More on presence

This is the second part of a discussion on presence and its effect on learning and at some point will get round to answering the question asking what’s so special about the more immersive technologies if all technologies provide immersion?

First off, I think the discussion needs to create some definitions. This is what irritated me when I started looking at this, is that different terms exist for the same thing, and the same term is used to describe different things. There’s a run-down of the confusion in my thesis, where I might get a bit ranty about it. That’s at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/alumni/services/eportfolios/edrfap/doctoralstudy/childs_thesis_final.pdf pages 36/37 …so I’m not going to get into that again here. I’m not really wedded to these definitions, so if anyone wants to propose any others, then fine. But lets as a community try and come up with some we all agree with. The requirements are those with provenance, which are mutually exclusive and actually descibe something real.

In the last post I used the word presence to describe the sense of “being there” at a remote location, or in a virtual environment, which is how it’s often used. The problem is that there are different ways to experience presence, of which “being there” is only one. So we have one usage of the word “presence” which is nested inside another definition. I don’t know why this doesn’t seem to bother other people as much as it should. So … I’m suggesting we just use the word “presence” when we’re talking about this to refer to any and all types, and come up with another phrase (I’m going to throw in “mediated presence” as a suggestion) for the sense of “being there”. Mediated presence can be either distal presence for the experience of being at a remote (but real) location, or virtual presence if it’s computer-generated.

I talked about mediated presence a bit last time, and said that it’s probably equivalent to immersion. When we watch a movie we can feel like the world is real and around us. I remember watching a scene in a film at a cinema (Dead Calm) and a boom swung across the camera. Everyone in front of me ducked. For that moment they so felt that they were in the movie world that they thought the boom might hit them.¬† 3D is great, and is more immersive (I sat with my eyes closed for chunks of Avatar because it was making me motion sick, I don’t get that with 2D) but 2D is still immersive enough. There’s perceptual immersion, where our vision is fooled into thinking we’re there, and psychological immersion, where we’re so absorbed in something that we’re caught up in the fictional world. Both of those are mediated presence. I also don’t think that helps with education. I used to teach Film Studies, and trying to get students to take notice of the expressionistic chiaroscuro in film noir, for example, when they were¬† really into the story was much harder. Critical reflection is more important in those circumstances. If you want to enjoy it though, immersion/mediated presence is.

But other sorts of presence do exist, which have already been mentioned in the comments to the last post. One of these is social presence. Social presence (in my definitions) is what we project when we’re in an online enviironment about ourselves. It’s a combination of a lot of things. Our ability to use the technology is one (affordances of technology aren’t intrinsic to the technology, they’re a function of what the tech does and how those features can be made use of by its users). Our expressiveness is another. Our comfort with the tech and with our audience. Our experience. It’s also a function of others’ ability to perceive it. So we use an avatar or photo, we add a profile, with personal and professional information, we learn to use font for EMPHASIS, or italics if the interface permits it or emoticons :-p We can use other devices too if we’re familiar with them like <showing off> pseudo html to indicate mood </showing off> or hashtags #overdoingitnow to add the nuances that are missing from spoken words when we use text. The irony is, that now since text is such a familiar madium in which we convey social presence, it has become far more capable of conveying tone and subtlety and nuance, than the spoken word. If we choose to use those paratextual features that is. Those less fluent can still be confused by “those weird symbols at the end of the sentences”.

Social presence is probably the most familiar form in which the word presence is used in a face-to-face context. We talk about stage presence, or classroom presence, and although we all know what it is, it’s difficult to pin down though. Again it’s ability to modulate tone, it’s assurance, it’s confident body language. Advice on classroom presence I’ve read says that it comes from knowing your subject. In part that’s true, but I’ve covered up not knowing what I’m talking about more than once by just knowing how to sound like I know what I’m talking about. I’m sure this is why we have vivae in doctoral programmes. So the examiners can judge whether you’ve aquired that skill too, since it’s the one that’s the key one in being an academic.

Usually mixed up with social presence (and in fact people tend to use the phrases interchangeably) is copresence, or the sense that you are co-located with someone. A brief reflection will convince anyone that these are distinct things though. You can sit in a lecture room and feel the social presence of the person on the stage, but still don’t feel a connection with them. And the same can be true the other way round. The audience can be just a sea of faces.You are in the same place, but there is no connection. Copresence is the converse of the concept of transactional distance. Even face-to-face with some people, and hearing them wittering on about a range of superficial things and you can feel no copresence with them, sure they have a lot of social presence, but they might as well be a face on a TV screen for all the experience of making a connection with them.

I did some research on videoconferencing for JISC and SURF (114 to 123 in the thesis, or published in the DIVERSE Conference proceedings 2007/08 (Childs, 2009)). And asked the students about how connected they felt to the lecturer at the other end. The answer was basically that when it was just the lecturer talking, and the students didn’t feel they had any social presence themselves, then they didn’t feel part of what was going on. Although the lecturers knew their stuff, it became difficult for the students to concentrate on what was being said. Basically, if you’re teaching, working on your own social presence isn’t enough, you need to enable your students’. It’s only in combination you achieve copresence, and it’s in that where you really motivate your students.

Lots of online environments support social presence. Blogging does. VLEs do. You can project your online identity and get a sense of others, but where virtual worlds hold their own are in the opportunites to support copresence. You can put up 3D models on a website, and other people can look at them, but nowhere else can you experience walking around that model with someone else and have them standing next to you and talking to you while you do it.

I’ve looked a lot at how students experience these different forms of presence in virtual worlds, and for some, it’s difficult. They don’t get that sense of connection with the world, they don’t feel immersed. But if there’s only one thing they do get out of being in that environment it’s that sense of copresence with others.

There’s one other aspect of presence I think applies to people’s interaction with online environments, and that’s self-presence, or embodiment. But more on that next time. Also, why I think perhaps immersion/mediated presence is important in learning in virtual worlds, where it isn’t in other media.

Childs, M. (2009) The role of presence in learning in telematic environments, in M. Childs, L. Schnieders, P. van Parreeren and J. Oomen (eds), DIVERSE Conference Proceedings 2007 & 2008, Haarlem; InHolland University, 73 -85

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