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Social Media in Higher Education

Chris Rowell

Part Three. Teaching and learning

9. Role of Social Media in Learning: Benefits and Drawbacks — How Social Presence Theory Explains Conflicting Findings

Paul Kawachi

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#Intermediate #Facebook


1Social media can play an important role in education. Its role in creating trust within a group is of particular importance. The face-to-face element in online education may be achieved physically in a classroom, or it can involve a social media platform which features a clear photograph of the student’s face. One purpose for the photo is to establish trust among the participants — just as witnesses must appear physically inside a courtroom to take an oath and give evidence. In this sense, where there exists no photograph on a social media website of the participant, or where the face is unclear or hidden in an image, the formation of trust may be impeded. A photograph is usually trusted since it is presumed that the physical person attended the place to get the photograph taken (although photo technology has eroded this somewhat). Likewise, a person may physically present himself at a faraway courtroom and use telephone or video technology to transfer trust to the required courtroom remotely.

2Social media provides the mechanics for conveying and constructing Social Presence. The shy introvert student can look through the webpages of other students, and then tentatively post their own personal information; this or that photograph, these ‘likes’ and those music favourites. Personal data can be posted gradually on a trial-and-error basis to explore how acceptable the data is to others (and immediately withdrawn if sensed to be outside the social norms of the group). In small safe steps, the introvert can thereby build up a socially-accepted online persona, through which she can interact with others online. In this way, the social media website can offer to the self-conscious outsider a mechanism towards becoming accepted by the community online. Once this has been achieved the group can move on together as a community and engage in collaborative learning tasks.

3The Transactional Distance Model — a four-stage Kolb-like cycle — can serve as a practical scaffold onto which Social Presence Theory can be positioned. The resulting model can then be used to explain why some empirical studies show that Facebook is associated with better quality learning, while other studies show the opposite. It is useful to understand Transactional Distance and Social Presence here, and a brief introduction to each is covered in turn in the ‘Methods’ Section, before looking at how well they explain the findings on social media in the next ‘Results’ Section.

4Social Presence through social media plays a supportive non-academic role in the early stages of the course to reduce anxiety and ease the student into the academic forum of ideas. However, one study has found the social aspects can be detrimental towards future learning (Cunningham, Corprew and Becker, 2009). Moreover, in an online environment using multimedia, Herrington and Oliver (1999) have found much less lower-order discussion and less social chat were correlated with more achieved learning. Additionally in an objective controlled study, Boling and Robinson (1999) found that there was some considerable trade-off (an inverse correlation) between distance students’ satisfaction with social aspects of the course and the actual quality of learning achieved.

5Tutors as well as the students themselves should be aware of the effectiveness of Social Presence and its implications for the initial stage of the learning process. Social Presence integrates the outsider into the target community, and there serves to reduce anxiety. In an extensive study, the number of forum postings, according to data from 3600 courses over 545 colleges reported by Young (2012), was 25 per term after self-introductions were required and posted, and only 9.5 per term where no self-introductions were made. A lack in student engagement has been attributed by Herrington, Reeves and Oliver (2006) to de-contextualisation. They argue that the student’s own perspectives must be brought in and Social Presence should be established early on for the group to take on collaborative learning tasks later as a team. Thus, there is a meaningful role for Facebook and other social media in education, but this is limited to within only the initial early stage.

6The correlation between social media and lower achieved learning is not yet determined as causative; in the ensuing confusion, some supporters of social media suggest that those who are weaker academically and who do not put in time and effort into studying tend to spend more of their free time on Facebook and other socialising.


7There are now more than 23 expressions using ‘presence’ in the published literature related to online distance education. These include social presence (author), institutional presence, teacher or instructor presence (Bouras, 2009), teaching presence, student or learner presence (Bouras, 2009), co-presence (Garau et al., 2005), learning presence (Shea and Bidjerano, 2010), cognitive presence (Garrison et al., 2000), transactional presence (Shin, 2002), virtual presence, online presence, Internet presence, telepresence, web presence, inverse presence (Timmins and Lombard, 2005), physical presence (Lee et al., 2010), mediated presence (Sood and Nevejan, 2012), emotional presence (Campbell and Cleveland-Innes, 2005), witnessed presence (Sood and Nevejan, 2012), natural presence (Sood and Nevejan, 2012), self presence (Lee et al., 2010; Jin, 2011), and absent presence (Gergen, 2002; Rosen, 2004). Many authors do not distinguish among these and refer merely to presence (for example see Waterworth and Waterworth, 2006). More than half of these were explored and discussed previously by Kawachi (2011). Only six of these expressions are discovered to be essential to the learning process: institutional presence, learner presence, social presence, cognitive presence, transactional presence, and teaching presence, are all positioned in a specific sequence on a scaffold framework of the learning process, based on the transactional distance model.

8The need for Social Presence is well recognised in online education — even in conventional face-to-face contiguous education, an online presence is considered by students to be an essential part of being an accepted group member. Facebook and other social media — including instant connectivity through Twitter, Instagram, Chat and other software applications — are currently used by almost all students, as well as by teachers and their institutions. The college administration may use Facebook to publicise itself to reach prospective future students, to announce events, awards, and even employment vacancies. Teachers may use it to rally students and to publicise lessons in a media that is familiar to their students, while students themselves may use it to share experiences with each other from both inside and outside the classroom. In all cases, social media acts to establish and foster connectivity in the education world. The problems begin to surface when the cooperative exchanges on social media fail to give way to academic collaboration.

9The Transactional Distance Model developed in online distance education, and Social Presence Theory, offer a rational explanation for the conflicting data on the use of Facebook and other social media in education. Both of these are related to and underpinned by Otto Peters’ Transactional Distance Theory, Peter Grogono’s Conversation Theory and Diane Laurillard’s Conversation Model, George Siemens’ Connectivism Theory, and Social Presence Theory. Briefly, the Transactional Distance Model (involving imposed Structure S and educative Dialogue D — shown in Fig. 9.1 below) sets out four stages in a learning cycle — first, a cooperative sharing stage; second, a collaborative rationalisation; third, a collaborative disjunctive reasoning stage; all followed by a cooperative experiential testing-out stage.

10In Stage 1, learning occurs in a group cooperatively, gathering and sharing information and fostering a learning community. Here synchronous-mode computer-mediated communications are best such as chat and conferencing. This Stage 1 can be characterised by self-introductions, brain-storming new ideas, divergent thinking, and helping each other with projecting content, especially in sharing personal experiences and past literature. The transactional distance initially is at a maximum (S- D-) with no imposed structure and no educative dialogue.

Fig. 9.1 Paul Kawachi, The four stages of the Transactional Distance Model (2018), CC BY 4.0

Fig. 9.1 Paul Kawachi, The four stages of the Transactional Distance Model (2018), CC BY 4.0

11In Stage 2, lateral thinking (creative thinking around the problem) is used to generate and develop metaphors (an idea or conception that is basically dissimilar but formed from noting similarities between the initial information and the new concept) or new ideas, and support these by argument. For example, students may discuss their own problem they have found which has brought them to participate in the current course, and then argue to identify possible solutions to each other’s problems. Creative thinking here may derive from combining seemingly disparate parts, especially ideas contributed from others in different contexts, into a new synergic whole. The teacher, in their academic capacity, is still keeping at a distance from the content under discussion, while the students are making efforts to achieve some pre-set goal (to present their own problem and their reasons for engaging the current course, for example) which gives structure to their discussions (S+D-). Some time is needed for reflection here, and asynchronous modes such as email and a bulletin board are effective.

12In Stage 3, the tutor engages the students with guiding comments in what Holmberg (1983) has described as a guided didactic conversation, helping the students achieve the structural requirements of understanding the general concepts to be learnt (S+ D+). The tutor poses questions and students defend their formulations. This Stage 3 is characterised by hypothesis-testing and logical thinking (termed ‘vertical’ thinking in contrast to ‘lateral’ thinking) associated with problem-solving, and is collaborative. The asynchronous mode is ideal here, to allow sufficient time for cognitive connections and the co-construction of new non-foundational knowledge.

13In Stage 4, the final stage, the course requirements have largely been already achieved and there is no structure left, except to disseminate the achieved mental ideas and test them out in real-life. This Stage 4 is characterised by experiential learning and is cooperative, and conducted at minimum transactional distance (S- D+), in synchronous mode, with no imposed structure and with educative dialogue to assist the student to reflect on her studies.

14These four stages of the Transactional Distance Model are summarised and shown in Figure 9.2 Stage 1 (S- D-) is at maximum transactional distance for the student; Stage 2 (S+ D-) is closer, as the student engages institutionally imposed structure; Stage 3 (S+ D+) is nearer to achieving the learning task, when some educative dialogue is now involved to help the student consider all possible alternatives; and Stage 4 is closest at minimum transactional distance where the student has adopted new knowledge and is testing this out to finally learn.

15Findings from a meta-analysis of telepresence for education can be easily visualized using this four-stage model as a framework showing the learning process.

16Social Presence Theory draws from a meta-analysis of virtual presence in education that suggests only six forms of presence are essential and occur in turn, purposefully within the educative process — (1) Institutional Presence, (2) Learner Presence, (3) Cognitive Presence, (4) Social Presence, (5) Transactional Presence, and (6) Teaching Presence. The six forms of presence are positioned (shown in Fig. 9.2 below) accordingly within the four-stage Transactional Distance Model process to facilitate learning.

17The lines in Figure 9.2 try to show the coverage of each form of Presence occurring throughout the four Stages of learning. Institutional Presence covers the top of the learning process including the Teaching Presence, but not totally enveloping the student who may have extrinsic activities and use non-academic support facilities including family support — so the institutional support along the top of this diagram stops short of fully covering the Learner Presence. Learner Presence then envelops everything in the learning process. There are then two distinct forms — Social Presence and Cognitive Presence — exercised by the student, and these two have different functions. Social Presence conveys the party face or human side of the student to others; reducing barriers of physical isolation, communicating shared frustrations with getting the technology to work, working to reduce state anxieties (and in some cases reducing trait anxieties too), helping to bring about initial learning achievements, and develop integrative motivation to learn. Holding hands with group members here can ease the transition into Stage 2 collaborative learning where students must question each other and themselves, which can be stressful. The following Stage 3 collaborative learning is more difficult in that individual ideas are suspended, subjectivity is suspended, and objective disjunctive reasoning is needed — so that Social Presence has no educative role. Any personal distractions or flashbacks to the early social chat is not germane to the task at hand and will be diverted to social support groups off-campus. Indeed, Social Presence can lead to lower academic grades (Cunningham, Corprew and Becker, 2009): ‘negative friends’ have been defined as those that distract a student away from the collaborative strategies needed for learning, and hold back a student from academic future achievements. Cognitive Presence also begins in Stage 1 to let others know where you are coming from cognitively, your reasons for taking the course, your relevant prior knowledge that you are bringing to the learning process, knowledge you want to pool with others to build some form of shared basis, and your preferred ways of learning. This Cognitive Presence continues throughout the course as each student continues to participate in sharing and co-building knowledge. Some interactional skills are needed in the collaborative learning process as outlined in collaborative scaffolds, and Transactional Presence then becomes important from early on in Stage 2 collaborative learning. Transactional Presence skills may be synonymous with the critical thinking skills especially in Stage 3 of disjunctive reasoning and problem solving, and these skills must be demonstrated for public assessment of learning in cooperative Stage 4 where one also learns oneself through experiential learning. So Transactional Presence begins in Stage 2 and continues through Stages 3 and 4 in this figure. Stages 3 and 4 need guided conversation with a senior student or with a teacher — preferably with many expert teachers, and these stages are characterised by having educative Dialogue (where the earlier Stages 1 and 2 did not).

Fig. 9.2 Paul Kawachi, The position of social presence in the educative process (2018), CC BY 4.0

Fig. 9.2 Paul Kawachi, The position of social presence in the educative process (2018), CC BY 4.0

18These six forms are summarised in Table 9.3 below — see Kawachi (2013) for details. Here the important point is that social media serves to facilitate Social Presence within the initial Stage 1 without any Structure imposed by the administration and without any educative dialogue from the teacher or from teaching materials, and carries the student into the Stage 2 academic forum where Structure begins. At this point, social media and Social Presence have no further role to play in achieving learning — except as non-academic support and possibly counselling. In any case the functions of social media are at this time best moved into an online chat-room, to leave the academic forum uncluttered and clear for academic collaborative interactions.

Fig. 9.3 Paul Kawachi, The essential kinds of presence in Online Education (2018), CC BY 4.0

Presence Definition
1 institutional The over-arching socio-cultural capital and academic reputation of the institution, its perceived fairness and opportunities, as well as its care and efficacy of contacts with the student.
2 learner The feelings received by others that suggest the student is at some designated place at some time, conveyed through mediated communications.
3 social A sense of camaraderie conveyed through mediated communications to others through sharing personal anecdotes, pictures, videos, audio and other media; connections suggesting shared interests, a fashionable lifestyle and friendliness.
4 cognitive The mental alertness of the student and awareness of others perceived (usually) by others, and carried by ideas and informed comments to the others through mediated communications.
5 transactional The perceived responsiveness and availability of the student to others, and feelings of connectedness received by others conveyed through mediated communications — not of only one interaction, but of sustained intra-related interactions with others.
6 teaching Environmental feelings received by students that some desired and effective academic guidance is available and occurring to help them learn, through mediated communications — whether by one or more humans or machines — extending beyond the expected support.


19There are no results here in terms of empirical findings for when forms of social media are avoided after the initial stage of constructing a social identity, to show that improved academic learning is achieved. However, the Transactional Distance Model has been extensively validated (Kawachi, 2005) in both online and face-to-face learning, and social presence has also been validated and even measured (Sood and Nevejan, 2012).

20The findings of this discussion suggest that the tutor and students involved should limit the role of Social Presence to the initial Stage 1 only in the process of learning. From Stage 2 onwards the collaborative learning forum should be kept uncluttered by social postings which could better be moved away to an online café or other more suitable space online. Social Presence can be measured, and its variations can be followed. Social Presence should be defined as involving the actors rather than the acting, i.e. the ‘who’ dimension consists of the teacher presence (not teaching presence), learner presence (not learning presence), and other-students presence. Some cognitive presence will then occur in the educative process to move the student from the initial Stage 1 through into the collaborative learning forum and other Stages 2–4 to achieve learning.

21The results here are at best a hypothesis for why Facebook and other social media have been associated in some studies with improved engagement and in other studies with weaker learning. While learning requires engagement, it does not follow that simply engaging will achieve learning — there needs to be effective cognitive reorganisation to bring about demonstrable learning. Given that Social Presence Theory can explain the conflicting outcomes using social media, further controlled studies are warranted. What is built is not so much a self-identity but a peer-negotiated acceptance. Any small misstep can be retracted and rebuilt to construct an online persona that paves the way forward for future interactions to foster and enable learning.


22The general usage of social media by colleges may be related to the increase of older adults enrolling, especially in open distance education. Older adults are well known to exhibit extrinsic social motivation to study (Kawachi, 2003), in other words they are motivated by the desire for socialisation, rather than academic interest.

23Teachers and administrators use Facebook and other social media to communicate administrative information to students, such as forthcoming meetings or examinations. Students with mobile technologies can be contacted at any time or place. However, most students already know details of upcoming examinations and these media offer a benefit only when there is an emergency (such as unexpected change in examination venue) and there is a need to reach a large number of students cheaply. Outsider perceptions of social media for augmentative and alternative communication can be high, but in reality they mainly offer cost efficiency; administrators still need to get a response from each student and log this. The efficiency of other technologies such as the iPad for enhancing communication is similarly over-rated by non-users (Allen, Jeans, Ball and Guarino, 2015). Achieving added benefit from using social media technologies requires their use to be well integrated into the learning system.


24Social media can ease the student transition into college life. New students can generally be expected to demonstrate academic performance related anxiety. There is therefore a role for social media to support having fun, especially for younger students who may feel isolated and without integrative motivation. The role for fun here is to reduce performative anxiety, which in turn leads to the development of a community of learning. Reduced performative anxiety allows for some achievement in learning. But in order for the student to move on to develop the instrumental motivations for deeper quality of learning as an independent learner or as a collaborative group learner, this social integrative motivation with social media needs to side-lined or otherwise dispelled. Sometimes a teacher could manage this by giving measured personalised advice to the student — even going so far as to give negative comments perhaps by overly correcting slight misunderstandings to prevent the fossilisation of the learning process, and having the student stuck in social media and Facebook.

25Colleges — particularly open universities — report stubborn high drop-out rates that recently are tending to increase. The increases over the past five-to-ten years in drop-out may be due to the increase in the numbers of marginal students not so well prepared for college studying. There are data for example from the Open University of Malaysia that tutor interventions can reduce this early drop-out rate. Such data suggests social media can help in the transition process to reduce the early drop-out rate among first-year students, but does not have any significant effect on the non-completion rate. The suggested role of social media is likely related to the socialisation process and the development of Social Presence. Further research is warranted into the correlation between the amount and type of social media usage and student drop-out rates.



Allen, A. A., Jeans, C., Ball, C. L., and Guarino, A.J. (2015). ‘Caregivers’ perception of the iPad’s utility for augmentative and alternative communication: A conflict between illusion and reality’, World Journal of Educational Research, 2: 1, pp. 39–43,

Boling, N. C., and Robinson, D. H. (1999). ‘Individual study, interactive multimedia, or cooperative learning: Which activity best supplements lecture-based distance education?’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 91: 1, pp. 169–74.

Cunningham, M., Corprew, C. S., and Becker, J. E. (2009). ‘Associations of future expectations, negative friends, and academic achievement in high-achieving African American adolescents’, Urban Education, 44: 3, pp. 259–79, https://

Herrington, J., and Oliver, R. (1999). ‘Using situated learning and multimedia to investigate higher-order thinking’. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 8: 4, pp. 401–22,

Holmberg, B. (1983). ‘Guided didactic conversation in distance education’, in D. Sewart, D. Keegan, and B. Holmberg (eds.), Distance education: International perspectives. London: Croom Helm, pp. 114–22.

Kawachi, P. (2013). ‘Online social presence and its correlation with learning’, International Journal of Social Media and Interactive Learning Environments, 1: 1, pp. 19–31,

Kawachi, P. (2006). ‘The will to learn: Tutor’s role’, in P. R. Ramanujam (ed.), Globalisation, Education and Open Distance Learning. New Delhi: Shipra,, pp. 197–221.

Kawachi, P. (2005). ‘Empirical validation of a multimedia construct for learning’, in S. Mishra and R. Sharma (eds.), Interactive Multimedia in Education and Training. Hershey, PA: IDEA Group, pp. 158–83.

Sood, A. D., and Nevejan, C. (2012). ‘Witnessed presence experience’, https://eit.

Young, J. R. (2012). ‘What a tech start-up’s data say about what works in classroom forums’, Chronicle of Higher Education,

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 9.1 Paul Kawachi, The four stages of the Transactional Distance Model (2018), CC BY 4.0
Fichier image/jpeg, 13k
Titre Fig. 9.2 Paul Kawachi, The position of social presence in the educative process (2018), CC BY 4.0
Fichier image/jpeg, 22k


Professor of Instructional Design at the Open University of China, with thirty years’ experience teaching in higher education mostly in Japan. Currently he works in materials development, teacher training and undertakes research at the Open University of China. He is a lifelong student with a wide range of research interests in teaching English and using learning technologies. He is the editor of the Asian Journal of Distance Education, and has published prolifically throughout the world in books and leading academic journals. LinkedIn:

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