Darrell A. Dromgoole, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Scott Cummings, Associate Department Head and Program Leader; Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Purposeful social interaction (PSI) is the second main component of purposeful interpersonal interaction. According to Powell and Kaline (2009), “Vygotsky would say that social interaction and culturally organized activities are necessary in the classroom for proper psychological development” (p. 246). Although social interaction often may not deal directly with the instructional goals of the course, this sort of interaction can help mold the learning environment (Gilbert & Moore, 1998). Muilenburg and Berge (2005) found lack of social interaction as the most significant barrier to online learning perceived by students and this sentiment can in all likelihood be also applied to Extension educational efforts. Tu & McIsaac (2002) found that social presence positively impacts online interaction and recommend that faculty promote informal relationships to achieve greater interactivity in their courses. In a study conducted by Jung, Choi, Lim, and Leem (2002), the group receiving high levels of social interaction had higher levels of learning and greater participation than groups receiving only academic forms of interaction. Finally, in a study of 97 students enrolled in online courses, Richardson and Swan (2003) found that students reporting high levels of social presence also had high levels of perceived learning and satisfaction (Mehall, 2020).
In light of this research, it is recognized that social interactions that are in some instances separate from the learning outcomes of the course are purposeful as well (Mehall, 2020). Berge (1999) supports this sentiment by stating, “Much of learning inevitability takes place within a social context, and the process includes the mutual construction of understanding” (p. 8).
An important consideration of purposeful social interaction is the concept of social presence (Mehall, 2020). Garrison et al. (2000) describe social presence as the ability of participants of the online environment to come across to others as real people and state that its primary importance is to indirectly facilitate the process of critical thinking and support cognitive presence. Garrison (2009) later updates this definition to include the ability of participants to “communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (p. 352). These definitions demonstrate that social presence is understood as a perception that directly results from interpersonal interaction and has influence on the learning process in academia and also Extension education (Mehall, 2020).
Social presence among participants in the learning process is often viewed as a prerequisite that must be established in order for instructional interaction and purposeful learning to occur (Garrison et al., 2000; Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005; Tu, 2000; Woods & Baker, 2004). In an Extension context this prerequisite allows learners to create relationships and recognize the course as a safe setting where purposeful interpersonal interaction can occur (Mehall, 2020).
Social presence is not always measured by the amount of social interaction that takes place in the online environment or improved by additional social interaction (Mehall, 2020). For example, in Tu’s (2000) study, social presence decreased when a group member participated too much or dominated the conversation. In a different study, Tu and McIsaac (2002) found that social presence positively impacts interaction, yet a high amount of participation does not necessarily equal a high level of social presence.
Northrup (2002) differentiates social interaction from content (instructional) interaction by stating, “Social interaction, on the other hand, provides opportunities for peers to connect in nontask specific conversation” (p. 220). A key difference between instructional and social interaction is that social interaction is more flexible and mutual than instructional interaction (Gilbert and Moore, 1998). Gilbert and Moore (1998) confirm that social interaction can improve instructional interaction: “Social interaction between students and teachers and between students and students can sometimes have little to do with instructional learning, but can still help to create a positive (or negative) learning environment…” (p. 30). Social interaction can have real, measurable impacts on student outcomes in the online environment. Quality and intensity of social interaction has been associated with increased academic achievement (Kozuh et al., 2015).
Tu and McIsaac (2002) elaborate on how social interaction relates to overall interpersonal interaction, stating, “By incorporating concepts such as building trust online, providing ‘handholding’ technical support, and promoting informal relationships, instructors can help provide greater interactivity within the online community of learners” (p. 147). The results of Swan’s (2003) study of 97 students in online courses demonstrated that students who reported higher levels of social presence in their online course also reported higher levels of perceived learning and satisfaction with faculty than students who reported lower levels of social presence (Mehall, 2020).
Social interaction must be designed into the beginning of courses, and when designed correctly, it can continue on its own without faculty stimulus (Northrup, 2002). Garrison (2009) states that social presence incrementally develops in the online environment and warns faculty not to overstress this interaction early in the course. An overabundance of social interaction early in a course may become a source of frustration for students and some may be unwilling to build deep social relationships early on (Mehall, 2020). For that reason, it is essential that Extension educators determine the appropriate level of social interaction (not too little and not too much) when beginning an online Extension series. Downing et al. (2007) identified a pattern of engagement for discussions in an online course that is characterized by a socially active phase (where promotion of social interactions by faculty is key to developing relationships), an instrumental phase (characterized by the assignments in the course), and then a gradual disengagement from the discussion, which may be similar to the process of social engagement and then disengagement that occurs in a face-to-face course (Mehall, 2020).
Kreijns, Kirschner, and Jochems (2003) describe two pitfalls many faculty make pertaining to social interaction. The first is assuming social interaction will occur just because the online environment provides tools (LMS or external) for it to occur. Kreijns, Kirschner, and Jochems (2003) give an example: “Just putting a forum in a group and labeling it ‘café’ or ‘lobby’ does not increase interaction” (p. 347). The second pitfall is restricting social interaction among students to strictly task contexts without consideration to nontask, socioemotional interactions (Mehall, 2020). Both academic and personal social interaction appear to be important to learning in the online environment (Mehall, 2020). It is therefore essential that faculty facilitate social interaction opportunities that allow students to develop trust, a sense of belonging, and social relationships, especially early in an online course (Mehall, 2020).
Immediacy. Immediacy in the online environment refers to “expressiveness, stimulation, and the conveying of feelings and emotions through online language” (Tu, 2000, p. 1665). Swan (2002) reports that one of the ways faculty and students attempt to develop social presence in an asynchronous online course where face-to-face interaction is limited or nonexistent is by deploying verbal immediacy behaviors (e.g., paralanguage, self-disclosure, greetings, agreement, etc.) through text-based communication. Response time and communication style were also found to be contributors to social presence (Tu, 2000).
The third and final main component of Purposeful Interpersonal Interaction is support, which is an important factor for any learning environment (Caliskan, 2009). Providing support in a variety of ways to students is something many faculty take for granted in the online environment because the face-to-face environment allows them to be far more agile and responsive to student issues. In the Extension online environment, clientele are separated by time and distance from the Extension educators and other clientele, so clientele issues have the potential to further isolate clientele and increase the transactional distance Extension educators seek to decrease. For this reason, it is essential that Extension educators provide supportive interactions to clientele, as well as find ways to facilitate support from various resources in the event that clientele needs assistance.
Student-interface interaction conditions that instructors cannot expect all learners to have the ability to interact with content, faculty, and their peers effectively without first ensuring that they can interact with the LMS, which is an important component of support in the online environment (Hillman et al., 1994). Providing support for navigating the LMS, either through tutorials, university resources (e.g., instructional design teams or tutors), or by request is an essential part of the online teaching experience, as other interactions cannot be successful if the student cannot effectively navigate the LMS.
Results from Northrup’s (2002) study reveal that support is an important consideration for successful outcomes in the online environment. In an Extension context providing support mechanisms can help mitigate the possibility of Extension clientele becoming frustrated and feeling isolated in an online course. Although the number of potential clientele issues are limitless, it is most important for Extension educators to be aware that they will occur and be agile and responsive in providing supportive interaction to those clientele.
Purposeful interpersonal interaction is made up of three components: purposeful interpersonal instructional interaction, purposeful social interaction, and supportive interaction. These interactions together make up the interpersonal interactions found in the literature that have been identified as important to student outcomes. While specific Extension online research is limited, academia has provided a robust body of literature that can be referred to.
Berge, Z. L. (1999, January–February). Interaction in post-secondary web-based learning. Educational Technology, 39, 5–11. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Zane_Berge/publication/246496634_Interaction_in_ post-secondary_Web-based_learning/links/5614987e08ae983c1b40a111.pdf
Caliskan, H. (2009). Facilitators’ perception of interactions in an online learning program. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 10(3), 193–203. Retrieved from http://dergipark.ulakbim.gov.tr/tojde/article/viewFile/5000102609/5000095706
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