Social presence –the sense that others are ‘real’ and ‘there’– is a key variable in understanding interpersonal dynamics in online learning environments. As students are separated in time and place, social cues are diminished and communication is affected. This is particularly relevant for social learning scenarios like computer-supported collaborative learning.

Despite its relevance and decades of research, there are still many gaps in our understanding of social presence. In order to arrive at a more holistic understanding of social presence, it would be valuable to better understand how this experience fits within larger psychological frameworks. One particularly well-established psychological framework is Construal Level Theory by Trope & Liberman (2010). It posits that our mental representations of objects, events, and persons (i.e. construals) are affected by the psychological distance between us and them. As social presence experiences may be reframed as construals, it would be valuable to assess whether these two accounts are consistents with each other, in order to further develop social presence theory.

Schematic depiction of the main propositions arising out of the connection between social presence theory and construal level theory.

This question was investigated in a study entitled “Social presence and psychological distance: A construal level account for online distance learning“, authored by Joshua Weidlich, Jane Yau, and Karel Kreijns, published in Education and Information Technologies. Specifically, a vignette-based online experiment was conducted in which psychological distance was varied across three dimensions: spatial, temporal, hypothetical. These types of psychological distance are commonly found in online distance learning experiences. Levels of construal and social presence were measured as dependent variables.

In line with hypotheses derived from the synthesis of these accounts, the findings suggest that with decreasing psychological distance, social presence perceptions increased. This was relatively more salient for the Proximity dimension of social presence than  for the Awareness dimension. These results suggest that relatively common features of online distance learning induce psychological distance and, thus, negatively affect social presence experiences. From a more in-depth look at the unique effects of these distance dimensions, strategies to enhance social presence in practice can be developed.

Plot of four degrees of psychological distance (x-axis) against response to social presence items (y-axis).


Suggested citation:

Weidlich, J., Yau, J. & Kreijns, K (2023). Social presence and psychological distance: A construal level account for online distance learning. Education and Information Technologies.