The Evolution and Influence of Social Presence Theory on Online Learning

Patrick Lowenthal


The theory of social presence is perhaps the most popular construct used to describe and understand how people socially interact in online learning environments. However, despite its intuitive appeal, researchers and practitioners alike often define and conceptualize this popular construct differently. In fact, it is often hard to distinguish between whether someone is talking about social interaction, immediacy, intimacy, emotion, and/or connectedness when they talk about social presence. Therefore, this chapter outlines the evolution of the construct of social presence in an effort to understand better its relationship to online learning.



Lowenthal takes a theoretical perspective on examining existing literature on online social presence. Social presence theory is explored both historically and its evolution to how the theory has shaped research on online communities. Lowenthal also takes time to explore how previous researchers have operationalized and measured social presence. The chapter ends with the author noting that while distance learning courses have not grown as quickly as first expected, online courses are enrolling more students each year. As such, Lowenthal argues continued research using social presence theory is vital to understanding how distance students are communicating.

APA Citation

Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). The evolution and influence of social presence theory on online learning. In S. Dasgupta (Ed.), Social Computing: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Application, (113-128). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.

About the Study

Links to Article
Mode Online
Publication Type Book Chapter
In Publication Social Computing: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Application
Type of Research Theoretical
Research Design Not applicable
Intervention/Areas of Study Social presence
Level of Analysis Student-level
Specific Populations Examined
Peer-Reviewed No
Specific Institutional Characteristics of Interest 2-year institution
Specific Course or Program Characteristics
Outcome Variables of Interest Academic achievement or performance, including assessment scores and course grades
Student Sample Size
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