The affect of environmental web-design on student perceptions of social presence in online learning communities

Date of Award


Degree Name

M.A. in Communication


Department of Communication


Advisor: Anna Langhorne


The purpose of this study was to identify the affect of environmental web-design on students' perceptions of social presence and the development of community amongst small groups in an online course. The nature of online learning can be framed by many theoretical approaches, but two especially relevant theories have been utilized in this study: (1) Constructivism and (2) Social Presence Theory. Constructivism refers to the nature of human interaction and the emergence of shared meaning within groups (Delia, 1977). Social Presence Theory predicts how an individual perceives another during Computer Mediated Communications (CMC) (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976). Social presence is an attribute of the medium based on the user's perception of others' personality, intention, and communication in CMC. The environmental web-design features used in a learning environment may affect user experiences and interpersonal interactions, ergo affecting social presence perceptions of the medium. High social presence facilitates group dynamics that develop and aid in creating a sense of personal belonging and community amongst group members. In the present study, it was hypothesized that online college students utilizing individual identity presentations would have higher levels of perceived social presence than students in an online course utilizing group identity-presentations. To test the hypothesis, a 25-item questionnaire was developed. Thirteen items were adapted from the Computer Mediated Communication Questionnaire by Tu (2002). Data were gathered via thirty-seven participants who were placed into one of two conditions: individual or group identity-presentations. First, participants introduced themselves, and then they completed a group activity before completing the questionnaire. The social presence scores were compared between the individual and group identity-presentation conditions using an independent samples t-test. Results had homogenous variance and yielded a p-value of .35 (t= .94, df= 35); therefore, the null hypothesis was retained. Although results yielded no significance, there may have been mitigating factors such as participant attrition and the group activity design that contributed to the outcomes. Suggestions for future research on social presence and student interaction in online learning include addressing platform learning curves, time required for relationship development in online courses, and engaging authentic activity design. It is further recommended that activities be pilot tested for authenticity before being utilized to test social presence perceptions.


Web-based instruction Students Attitudes, Telematics, Interpersonal relations, Social role, Communication, Social presence, online learning community, constructivism, environmental web-design, e-learning, computer mediated communication

Rights Statement

Copyright 2014, author