SOCIAL PRESENCE IN AN ONLINE ESP COURSE DURING ERELT: A CASE STUDY
Ivana M. Krsmanović, Vida Bicman
Faculty of Technical Sciences Čačak, Serbia, email@example.com
CAMPUS 02, Graz, Austria, firstname.lastname@example.org
Keywords: English for Specific Purposes, Social presence, Community of Inquiry, e-learning, ERELT
Social presence, along with Teaching Presence and Cognitive Presence, plays a vital role in establishing Communities of Inquiry and sustaining successful learning experiences in online teaching. The purpose of this study was to explore the role Social Presence plays within an ESP online course Business English 2 taught at the CAMPUS 02 in Graz, Austria. A mixed-methods research design was applied to this case study, which consisted of descriptive statistics gained from the CoI survey, and a class observation method conducted by the researchers. The data were collected through a Community of Inquiry questionnaire developed by Arbaugh et al. (2008), and a class observation method, followed by a Thematic Analysis. The results showed that Social Presence was successfully established in a Business English 2 course, as the instructor used a variety of both verbal and non-verbal clues that supported Social Presence, at the same time deploying technology in a meaningful way. The class observed during this research study can be taken as an excellent example of how e-instruction should be designed in an ESP course, but also in any other course that is delivered online.
Although online learning as a non-traditional variant of formal education has been established in academia for many decades now, it was only when the COVID-19 pandemic occurred that a full transition to online teaching was adopted in the majority of universities across the globe. However, the pandemic brought about additional changes in the way online teaching is designed and delivered, so a new term was coined to delineate the differences between “online learning'' and the “emergency remote teaching''. Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) is defined as “[a] temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances [...] for instruction or education that would otherwise be delivered face-to-face or as blended or hybrid courses” . Similarly, Emergency Remote English Language Teaching (ERELT) refers to English language teaching only, and is defined as a “situation of ELT during the outbreak of Covid-19” .
ERELT circumstances additionally drew our attention to establishing successful learning environments in which the learning experiences of both students and teachers are perceived as positive and/or beneficial. In that context, the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework  has been frequently applied to address the problem of reduced interactivity that usually occurs in the e-environment with an aim to improve the learning experiences of learners in online learning. Based on the Community of Inquiry (CoI) conceptual framework , there are three interdependent elements that need to be especially supported within the learning/teaching interactions: Social Presence, Cognitive Presence and Teaching Presence. All three presences create a synergy by which more rich-in-cues communication is accomplished. As it is well-known that Computer-mediated communication lacks spatial dynamism and limits emotional interaction, CoIs need to be designed so that they compensate for the said lacks or communication ambiguities. Social Presence (SP) is a key aspect of CoI which refers to how learners interact with others in the e-environment, and how they present themselves in the online setting in order to build engagement, collaboration and a sense of belongingness to the learning community. The Social Presence of learners is achieved “by projecting their identities and building online communities through CMC, despite its lack of non-verbal and social context cues” . As recent research suggests, there is a correlation between Social Presence and course satisfaction [4, 8, 9], so the higher the Social Presence, the higher the satisfaction. If the course satisfaction is high, the overall learner experience within a CoI is more successful.
Focusing on the instructor’s role is one of the crucial things in establishing Social Presence in e-environments. In other words, as online learning is not as rich a medium as face-to-face teaching and lacks verbal and non-verbal cues, the teachers' role in sustaining a Community of Inquiry with a high level of Social Presence is essential . Teachers and language instructors can enhance Social Presence in e-environments by applying different strategies and techniques in their communication approaches during the course delivery, in their choice of technology for language instruction, as well as in the course adaptations and design interventions they undertake [1, 2].
The objectives of this small-scale study were: 1) to assess to what extent the Social Presence was established in an ESP online course by the teacher's effort, and 2) to investigate the students' perception of their Social Presence during the ESP online course.
This study was designed as an exploratory mixed-method case study. The case study approach is usually used to investigate a person or a group over time in a particular context, and the conclusions can later be applied to other (similar) groups or people. A case study approach allows a researcher to include both quantitative and qualitative data and investigate a phenomenon through the actor's perspective, focusing on the behavioural aspects of the said phenomenon . The data were collected through a Community of Inquiry questionnaire developed by Arbaugh et al.  which was further validated by Yang and Su . Another set of data was gathered through a class observation activity. The data collection was conducted in May 2022. For the purpose of this case study, we have used the Social Presence part of the questionnaire only. The results were analyzed using SPSS software. The observational part of the research design (note-taking during a class held via MS Teams) produced qualitative data which were further analyzed by using the thematic analysis technique (TA).
In order to assess the instructor's strategies to establish and support Social Presence, we analyzed the notes taken down during the observation, and for the Thematic Analysis, we focused on three emerging and significant aspects that support Social Presence; verbal and non-verbal aspects of the teacher's communication and instruction, as well as the participants' use of technology during the session. The observations are listed in chronological order, i.e. in the order they occurred during the class.
Table 1: Class observation TA
Verbal cues that supported SP
Non-verbal cues that supported SP
Use of Technology that supported SP
1. The teacher established SP by a warm-up activity inviting students to answer the questions: How are you/Are you (un)well?/ What's happened since I last saw you? (students answered by talking about their daily activities, study routines, past events, etc.)
2. Towards the end of the first part of the session, the teacher asked ''How do you want your break?'' offering two break options.
3. The teacher provided instructions for interactions in the e-environment (use of emojis).
4. The teacher even used some singing to introduce a grammatical point that was to be taught.
5. The teacher praised students for their use of advanced vocabulary during speaking activities ('well-done, dear')
6. The teacher showed compassion for students who were recovering from COVID-19 ('hope you'll feel better soon'), and expressed concern for those taking exams soon ('have a good rest before the exam')
7. The sessions began and ended with warm welcomes/goodbyes.
1. The teacher's technical teaching setting is of a face-to-face quality (no blurred background, the camera is on, she takes a sip of coffee from time to time, her teaching space is a real room.
2. The teacher used a variety of non-verbal clues (drinking coffee, touching her hair while talking, smiling and gesturing while teaching grammar).
3. The teacher was present with her camera on during all 5-min pair-work or group-work activities.
4. The teacher opened/closed sessions with greetings/goodbyes in a higher-pitched, enthusiastic voice.
1. The teacher had announced a guest observer in an e-mail prior to the class that was observed.
2. Both the teacher's and students' cameras were on all the time.
3. Students used emojis/thumbs up as reactions/feelings to given tasks, as instructed by the teacher.
4. Breakout rooms were used for pair-work and group-work activities.
5. The teacher used a poll to decide what length of break students wanted to have.
6. The teacher used MS Teams chat, a Moodle-integrated Padlet and Moodle to collect students' answers to the tasks.
7. The teacher navigated MS Teams with perceived ease throughout all stages of the session.
8. Interaction was achieved through the use of breakout rooms for role-play activities. The teacher hopped from breakout room to breakout room to listen and comment on the activity.
As given in Table 1, all the activities performed by the lecturer during the observed class were adequate and well-performed, carefully designed to engage the learners and secure their Social Presence. All seven principles of good practice for the online environment  were successfully implemented by the lecturer's instructional strategies, and, based on the findings, a successful CoI was built into an ESP course due to the lecturer's knowledgable facilitation. The Thematic Analysis also showcased that the only non-verbal cues that we assessed as potentially negative or limiting in terms of SP enhancement, is the fact that students' avatars (account profile pictures) consisted of their initials only. It is highly advisable that they use real photos of themselves along with full names. This can be achieved by the official university policy/guidelines on the use of technology in classes and can be additionally encouraged by course instructors during sessions.
As for the demographic data, we were interested only in the participants' gender and the course they attended. The demographic structure of the sample was as follows: there were 74% of female participants, 22% were male, and there was 4% of the sample decided not to reveal their gender. All the participants completed a course in English for specific purposes (Business English 2) in the spring semester of 2022. The questionnaire was distributed via MS Teams Forms and distributed after the course was completed and grades published to students. The responses were gathered and further analysed using SPSS software and the descriptive statistic method, to calculate the means and standard deviation for the gained results. To assure the questionnaire's validity, we calculated the Cronbach alpha coefficient (0.79 for the whole scale). The mean value for the whole scale was 3.8841.
Table 2: Social Presence
1. Getting to know other course participants gave me a sense of belonging in the course.
2. I was able to form distinct impressions of some course participants.
3. Online or web-based communication is an excellent medium for social interaction.
4. I felt comfortable conversing through the online medium.
5. I felt comfortable participating in the course discussions.
6. I felt comfortable interacting with other course participants.
7. I felt comfortable disagreeing with other course participants while still maintaining a sense of trust.
8. I felt that my point of view was acknowledged by other course participants.
9. Online discussions help me to develop a sense of collaboration.
The findings given in Table 2 imply that, overall, students highly rated the Social Presence established in their ESP Business English 2 course, as all 9 statements were rated with the means above 3 (M=3.88). The highest score was given to statements 6, 1 and 8. In other words, the respondents reported having felt comfortable interacting with their peers, that they developed a feeling of connectedness to the group and that they felt their ideas and feelings were valued by other group members. The statement with the lowest score of all was no. 3 (M=3.26). This result suggests that students felt that online communication has certain constraints and is not the best possible medium for socializing, but that it could be accepted to a certain extent, probably in ERELT circumstances. To conclude, the CoI questionnaire results validated the hypothesis that the respondents perceived that the Social Presence in the ESP course was successfully established.
With the rise of technology and its impact on e-learning, online teaching and learning have become as common as face-to-face instruction. However, to enable a successful learning experience, the Community of Inquiry framework posits that three interdependent presences need to be established in an e-environment, Social Presence being one of the three. As indicators of Social Presence are open communication, group cohesion, and personal (affective) indicators, a lecturer is supposed to personalize their teaching approach and make it more real-like, by using various instructional strategies in their e-pedagogy that will establish and further nurture e-spaces as safe and welcoming places of collaboration, discussion and warmth. To increase the level of Social Presence, it is essential that the lecturer include humour and personal stories, and encourage the use of personal photos instead of avatars, and personal videos in which voices can be heard and uninterrupted camera stream during the lectures, among other things. When Social Presence is successfully established, learners can project themselves socially and emotionally, identify with the group, and communicate purposefully in a trusting environment. Our mix-method research study showcased that Social Presence was successfully established in the observed Business English 2 course, as the instructor used a variety of both verbal and non-verbal clues that supported Social Presence, at the same time deploying technology in a meaningful way. The online class observed during this research study can be taken as an excellent example of how e-instruction should be designed in an ESP course, but also in any other course that is delivered online.
There is an important observation that has to be pointed out here. The results of the thematic analysis are consistent with the data obtained in the questionnaire, as both the qualitative and the quantitative part of the research revealed that Social Presence was fully established in the ESP course. However, if it were not for the qualitative part of the research, we could not have assessed what the causes of such high values in the questionnaire were, so we could just hypothetically discuss what led to such high mean values. However, as the observation results provided evidence that it was due to the teacher's effort that the Social Presence was successfully established, we can strongly argue that teachers play a pivotal role in establishing Social Presence in e-environments, as significant as they have in any face-to-face instruction.
Undoubtedly, this might be additional proof that Social Presence and Teaching Presence are entwined and closely correlated, and that they should be observed and investigated in synergy, as a dichotomic phenomenon of Communities of Inquiry. Potentially, future research in this context might investigate all three presences and how they affect learning outcomes.
Finally, this study has implications for further informing ESP lecturers on how to successfully design CoIs when teaching language courses. The findings can also be useful for course designers and policymakers in terms of emphasising the significance of Social Presence in e-environments, as it is proved that Social Presence affects course satisfaction and improves overall learner experience.
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