"[T]he social presence construct is somewhat problematic and requires further articulation and clarification if it is to be of use to future researchers seeking to inform our understanding of online teaching and learning." - Peter Shea, and Temi Bidjerano (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education, 55(4), p. 17.
There's been a lot of attention in online education circles to "presence" in the online classroom. Much of this is traceable to the "Community of Inquiry" model proposed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer in 2000, in which social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence are seen as essential attributes of online instruction. Social presence is reinforced online (e.g., in the Confer classroom) by using emoticons, seeding the chat room, injecting humorous remarks, greeting students, asking individuals for opinions, and so on. Teaching presence is reflected in direct instruction (lecturing), demonstration, lesson designs, feedback, focused discussion, and similar activities. Cognitive presence is "the extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication." This happens when the class collaboratively engages in problem-solving, brainstorming, exchanging information, exploring ideas, testing solutions, integrating new knowledge, etc.
Of course, this makes sense to online instructors in the Confer classroom (and anyone who's been following these blog posts). We've learned a lot about how to promote interaction and learner engagement by using smiley faces judiciously, inserting chat comments, and allowing students to write on our whiteboards. We can demonstrate how a well-designed Confer class session moves students from one concept to another and elicits their responses and understanding. And we're sold on the use of breakout rooms for collabative groupwork, application sharing to elicit interactive demonstration, and using the Confer toolset to maximize cognitive presence.
But presence is not all that's involved in learning. Getting students to interact with one another - and the instructor - are terrific ways to start the learning process. Reflection can be accomplished in a group environment as well. Talking to the instructor is essential. But there's an important element - instructional content - that requires individual learner engagement. Students have to read and digest texts, charts, data, practice exercises, notes, and subject matter in order to learn in most classes. Some of this can be done in the Confer classroom, but it's hard to imagine that all of it can. Every learner is unique, and individual intellects develop uniquely.
Knowledge is cumulative and community-based, and the interchange of ideas is vital to cognitive growth. So is critical thinking, studying, reflecting, assimilating, remembering, and practicing. Some of these are done together in the Confer classroom, and some necessarily occur in other contexts. But when they're allowed to co-exist, it's beautiful.