There are numerous technical tools that will help you engage your cohort during a virtual CO.STARTERS Session. But before you start watching YouTube videos to up your technical skills, begin by understanding and exploring social presence. 

Why? Because engagement won’t happen until positive social presence is developed within your group.

You may be asking, “What is social presence?” It is an individual’s awareness to one another, the sense of connection, and the social interaction that takes place during social telecommunication. Even though we have become much more aware of communicating with one another over virtual platforms, Social Presence theory was first developed and explored in 1976 in the book The Social Psychology of Telecommunications, where the authors defined Social Presence Theory as the ability communication media has to transmit social cues.

Social presence is very difficult to measure but it’s the type of thing that you know when you’ve got it! And if it’s not there, there is the feeling of not being seen, or heard—a feeling of being disconnected.  

There are more positive outcomes than just a warm feeling towards others when social presence is alive. Positive social presence between you, the facilitator, and each participant will have a direct effect on participant’s interest, engagement, and the retaining of material.  

You may think that the development of healthy social presence between each other happens during the virtual setting but it actually begins to develop before the sessions even start. Here are some ways to increase social presence and interaction with your cohort.

  • Send a welcome letter or email.  Begin the relationship by sending a welcome letter to the participant welcoming them to the cohort. You can also include a little bit of information but don’t overload it with a lot of instructions. Keep it welcoming.
  • Come alive in video. Create a video to share with the cohort prior to Session 1. Maybe include it as part of the welcome letter. Share some of your background, some fun facts, and even weaknesses or areas of vulnerability.  Share as much personal info as you feel comfortable. This will allow for human connection to begin to form.
  • Meet before Session 1.  If possible, take 5-10 minutes to meet each participant.  Open the conversation with something about yourself and then reference something from the participants application, e.g. “I see one of your favorite books is …”  Then just see if they have any questions. Keep it simple. Keep it pleasant and light. If the cohort has already started, offer one-on-one check-ins during the first few weeks of the cohort.
  • Encourage Faces This may make some nervous or uncomfortable, but ask each participant to post a short video introducing themselves or make it fun by having them share a fun fact, e.g. their favorite TV series or movie and why.  Also, encourage everyone to include a photo in their Might Networks account. These little things that allow for a “face to face” connection will help tremendously in keeping that human connection.
  • Make good use of email or posts.  Keeping connection alive between sessions with email or posts in Mighty Networks can be purposeful.  Use the CO.STARTERS templates and add your own content to make it more personable and relevant.
  • Facilitate with engagement Once you have taken steps to develop a social presence between participants, begin to explore the technical tools such as white boards, chat, Mighty Networks that can help keep the group connected during each session. Use various tools that reach people in different ways.
  • Add some final best wishes At the end of the cohort, send students a concluding remark and/or best-wishes. We all know the feeling of loss, or emptiness when the eleventh week comes and there is no scheduled cohort. Fill this space with an email that arrives the day the cohort would normally meet. Let the cohort know you miss seeing them and hope they are working on their next steps or other message of togetherness and support.

Hope these tips help you create a healthy amount of social presence between your participants. As facilitator, you will also benefit by knowing your participants better, and allowing you to speak more to their personality and interests. Relationships, after all, are the foundation of building community.