Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Dr. John R. Ray

Committee Members

Dr. Elizabeth Aversa, Dr. Edward Counts, Dr. J. Amos Hatch


Learning is a social process involving conversation, dialogue, and interactivity. Student-student, student-instructor, student-content, and student-interface interaction are considered integral to meaningful learning in both campus-based and web-based education (Moore, 1989; Hillman, Willis and Gunawardena, 1994). A review of the literature suggests that social factors are of increasing concern to distance learning researchers and practitioners. In particular, the concept of social presence has emerged as essential to comprehending the social context of web-based teaching and learning and to students’ overall satisfaction with a course.

The purpose of the study was to observe and describe the social environment of two sections of Information Sciences 530: Information Access and Retrieval, and to understand students’ experiences with social presence. One of the sections was taught in a web-based distance education format, using asynchronous and synchronous text-based chat and audio-conferencing software. The other section was delivered in a traditional, campus-based setting. Both sections were taught by the same instructor and covered the same material.

The study used multiple case study design within the framework of naturalistic qualitative research. Participant-observation, document analysis and interviews were used to obtain as much information as possible about the social environment and students’ interpretations of social presence. Once the data from each case had been carefully examined and themes identified, a cross case analysis was performed to generate more information about the relationship between social presence in campus-based education and social presence in web-based distance education.

In both sections the social environment reflected a myriad of characteristics, including the students’ and teacher’s previous educational experiences, values and attitudes, as well as interpersonal and intellectual exchanges between and among students and the instructor. The social atmosphere reflected students sharing knowledge and building relationships over time. Students in the campus-based course assigned meaning to social presence in terms of teaching, learning and connecting with fellow students. Participants in the web-based course experienced social presence as an awareness of fellow students based on their classmates’ ability to use and manipulate the technology and computer-mediated communication tools.

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