The challenges of social presence and fast food

So I am nearly there – one week to go and I am still engaged with HumanMOOC. I don’t know if that is the same as “completing” the course to date – there are activities that can be completed to earn badges each week but I have not done them. This does make me feel a little guilty since I said in the survey at the start of the course that my goal was to earn the badges. At that time, I felt the badges were a proxy for getting through the whole of the course, but now I am in the course I don’t find them very important. I console myself with the thought that the whole point of MOOCs is that your goals should be very personal and it is up to you what constitutes “completion”. MOOCs, at least the good ones, blur the lines between formal courses and the various self-directed learning activities we do (such as reading, using Twitter, attending conferences). At least, that’s how I perceive them.

This week, we have been looking at the concept of “social presence” in online courses, which is  the ability for students and instructors to project themselves and perceive each other as real people, rather than lines of text or pixels on a screen. Contributors to the week have talked about fostering such presence using a whole range of tactics, including having their pets on camera, running discussion forums on personal interests such as sport and encouraging and supporting group work. Some of this may sound “fluffy”, but there is good evidence that it makes a real difference to outcomes. One study (Boston et al, 2009) analysed over 28,000 student records and survey results, finding a very clear link between strong social presence and retention. Online courses of all types have notoriously high drop-out rates, and this is clearly one of the keys to addressing it.

This is valuable stuff, but I see such a gap between studies and anecdotes like this and the reality “on the ground”. I have studied a Master’s degree online, taught several online courses, and know many others who have done so too. My experience, and that of those I know, is that only a minority of students engage socially, and many don’t engage directly with the tutor at all, despite all our best efforts. Group work is, in my experience, usually problematic in universities and even more so online. The “free rider” problem is endemic and huge resentment is caused when someone does not pull their weight. Of course, group work can be good preparation for the workplace, where most jobs involve working in teams, and “free rider” problems happen in the workplace too. But in the workplace there is a whole system of authority, rewards and progression, and someone who does not contribute to teams will usually get found out. In student groups, it is much harder to address the issue. Of course, one way of forcing group work is to make it part of a summative assessment, but that will hugely magnify any problems of resentment.

The fact is that a lot of students I observe don’t seem to want much of a social dimension to their educational experience. I have worked extensively in professional education, and still teach a bit in this area, preparing trainee accountants for professional exams. The focus here is very much on “instructor presence” as students interact with the teacher and the material but not much else. Sometimes I get classes to work in pairs or small groups, but with mixed success as students do not tend to be enthusiastic about it.

One of the introductory videos to our course featured an analogy that I think is very helpful here. Pacansky-Brock (2013) paralleled food and different types of educational experience. Some education is like a fast food restaurant – you go in and get what you want from a predefined menu, eat it and go, and that way you have fulfilled your objectives. Other education is more like a home-cooked meal with family or friends – much less predictable and you may find that the conversation over the meal takes unexpected turns. You may even be expected to help with the cooking or washing up. Let’s face it, though, going to (say) McDonald’s is a lot less trouble and effort than cooking and serving a meal.

McDonald’s is, of course, wildly popular all over the world, and I suppose it has its place. There are times when you need to learn something quickly and efficiently. However, it is much less nutritious than the average home-cooked meal and it will damage your health if you eat there too much. If I’m not straining the analogy too much, perhaps the challenge for educators is to convince our students to take the time and trouble to “eat more healthily” and put some work into those social connections.


Boston, W., Diaz, S., Gibson, A., Ice, P. Richardson, J. and Swan, K. (2009) “An Exploration of the Relationship between Indicators of the Community of Inquiry Framework and Retention in Online Programs”, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13 (3) 67-83.

Pancasky-Brock, M. (2013). Humanizing Your Online Class [online]. Available at:


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