Social- and telepresence in online social learning

by Kamakshi Rajagopal, Belgium & Emmy Vrieling-Teunter, The Netherlands.

Online learning is increasingly becoming the norm within the world of education, partly accelerated by COVID-19. Although independence from time and place is achieved, it is at the same time more difficult to support the learning process because of transactional distance and of social distancing which give a feeling of isolation with negative consequences for social interaction and thus on social learning. Social presence as the degree to which the other person is perceived as ‘real’ in communication seems to overcome these adverse effects of electronic communication. In other words, social presence is about the ‘transportation’ of the other person to you. It is therefore important to explore necessary degrees of social presence and effects of social presence perceptions on online (social) learning processes and its regulation.

Future learning environments increasingly use virtual- and augmented reality thereby expanding the role of telepresence more prominently alongside social presence. Telepresence represents a set of technologies that allow a person to feel present in a distant place. It refers to the “transportation” of oneself to another (virtual) environment. However, it is unclear what the role of telepresence alongside social presence in online (social) learning is and how both presences reinforce each other.

Our Emerging Field Group (EFG) focuses on how perceptions of social- and telepresence are fostered in virtual learning environments (technological and social) and how these perceptions affect online (social) learning and its regulation. We not only mean to deepen our ongoing research in the field of social learning but also strengthen our international relationships in this area. Ultimately, we aim to develop towards an EARLI Special Interest Group.

During the two-year EFG period (2022 – 2024), we work from the steps of Educational Design Research (EDR). The first year was centred on analysis and exploration in which we jointly put together the research agenda. Currently, we are working with four guiding themes: (1) Human interaction; (2) Modes of communication: (3) Data driven regulation; and (4) Supporting technologies.

The analysis and exploration phase also involved inviting other researchers in the field of social presence and telepresence, culminating in an invited symposium for the EARLI 2023 conference in Thessaloniki (August 2023) where we discussed our ideas in a world café. The symposium was conducted around 4 topics of interest: Human Interaction, Supporting Technology, Data-Driven Regulation & Modes of Communication. The world café attracted +/- 30 participants from various backgrounds. The main outcomes of the discussions were:

  1. There is a need for sound foundational work on the concepts of social presence and telepresence in the educational context. Many participants expressed uncertainty on these concepts and how they influence a learning experience, especially with respect to other concepts such as group cohesion and sense of belonging. There is a lot of potential to bring clarity here from this EFG.
  2. With the emergence of virtual AI-supported agents that can interact in near-natural ways, one question was if social presence and telepresence are only important in Human-to-Human interactions or should they also be expanded into Human-to-Agent interactions. Here participants were very divided, as some questioned if we can really talk about social in Human-to-Agent interactions. However, as Agents are modelled on human interactions, it was clear that there is an opportunity for the EFG is to bring clarity here as well.
  3. Another question related to social presence concerned affordance and skill: do some tools allow humans to achieve more social presence just by their design? Or is it a skill of the person in achieving social presence irrespective of the mediating tools used? This is an area where the EFG could contribute.

The second EFG year is dedicated to phase two of EDR, focusing on designing and constructing our research ideas. We will do this together with our emerging community and use the knowledge available from a wide variety of experts (from both theory and practice) to bring the resulting ideas to realisation. From this perspective, we are planning the following:


Kamakshi Rajagopal, Independent Scholar in Educational Technology, Belgium

Emmy Vrieling-Teunter, Open Universiteit, The Netherlands