Tuesday, April 27, 2010

presence and the learning experience

I have been reading and thinking again about the concept of presence the last couple of weeks and how presence can be raised in an online (learning) site. It seems others are also interested in this as Clarence Fisher wrote this week about raising the level of trust in an online community, while Robert Squire discussed teaching presence.

What do I mean by presence, and why do I think that it is relevant to PLEs?
I found the ideas by Lombard & Ditton very helpful in getting my head around all different aspects of presence. They wrote an excellent article on presence and highlighted six views of it in web-based developments. Even though their literature review was carried out in the late 90s, their six interrelated variations are still valid today I think. They are:

1. Presence as social richness: The word presence as a medium ‘perceived as sociable, warm, sensitive, personal and intimate when it is used to interact with other people’ (Lombard & Ditton, 1997, p.4). Communications are expected to somehow express the ‘social, symbolic, and nonverbal cues of human communication’, which is of course difficult in an online environment. This form of presence is associated with ‘two important forms of non-mediated interpersonal communication: intimacy and immediacy’ in the form of body language through for instance smiling and eye contact, and also voice quality, choice of language, speech duration and laughter  (Lombard & Ditton, 1997, p.4-5). In this sense a medium high in ‘presence as social richness’ would convey a high level of intimacy.

2.  Presence as realism: Media that represent a realistic representation of people, objects and events also contribute to the level of presence. Television and film are media that try to do this. By creating a sense of reality  in the pictures they produce and create an experience that would be plausible in real life (Lombard & Ditton, 1997)

3.  Presence as transportation: Presence as transportation could take three forms: it could transport people or scenes from different times or different places to the here and now, it could move us to other locations or other time zones, or these two are mixed to a time and place where they are shared. The idea in this form of presence is ‘the degree to which participants of a telemeeting get the impression of sharing space with interlocutors who are at a remote physical site’ (Mulbach et al, 1995, p.293). This could be in video or film, or through videoconferencing.

4.  Presence and immersion: In this form of presence the participant perceives to be immersed in a virtual environment. This could involve not only psychological immersion, but also through the senses in for instance immersive virtual reality systems, games,  simulations, IMAX theatres wearing 3D-glasses.

5. Presence as social actor within a medium:In this form of presence a para-social interaction is created. This would entail for instance that ‘personalities use direct address camera views. . . informal speech patterns, sincerity, and simplicity . . .. In a parasocial interaction media users respond to social cues presented by persons they encounter witin a medium even though it is illogical and even inappropriate to do so’. (Lombard & Ditton, 1997, p.8). A heightened form of presence is created, where it seems that an interaction with the viewer or another person is taking place on the screen, while in reality this is not the case. Examples of these would be avatars, or examples have been highlighted of people talking to people on television screens (Lombard & Ditton, 1997)

6. Presence as medium as social actor: In this form of presence participants in the media experience will interact socially to clues provided by computer programmes themselves (not representations of people). It seems that people respond to computers as social entities, especially if there are associations in the activity with social activities in real life, such as education. Lombard and Ditton (1997) gave the example of people being more susceptible to praise by a tutor in an intelligent tutoring system if it was given by a different computer than when their own computer praised its own performance.

The main characteristic running through all six conceptualisations of presence is that of  an illusion of non-mediation.  In other words, there is a high level of presence when a participant in an online activity experiences the activity as if it was taking place in real life, without the mediation of the computer. Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) added some ideas on presence related to online teaching and learning in particular. They argued that deep and meaningful learning results if three forms of presence play a role in education. They highlight cognitive presence, that ensures a certain level of depth in the educational process, which could be compared to “intensity” as highlighted by Shedroff (2009) in developing web-based experiences and “Vividness” by Lombard and Ditton (1997) in the creation of meaningful online experiences. Anderson (2008) also refers to social presence, which would be similar to the social presence described by Lombard and Ditton, and in a formal educational environment that of a teacher presence. In PLE based learning the teacher presence is not there, but you could argue that there are knowledgeable others out there on the Web who might to a certain extent take on that role.

It seems that most important other factors related to presence are “sensory richness” and “vividness”, which was highlighted by Shedroff (2009) as important factors in enhancing online experiences in the form of “sensorial triggers” and “intensity”. The higher the number of human senses engaged in the activity, the higher the presence experienced will be. Lombard and Ditton (1997) argue that ‘visual media have more social presence than verbal (audio) media, which in turn have more social presence than written media. Particular camera techniques when using video can for instance enhance presence by using close-up views, direct address techniques where the person in the image speaks directly to the user, or by creating views through the eye of the user.

The level of interactivity was another aspect that enhances presence. ‘The number of inputs from the user that the medium accepts and to which it responds’ could affect presence and the level of experience, while the type of input by the user, ie. through voice, video, or button clicks, and the type of response received was also seen as an influence on the level of presence (Lombard & Ditton, 1997, p.18), in addition to the speed with which the medium responds to user inputs.  The number of people involved in the activity was  seen as another factor in the level of presence, while the content of the online presentation was  highlighted as a contributing factor  in the level of presence during online activities. The level of enjoyment and “fun” that people experience and a high level of immersion were also seen to have a positive effect on people’s involvement in  learning activities.

So the higher the level of presence, the higher the level of involvement in the online activity and the deeper the experience. The question of how to create presence in the design of a PLE is an important one as at the heart of PLE-based learning would be a high level of engagement and depth of learning. Thinking about the six principles that Lombard & Ditton identified and integrating them somehow into the environment might make all the difference to the experience the learner has while using a PLE.  The NRC research will certainly take note of them!