We are social beings: our need for belonging outweighs our need for dominance. Sharing with others and being part of a community is as fundamental to our development as it is to our survival. This social dimension is also the basis of our ability to learn, and the eLearning environment shouldn’t be a stranger to it. Quite the opposite, it is mandatory to understand its resorts and make it as dynamic as possible.

Promote the “person” dimension

Essential to the success of an online training course, the learner engagement involves several interacting dimensions: cognitive, behavioral, emotional and social or socio-emotional. While we looked at the first three in a previous article, we will explore here the latter. It deserves our full attention.

Firstly, because eLearning programs pose particular challenges due to, sometimes, lack of synchronicity, or the “face-to-face” interaction of learners with teachers/trainers, or even with their peers. Secondly, because we now know—thanks to neuroscience—that an individual’s development and learning path are strongly influenced by his interaction with his social environment. The authors of the study L’engagement et la persistance dans les dispositifs de formation en ligne : regards croisés go so far as to support the idea that engagement is the product of social learning, that it is in and through the interactions with peers, teachers, friends and relatives that the learners build their engagement, and that from this perspective, the online training programs must be designed so as to enhance the people dimension and to support the social construction of engagement (Molinari et al., 2014).

These observations are following the steps of socio-constructivism—an approach born at the beginning of the twentieth century and still present in education today—which postulates that in order to learn, we must communicate with others to test our knowledge, to receive constructive feedback and engage better with the content. This idea that sees learning as a dynamic process requiring interaction with others is also at the root of active learning, a semi-supervised and learner-centered method, where the learner must be directly involved in learning.

The part of the collective in the individual engagement

The objective here is not to advocate the adoption of collective learning, an approach where everyone works together to achieve a common goal – although it can also be adapted online. It is rather the social dimension of “individual” learning that interests us, the most common type of learning in online settings. Although the learners partly go their “separate” ways in this type of learning environment, their education still takes place in a social context. Firstly, because the learner interacts with the teacher (or trainer), whose presence and role is essential. Secondly, because learners also interact with each other, and these interactions—whether collaborative or competitive—help them learn, as well as develop a sense of belonging that fosters engagement. According to several researchers, including Vincent Tinto in Research and practice of student retention: what next?, this feeling of affiliation cannot only develop towards the group but also towards the training program as well as the institution that dispenses it. In the latter case, if the training is offered in the workplace, this feeling of affiliation is aimed towards the company.

Suggesting that the social dimension of learning should not be limited to a sub-dimension of behavioral engagement, as is often the case in studies, the authors of the L’engagement et la persistance dans les dispositifs de formation en ligne : regards croisés suggest that the time has no doubt come to consider that any task, even if performed individually, is also situated in a social context that contributes to its meaning and value (Molinari et al., 2014). By proposing a broader vision of cognitive and emotional investment to the social dimension, they put forward the following hypothesis: We can invest in the task, both cognitively and emotionally. Couldn’t we think that it is also possible to invest the Other or the others (the peer group, but also the teachers, tutors, professionals of the school), through different types of social groupings, cognitively and emotionally, whether it’ s a dyad, a small group, a class or a community (Molinari et al., 2014)?

Interact: yes, but not just in any way!

Several positive impacts of the social presence in online training were observed with regards to motivation, feeling of connection with peers, performance in the work and satisfaction of learners. Longitudinal studies have also shown that the feeling of collective effectiveness has a direct and greater impact than the feeling of self-effectiveness on the cognitive control needed to achieve the state of Flow, this state of optimal concentration in an activity that provides a feeling of immersion and well-being.

Several studies have shown that, in order to be effective, learner-to-learner or learner-to-teacher online learning interactions must meet certain criteria, including the following three: being meaningful, learner-centered and structured.

It is important to note that without the full participation of learners, there can be no interaction. The author of the study A theory of online learning as online participation defines this participation as “a process of learning by taking part and maintaining relations with others. It is a complex process comprising doing, communicating, thinking, feeling and belonging, which occurs both online and offline.” Moreover, in the Motivating Factors in Online Courses study, learners identified participation as the most likely factor to motivate them in online training programs.

“Significant” interactions

To be significant, an interaction cannot be reduced to an exchange of personal opinions. It must be of quality and meaningful. To be more precise, it must “stimulate the learners’ intellectual curiosity, engage them in productive instructional activities, and directly influence their learning.”

According to each of the learning theories on which it is based, the definition of a significant interaction can vary. If we stick to the commonly used social-constructivist theory, it must include a form of “sharing, negotiating, arguing, discussing, and perspective taking.” Several studies (Kehrwald, 2008; Dixon, 2010; Dixon, 2015) link, furthermore, the significant interaction with this feeling of having a “real” exchange with a “real” person.

The learner at the heart of the action … and the interaction

Continuing the idea of fostering meaningful interactions, there are some important areas of interest concerning learner-centered training, also known as active learning. At the outset, let us mention that Marcia D. Dixson, in one of her studies, has revealed that no type of activity, active or passive, seems to influence the level of learner engagement more than another. By “active” task or activity, for example, we refer to case studies, laboratories, peer research publications or online discussions, where active learning is an approach in which the learner must build his knowledge—guided by the teacher—through research situations, conducted especially as a team. In contrast, the so-called “passive” activities include reading, watching a video or answering a questionnaire.

The study points out also the multiple ways of optimizing interactions and engagement in online training: “Across many types of courses when students readily identified multiple ways of interacting with other students as well as of communicating with instructors, they reported higher engagement in the course.” Thus, planning and integrating access to multiple communication platforms into the architecture of a course is a valid strategy to consider.

Enhance initiative and conversation

In the publication Actively Engaging Students in Asynchronous Online Class, authors Shannon A. Riggs and Kathryn E. Linder warn teachers to approach online discussions as exams where all learners are required to answer the same question for which they are evaluated on the accuracy or completeness. This warning also applies to instructional designers since it is up to them to create the training program and to guide the teachers along the way. According to Riggs and Linder, it is rather “the effort, engagement, and participation, which admittedly are more difficult to assess. The value is the conversation as a whole, not the individual posts.”

It can be argued that it is difficult to evaluate criteria such as effort, commitment, and participation. The idea, however, has the merit of emphasizing the importance of providing learners with a space that values initiative and conversation. More generally, it also invites to think carefully about how to make optimal use of this type of interactive tool; Riggs and Linder speak of the need to re-imagine discussion forums as interactive spaces. On top of that, since most courses must include an evaluative component, there is nothing preventing the learners’ evaluation to be made in a classical way, but only after they have had a rich interactive experience in the course.

Finally, one interesting finding of the Motivating factors in online courses study revealed that “providing more communication and collaboration between students” and “every week assigning a student the task of managing course” would highly increase the motivation in an online course. Creating opportunities for students to assume more responsibilities in an online environment could increase the level of learner engagement.

“Re-imagining” the course architecture

To promote exchanges that are effective and “real” in online training, it is necessary to think the architecture of a course by setting up a structure and conditions that palliate the lack of physical and temporal references. This architecture must also optimize the interactive possibilities of online training, an asset that has the power to boost the social dimension, and even more so than in a classical face-to-face training.

In their article Actively Engaging Students in Asynchronous Online Classes, Shannon A. Riggs and Kathryn E. Linder suggest building an “engagement architecture,” a space that “creates a student-centered environment where meaningful actions can be taken by students, and where instructors can guide and respond to those meaningful actions, evoking student reflection on learning. Without such an architecture of engagement, it is easy to create an instructor—or content—centered course, where most of the learning is passive.” The architectural elements they propose touch on the social dimension we discuss in this article.

Modular architecture

Riggs and Linder suggest breaking up the training into several modules, including the instructions and material for the activities that are specific to each module. According to Riggs and Linder, it is more precisely when training is based on active learning that these “modular course structures encourage and even require student-to-student interaction on a regular and sustained basis.” This is explained in particular by the fact that the learners are not only better supervised but also that they benefit from a frequent reminder—each time they start a module—that the course has a structure and that their participation is an integral part of it.

For the learners to have a more tangible idea of the experience that awaits them and to begin to visualize the “physical space” of the training, Riggs and Linder also recommend that special care should be given to the presentation of the lesson plan and the course orientation.

A lesson plan ++

The lesson plan should define the communication policies, clarify to the learner what is concretely expected of them regarding commitment and participation, and explain the foundations of the engagement architecture. This document must also include a precise schedule of activities. Establishing a schedule that all learners must follow, whether to complete a module or to follow a specific activity, “encourages students to move through the course as a cohort.” In the same line of thinking, Marcia D. Dixson in Creating effective student engagement in online shopping: What do students find engaging? stresses the need to formally integrate group interactive activities: “Instructors need to create not just opportunities for students to interact, but the requirement that they do so. (…) Simply offering the opportunity, i.e., having an open discussion forum where they can (but are not required) to participate, is probably not enough.”

The teacher should also indicate in the lesson plan how his or her commitment will be reflected, in detailing the guidelines for the interaction he or she will have with the learners in the interactive activities, but also in the general communications. Clearly informing learners is a first step in the right direction to gain their confidence and encourage them to engage with the content.

In order not to strip the online training of the freedom and independence it provides and which are highly appreciated, it is probably wise to let the learners go at their own pace in certain activities. Interactive activities should, however, be subject to a fixed schedule to which all participants are invited, even if they divide the necessary time slot into subgroups.

The course orientation: showing the added value

As for the course orientation, it must capture the interest and make the learner grasp the added value. To capture interest, a presentation in the form of video or voice-over is probably ideal; and to demonstrate the value of training, it is important to explain to learners that “an architecture of engagement has been intentionally created for the course and that the use of active learning strategies is intended to assure a high quality, transformative educational experience equivalent or greater to face-to-face learning experiences, and to improve their academic success.”

Good use of the discussion boards

Let’s take a look at the discussion boards which, according to Riggs and Linder, are one of the main active learning tools for asynchronous online learning. To be effective, however, it must focus on the learner and not on the teacher, as described earlier in this article. The authors of Actively Engaging Students in Asynchronous Online Classes even propose to rename this tool “interactive space” or “engagement forum.” According to them, it is imperative to realize that “discussion boards are more than just places where students can share text with the whole class.” For example, Riggs and Linder suggest using them to ask learners to post a digital or digitized piece of art relating to a topic and then to reflect on what the creative work means or signifies.

As an alternative to the classical discussions launched by a question, the teacher could give in advance the guidelines and objectives of the work to be presented on the board, then open the interactive space at an agreed time. The authors recommend maximizing the use of media creation tools integrated into the learning management system (LMS), but above all to explore those—many and always more refined—that are offered outside the LMS. We must dare to think outside the box to discover the full potential of the discussion boards, and this applies to all tools of online training.

Learning socially

In light of these findings, it seems clear that the social dimension plays a major role in learning and engagement in online training programs. It cannot, therefore, be treated as a sub-dimension. Our deep need to build relationships, to nurture a sense of belonging and to exchange information is a powerful motivator. To boost learner-to-learner or learner-to-teacher interactions, it is not enough to open access to the usual tools designed for that purpose. It is necessary to question the use that one makes of these tools, to dare to discover new ones and to put in place the conditions necessary to the emergence of significant interactions. It is also essential to explain to learners the choices that have been made regarding design—or course architecture—to capture the added value to their learning path. By giving the social dimension the importance it deserves, we can make online training one of the most engaging type of learning.

15 points to keep in mind

  1. The development of individuals and their learning are strongly influenced by their interaction with their social environments.
  2. Social presence in online training has several positive impacts, particularly with regard to motivation, feeling of connection with peers, work performance, and learners’ satisfaction.
  3. “Individual” training also has a social dimension: any task, even if carried out individually, is also situated in a social context that contributes to giving it meaning and value.
  4. If one can invest a task cognitively and emotionally, it seems that one can also invest the Other or the others through different types of social groupings, cognitively and emotionally.
  5. The social dimension of learning is intimately linked to the emotional dimension, and the presence of peers helps to learn better—through collaboration or competition—in addition to nurturing a sense of belonging that fosters engagement. This feeling of affiliation can not only develop towards the group but also towards the training project as well as the institution that dispenses it.
  6. The social presence of the teacher is an essential component of effective online learning, but it needs to be deployed wisely to avoid counterproductive effects. The role of the teacher is to respond to the significant actions of the learners and to stimulate their reflection on learning.
  7. To be effective, interactions must be meaningful, learner-centered and structured. The so-called meaningful interaction is related to this feeling of having a “real” exchange with a “real” person.
  8. Although active learning is preferred, especially because it promotes social presence and commitment, so-called “passive” activities are not to be banned.
  9. Online activities should inspire learners to take the initiative, since getting more responsibility would be one of their greatest sources of motivation in online training.
  10. Online learning programs must be designed to value the “people dimension” and support the social construction of engagement.
  11. To establish an “engagement architecture,” focus on active learning, instructional designers should break up the training into modules, and pay particular attention to the presentation of the lesson plan and course orientation. It is also essential to integrate several communication platforms to which learners will have access.
  12. Full participation of learners is necessary for interactions. It must be required and not simply encouraged. In turn, participation would be the most likely factor to motivate learners in online training.
  13. The discussion boards could be a promising active learning tool for asynchronous online learning. Its use must, however, be reviewed, especially to offer learners a space that values the conversation as a whole—and not for each learner’s interventions. Learners should be invited to publish non-text content (visual, video, audio, etc.).
  14. Online training should further explore the many interactive tools available outside the LMS and offer other types of activities, such as presentations.
  15. It is therefore not only possible to overcome the lack of synchronicity and physical presence “face-to-face” specific to online training, but also to succeed in making this type of training and even more interactive and engaging option than the traditional training.

Linked to others by emotions …

To understand the social dimension of engagement in learning, we cannot ignore the emotional dimension, which is closely linked to it. As stated by Sherbrooke University professor and researcher Gerardo Restrepo in his article Émotion, cognition et action motivée : une nouvelle vision de la neuroéducation, emotion is (…) the central core that ensures the communication between psychical life and social life (Restrepo, 2014).

This interrelation is evident in this description of engagement in the context of serious play: The emotional commitment is also linked to the pleasure of making yourself understood, of being understood by the others (teachers, peers, parents) but also to the pleasure of sharing the pleasure of learning, discovering, creating, etc. (Molinari et al., 2014)

… and cognition

Although emotions are a powerful driving force of the learner-to-learner and learner-to-teacher relationship, the authors of L’engagement et la persistance dans les dispositifs de formation en ligne : regards croisés suggest that this relationship also has a cognitive dimension that is embodied in the mental representation that the learners have of their peers and teachers as well as the social group to which they are attached.

Defining the social presence

… Of learners

Kehrwald (2008) defines social presence as “performative, that is, it was demonstrated by visible activity; posting messages, responding to others, and participating in the activities of the groups.” Social presence, as discussed earlier, is the ability of learners to share more than “just the facts” and to feel they are communicating with real people in cyberspace (Kehrwald, 2008).

Also, when social presence manifests itself, learners feel that they communicate their emotions and attitudes and that they are in an interpersonal connection with others (Garrison and Arbaugh, 2007).

… Of teachers

The role of the teacher in this context is to respond to the significant actions learners undertake in the course and to stimulate their reflection on learning, specifically “guide student learning, provide feedback, serve up reminders, double back to reinforce concepts students have struggled with, and otherwise actively facilitate their classes.” As another author states: “Teaching presence is about course design and organization, discourse facilitation, and direct instruction.”

And since an online course typically has its unique architecture, it is up to the teacher to show learners how to navigate and interact with it, as well as the expectations they must meet (Shannon A. Riggs and Kathryn E. Linder, 2016).

While the social presence of the teacher is recognized as an essential component of effective online learning, it must be deployed wisely. It should be noted that a study on teacher-learner interaction in e-learning in a university setting found that too much teacher involvement in certain activities (for example, discussion boards) could decrease the learners’ participation…

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.