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As universities around the world stopped delivering face to face classes, the nonintentional creation of many online digital learning spaces has led to much speculation on “best practices” for virtual course delivery. Our evidence shows that the highest educational value comes from optimizing the “social presence” of your classroom environment. Using data collected from an undergraduate political science research methods course prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, across 3 semesters at a large public university, we find by maximizing perceptual social presence - or the feeling that a student is actively engaged in a “real” classroom environment, students report greater satisfaction with their education, perform at a higher level, and have greater knowledge gains. Interacted with the course modality, the course performance impact of social presence is amplified for those taking coursework online versus taking it face to face. The limitation of asynchronous delivery adopted as “best practice” by many colleges is the substantial social presence deficit produced, and as a result, we recommend faculty and curriculum developers promote the intentional hybridization of asynchronous content with scheduled synchronous learning opportunities so that faculty and students can “keep it real”.


Originally published in PS: Political Science & Politics. 2020. Volume 54. Issue 1. Pages 182-183.