6 show the case:

Example 5

Besides, by doing reflection, teachers can change their teaching practices. They also can review and determine the alternatives for decision making to solve problems in teaching. [Q1: Student C]

Yes, I'm agreeing with you. Reflection can help teachers to see problems in teaching and learning process from different aspects. Teachers also can identify the source of the problems and the actions that can be taken to solve the problems, as well as they can know their strengths and weaknesses in teaching. [Q1: Ong]

Example 6

For me, I like to use demonstration skills, especially to teach preschool students [Q2: Student D]

Demonstration skills are suitable to use at preschool. With demonstration, students will be able to see with their eyes... [Q2: Wong]

Ong and Wong referred explicitly to the view given by Student C and D by not quoting directly to the earlier responses. By doing so, they acknowledged the view given by the earlier students and enable them to give alternative point of view after that.

Indicator 7: Asking Questions

Findings indicated that students in this study do not like to ask questions to others as only a few questions were coded throughout the analysis.

Example 7

What is your opinion? [Q2: Jee]

Example 8

What is the role of reflection in teaching and learning? [Q1: Ling]

Supposedly, students ask questions for getting to know what they do not know, to gather information and to request assistance, clarification or positive input.

Indicator 8: Complimenting expressing appreciation

The students were found to express appreciation to their friends view in the online forum. Therefore, the earlier students who give the opinion feel appreciated and could maintain their relationship even though they are in the different places. As seen in the examples below, Ling ang Wong said 'Thank You' for the responses given by earlier students.

Example 9

Thank you for your additional views about microteaching. [Q2: Ling]

Example 10

Thank you for your opinion [Q3: Wong]

Indicator 9: Expressing Agreement

The students supported one another in the online forum. Majority of the students express agreement to the previous view given by their friends first before gave their point of views. The following examples show the case:

Example 11

Yes, i really agree with your explanation. [Q2: Ong]

Example 12

I agree with the your opinion, but I want to add some definition about reflection through my reading from a book entitled Pedagogi II: Pelaksanaan Pengajaran written by Ee Ah Meng said that reflection is a technique of making careful consideration to all the actions performed by an individu. [Q1: Ling]

As seen in the above examples, the students used the term 'I agree' to indicate that they have viewed the opinion and support their friends' explanations before they start with their point of view.

Cohesive Responses

The students were found to be cohesively responsive in the online forum. There were 90 messages coded as cohesive response.

Indicator 10: Vocatives

Students also addressed or referred their friends by name when they reply to their friends' thread. Example 13 and 14 show the case:

Example 13

I strongly agree with Deng's arguments [Q1: Jee]

Example 14

Hi and I Malaysia Nomme! [Q1: Ling]

As seen in the above examples, Jee and Ling mention their friends' name, 'Deng' and 'Nomme' to create the awareness that they were recognized as members in the group. By doing this, their relationship become close too. But most of the time, the students enjoyed to call their friends 'cikgu' to addresses them as all of them are teachers at school.

Indicator 11: Addresses or Refers To The Group Using Inclusive Pronouns

Through the study, students used pronouns such as 'we', 'us' and 'our' to address themselves which can enhance feeling of association and closeness with each other. Examples below show the case:

Example 15

Due to the limited time for induction set, we have to plan it properly to make sure the learning objectives achieved. [Q2: Wong]

Example 16

But don't worry, as long as we try He would bless us. [Q2: Ling]

Indicator 12: Phatics, Salutations

Great numbers of the coded messages indicated that students use greetings such as 'Hi' and 'Hello' before starting their responses and 'Goodbye' to end their responses.

Example 17

Hello and good morning friends [Q1: Ling]

Example 18

Hi. [Q1: Jee]

As seen in the above examples, use of phatic and salutation in the online forum could appear a friendly mood among the students and enhance their social presence.

Discussion and Conclusion

This study was conducted to explore the manifestations of social presence among the distance learners in online forum. Document analysis revealed that of the three different categories of social presence, interactive indicators were represent the most, followed by cohesive indicators while there were no affective indicators found in this study. Learners were found to be interactively and cohesively responsive rather than affectively responsive. Hughes, Ventura & Dando (2007), Cook (2009), Shanti &Thayalan (2011) and Lowenthal (2012) were also found a similar result in their studies while Swan (2003) found that affective responses were used the most in her study.

In learning, learners should have more affective responses as it can contribute to their motivation and satisfaction in distance learning courses (Shanthi & Thayalan, 2009; 2011). Through the study, researcher found a bland relationship among the learners. There is a lack of expression of emotions, feelings and mood among themselves. Learners do not openly share their problems to others. Even though they are interact with each other through the text-based interaction which body language, facial expressions and vocal intonations are eliminated, but affective can be expressed in a number of ways such as use of emoticons, humor phrase and self-disclosure (Kuehn, 1993; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997).

Many practitioners of online communication advocate the use of member profiles so that they could know and learn each other better (Barab, MaKinster & Scheckler, 2003; Kear, 2010). The learners could set up a virtual community in their own way that allow themselves to get know each other better. This could include their general introduction, family photos, hobbies, biographies, resume and others. Therefore, the social presence in online interaction could be enhanced when learners disclose personal information about themselves (Shanthi & Thayalan, 2011).

Instructors also play a significant role in establishing social presence in distance learning environments. Even though the students are adult learners, they cannot passively monitor the learners' responses only, but should become active. So, the instructors can clear the issues raised by students and can close the discussion by summarizing the students' responses with positive reinforcement and expert advices. Wang (2005) found in his study that instructors should pay more attention to the social and affective dimension during the design n teaching of online courses rather than focusing on course material and technology template.

It would be beneficial to conduct further research by doing semi-structured interview to the participants to explore in-depth about the manifestation of social presence and to determine the ways to enhance social presence to ensure that a meaningful learning could achieve. The findings of this study also could serve as launching point for further investigation about how does the manifestations of social presence in online learning environment would relate to the manifestations of social presence in the real learning environment. Therefore, we can conclude that high levels of social presence could create a warm, collegial and approachable learning environment for all to involve.