Engaging students in online discussions can be difficult, particularly due to the anonymity inherent in the virtual environment and the lack of face-to-face contact. First, it is difficult for the online learner to communicate or assess motivation, intention, and tone of a post within a written format. Second, research on online presence, anonymity and professional communication behaviors suggest that it can take much longer to build trust in digital mediated learning environments. Student learners often want to know more about one another and provide personal examples that illuminate their learning. However, they are often reluctant to divulge identifying characteristics for lack of trust.   

 The community of inquiry (COI) model is an empirically supported framework for understanding online education as a community of learners who engage in reflective thinking and active discourse. The model identifies fundamental, overlapping dimensions to a successful online learning experience: teaching presence, cognitive presence and social presence (Garrison, Anderson, Archer (2010). Essentially, students who are most successful and satisfied in an online learning environment are those who experienced a connection to their instructor, a connection to and mastery of the content, and those who felt connected to one another (Garrison, Cleveland-Innes, & Fung, 2010; Majeski, Stover, & Valais, 2018).  

 Social presence describes the development of social interactions among the community of learners and reflects a productive social climate. Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, (1999) operationally define social presence as the evidence of  i) open communication, ii) affective expression, and iii) group cohesion. Trust, respect, belonging and cohesion characterizes a well-developed social space. 

 As an educator, licensed mental health counselor and registered art therapist, developing an environment where students feel emotionally safe to share deeply personal examples that illuminate connections to the content of a Human Development course was of paramount importance. It was my hope that by asking students to upload videos of initial posts, it would assist in demystifying the tone and intention of a learner’s initial post, decrease any defensiveness or misinterpretation of intent and establish mutually reinforcing relationships. Further, by humanizing the initial post, my hope was that it would encourage open communication, increase affective expression and facilitate increased group cohesion. Lastly, I wanted to remove barriers for students by using technology that met my goals but did not create frustration in the student learner. This strategy promotes professional and open communication and affective connections by putting “faces” to the online names of peer learners.

Step-by-Step Implementation

  1. Begin the course with a “Welcome” module. Here, I give detailed and linked instructions on how to record a Kaltura video, how to upload and embed it in a Canvas discussion post, and how to save the video for future use. I also include a video modeling these steps for the students. 
  2. Students participate in a low-stakes introductory video discussion board in which they introduce themselves to their peers. They receive full points for attempts made and have opportunities to ask me questions or raise concerns about the technology before higher point value discussion boards begin. I also model this for the students by posting an video introducing myself and welcoming students to the online space. 
  3. In each discussion board, I provide a written discussion prompt for students. I specify that they are to present their initial thoughts in a video and they can respond to peers in written format. 
  4. Respond to the posts. I have responded in both video format and in written dialogue to student discussion posts throughout the semester.   

 One of the things I have done in my online course, based on COI literature, is to have student’s video record their initial discussion posts, but they can respond to peers with a written response. The initial video post serves to increase social presence and limit online pitfalls of anonymity.  

When I first ran the course, I utilized several different types of video-based technology and gave a brief survey following each type to assess student satisfaction. Based on overwhelming student feedback the 1st two semesters I ran the course, I abandoned the Voicethread application as a discussion tool and returned to the Canvas discussion board (using embedded Kaltura video uploads for initial posts). I have found this approach limits misinterpretation (of tone, intent, etc.) of written posts by allowing students to hear and see the poster’s non-verbal behaviors. Kaltura also enables closed captioning, which enhances accessibility related concerns. I have noticed a drastic improvement in the social connectedness of students enrolled in each course since this switch.   


Students reported via course evaluations and mid-term surveys, to being more familiar with Canvas discussion board format. They reported Canvas discussion boards were easy to use and removed a significant barrier (the learning curve of using new and unfamiliar tech) that had previously existed when I asked them to use Voicethread. Further, with threaded responses, it was much easier for students to track and engage in the various discussion threads. Since implementing this strategy to improve social presence in the digital mediated learning environment, student evaluations of the course have been quite positive.   

While unintentional, this strategy has also proven to increase teaching presence in addition to social presence. Students have reported feeling “seen” “really known and heard” and “respected” by myself and by their peers.  

“I wanted to thank you for how well your course is set up. The informations [sic] learned in this course is remarkable and has helped me raise my son and be a better father. Thank you again for the comments you leave us, they are very motivating. I hope you have an excellent upcoming week!”