Digital me in online learning

Numerous studies conclude that social presence is a key factor impacting students’ views about the quality of the online learning experience (Cobb, 2009; Poth, 2018). In this blog post, I look at some of the thinking behind this.

By giving students an opportunity to truly connect with the teacher and their peers instead of just watching a video and taking a quiz (as many online courses do) we make online learning a more humanised experience where students feel welcomed and supported (Spellman-Cann et al., 2016). Social presence tends to reduce stress and removes the “sense of isolation and remoteness” which is often felt in an online learning environment (Steckbauer, 2005).

But we all know that, unfortunately, social presence is not something that occurs naturally in an online learning environment by itself; it takes some effort to create realistic and meaningful social presence and human interactions (Akcaoglu & Lee, 2016).

Social presence is built by a student to be seen as real by others and that makes their digital identity. How can we help students build these online identities?

Digital me is the identity created by a student’s connections with the teacher/instructor, peers, external community and curriculum. These are essential interpersonal communications and relationships which develop a students’ ability to learn by sharing knowledge (Lu, 2017).

How to enhance:

Student – Teacher relationship

To help students achieve their fullest learning potential and be more engaged in the learning process, teachers should develop their teacher presence too: make themselves available to students to recognise students’ needs and create a positive and supportive teacher-student relationship (Poth, 2018). Teachers can create real encounters via Skype/Zoom, webinars, video conferencing, or online chat, by sending welcome emails or posting a welcome message on the course website, incorporating various ice-breaker activities, discussion boards with guided questions to encourage student and teacher interactions, posting comments and responses in a forum.

Student – Student relationship

Student to student communication is described as peeragogy by Rheingold et al. because students could potentially learn as much and even more from their peers as they can from the teacher (Rheingold, 2015; Spellman-Cann et al., 2016). There are various ways to provide opportunities for students’ online interaction and encourage sharing: students can discuss their ideas on forums, share links/images on Padlet walls, join study groups on Google Hangouts, record and share videos on YouTube, structure their tasks on a shared board in Trello, collaborate with Google docs, Wikis, OneNote, communicate via social media if it is relevant – Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram/Facebook.

Student – External Community relationship

Another benefit of learning online is the fantastic opportunity to create works for authentic audiences—for professional communities beyond the classroom. If students publish their work online, it will reach a much wider audience of specialists/experts in that field, or basically anyone who is interested in it (Spellman-Cann et al., 2016).

Student – Curriculum relationship

Enhancing the connections between a learner and teacher/peers and communities improves the student-curriculum relationship. Without these interactions, students can find learning experiences impersonal which leads to lower levels of engagement and participation in the course, potentially resulting in less effective learning (Kear, 2010; Poth, 2018).

Establishing a social presence and helping students discover their digital identities is always a challenge. We cannot control or even accurately predict the outcomes from connections and relationships established by students online, but it is exactly what makes their learning unique, engaging and authentic (Spellman-Cann et al., 2016).


Akcaoglu, M., & Lee, E. (2016). Increasing social presence in online learning through small group discussions. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(3), 2–17. doi:10.19173/irrodl.v17i3.2293

Cobb, S. C. (2009). Social presence and online learning: A current view from a research perspective. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 8(3), 241–254.

Kear, K. (2010). Social presence in online learning communities. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Networked Learning 2010. 10.3402.rlt.v22.19710

Lu, H. (2017). Sustainability of e-Learning Environment: Can Social Presence Be Enhanced by Multimedia? International Journal of Information and Education Technology (IJIET), 7(4), 291–296. doi:10.18178/ijiet.2017.7.4.883

Poth, R. D. (2018). Social Presence in Online Learning. In M. Marmon (Ed.), Enhancing Social Presence in Online Learning Environments (pp. 78-116). Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3229-3.ch005

Rheingold, H. et al. (2015). The Peeragogy Handbook. 3rd Ed. Chicago, IL./Somerville, MA.: PubDomEd/Pierce Press.

Spellman-Cann, S., Luong, E., Hendricks, C., & Roberts V. (2016). Social Learning in Online Environments. In W. Kilgore (Ed.), Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning. Pressbooks. retrieved from

Steckbauer, S. (2005). An analysis of Social Presence in Online Learning (Research paper for Masters Degree). The Graduate School, University of Wisconsin.