Connections Before Curriculum: The Role of Social Presence During COVID-19 Emergency Remote Learning for Students

Suzanne Ensmann, Aimee Whiteside, Lina Gomez-Vasquez, Ronda Sturgill


This study examined the student experience (n=507) during emergency remote learning at a medium-sized private southeastern university during the COVID-19 pandemic, leveraging the Social Presence Model (SPM) as a guiding framework. Tensions were high at this critical time as students were stressed with financial burdens, supply shortages, overlapping work and educational schedules, and shared technological resources and physical spaces. Therefore, this study helps educators better understand students’ emotional needs and experiences during the March 2020 lockdown transition to remote learning. Specifically, examining the student experience in a time of crisis offers critical lessons about the importance of connectedness, online readiness, cultivating relationships, adaptability during transitions, and class interaction. The data revealed the depth of anxiety felt by students and suggests the need for increased empathy, communication, interaction, and flexibility from their instructor and course community to proceed with academic coursework, particularly for first-year college students. The findings elevate the importance of social presence as a literacy for learning in any modality, underscore the need to support the mental health of our students, and stress the urgency for online and remote learning readiness for current and future public emergencies.


social presence, connectedness, COVID-19, online learning, remote learning, online readiness

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