Being part of something – having a sense of presence #activelearning

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The idea of ‘being’ is about presence and is central to an active learning philosophy. It reflects two things: personal identity and social presence in the learning environment. Lehman and Conceicao (2010) describe this as ‘being there’ and ‘being together’. Both relate to embodiment and the ‘ways of being’ that are projected by individuals and those with whom they associate: who we are, how we come to present ourselves, and how we are received. Fostering presence by paying attention to ‘being’ potentially counteracts “transactional distance” and feelings of separation and even isolation (Moore, 1993). Teacher presence, on the other hand, encourages co-operation, community cohesion, and public discourse (Zilka et al., 2018).

Sung and Mayer (2012) explain that presence refers to the extent that personal connection with others is felt, i.e. being noticed; sharing; interaction; identity.

As such, being and presence connect with both enactment and belonging (association). These ideas also relate to becoming and social connection making.

Being, therefore, is really about being part of something. This is different to having a sense of belonging which describes an affective state; that sense is an emotional response to whether we feel part of something. Being is more active, conscious, intentional and agentic, as in ‘being in the moment’, ‘being there together’, assuming and developing an identity, and experiencing identity as it is mirrored in acts that respond to or affect others. This understanding leads to the teacher considering the nature of interaction and the role of intellectual, emotional and intrinsic feedback; the latter being the feedback that is integral to the learning activity and environment. Teacher presence, thereby, encourages a climate of co-operation, community cohesion, and public discourse.

Being, as embodiment, is about experiencing and curating identity and so is related to learning as reflection; especially reflection in learning – that heightened sense of self-awareness, or self-feedback, which can be equally fragile or exhilarating.

Being, therefore, has great value to learning design. It becomes a useful lens for the academic who, in a student-centred paradigm, can monitor engagement in learning by evaluating the nature of an individual’s active presence: what evidence is there that the learner has bought into the activity or the course as a whole? For example, to what extent has the learner adopted the disciplinary attitudes, tools and language? How do they wear (sometimes literally) their emerging identity? How does the learner position themselves culturally – as an insider, or outsider?

On the learning space walks I organise from time to time I like to look in on labs: what do the white coats mean? What do the lab books mean? What do the half-erased marks on whiteboards mean? What does the smell of the lab mean? What do the burn marks in the work surface mean? What does the apparatus mean? We start to see that our experience of a space is situated within, not only a disciplinary knowledge and tradition, but a culture through enacted behaviours and common beliefs. Our being is part of that story. For me, as a former art student (painting and printmaking urban artefacts as symbols of our own experience) the paint on the studio floor, the smell of turps, and the miscellaneous noticeboards and debris of endeavour were as significant as anything I may have been ‘taught’.

I suggest fostering being as a dimension of learning should be the concern of every academic involved in designing learning activities and creating their learning environment. Developing a supportive communal learning environment that is attentive to student needs will improve the learning and teaching experience and its outcomes (Chickering & Gamson, 2000).

Authenticity is a key word in achieving this. I often use the idea of authenticity to refer to activities that reflect a real world context (e.g. Herrington & Herrington, 2006), however, here I use authenticity to refer to the viability of the learning environment itself as one in which learning activities, teachers and students are in tune: the situation they create exudes commitment and their actions are understood by all as an expression of being and communal presence. The learning environment is not primarily perceived to be an abstracted or ‘pure’ academic construct.

Being, presence and hybridity

Being and presence are particularly recognisable in spaces such as studios, labs, field trips, workshops, editing suites, maker spaces, and those non-formal learning spaces to which learners and teachers gravitate between times (e.g. stair wells, cafes, lawns, social media, perching seats, and water fountains, are a few of the many examples). Such spaces accommodate a high degree of personal agency within a social context while also adding value to the adjacent or the associated formal learning spaces. Together these spaces create a spatial ecosystem, and may reflect an urban metabolism (an idea I am exploring for a future post).

But what about the online digital domain that, on the face of it, appears sterile and ‘other’? How do we penetrate its veneer to reveal “the signs of distress, embarrassment, difficulties with the material being taught” (Zilka et al., 2018) or, more positively, to explore it as affinity space (Gee, 2005) or a space of learning friendship (Middleton, 2018), characteristic of social learning?

Well, if you’ve stumbled across my blog, I know you know that the online domain is equally a place of being. If nothing else, our reading or engagement with what we find gives the domain its life. Online media are intrinsically stimulating – we react to them, even if it is to leave them as quickly as we found them. But as with any learning environment, the online learning spaces we use have their functionality and inviting affordances (Withagen et al., 2017). And by the way, that is no different to any other space: space becomes place once it is experienced (space + meaning).

A hybrid, blended and unifying space

Like any other educational developer in higher education, my challenge since March 2020 has been to understand, make recommendations for, and develop practices and infrastructure for supporting learning across the physical-digital domain. How simple it is to say that!

All of a sudden our academics have discovered that they cannot ignore the significance of space and its relation to either teaching or learning. For example, our students freak out our academics when they turn off their cameras and microphones, becoming invisible (the assumptions about that invisibility can be explored in another post)! So many things we may have taken for granted have melted into air to reveal real insight! C’est ne pas une pipe!

Without exploring the detail of the Unified Active Learning model we have developed to understand the possibilities for engaging all of our students (however they access their learning), there are questions we need to ask: how can the academic designer create hybrid spaces in which a sense of being and a heightened sense of presence have a role? How do we epitomise that notion of authenticity in the ecosystem of personal environments that are experienced each time we meet our students, even when they are co-located temporally but not spatially? Or when they meet each other? How do we manage our own voices and encourage the voices of our students to populate the environments we create together? How do we foster learning cultures and identities in the connected space? Beyond enactment, how do we promote being and presence to ensure becoming and social connectivity follow? What are our ‘lab coats’ and unifying signifiers (Norman, 2013) in this hybrid space?

These are the sorts of questions the academic, as designer and orchestrator, needs to be answering for themselves. Zilka et al. (2018) observe that physical separation between teacher and learners in the blended space may lead to transactional distance. That is the challenge. That distance needs to be reduced by developing teacher presence and social presence. They make the following recommendations from their research,

It is preferable to create a learning environment that supports the learners
and is attentive to their needs and to the creation of an active learning community. It has been found that these factors greatly influence the process and the quality of learning in the course.



Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (2000). Development and adaptations of the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. In: M. D. Svinicki (ed.), “Teaching and learning on the edge of the millennium: Building on what we have learned”, pp. 75-81, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gee, J. P. (2005). ‘Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces’. In: David Barton & Karin Tusting, eds, “Beyond communities of practice: language power and social context.” New York: Cambridge University Press.

Herrington, A. & Herriington, J. (2006). What is an authentic learning environment? In Authentic Learning Environments in Higher Education, edited A. Herrington and J. Herrington, pp. 1-14, Information Science Publishing. Online at:

Lehman, R. M. & Conceicao, S. C. O. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching: How to ‘be there’ for distance learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Metabolism of Cities website:

Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining spaces for learning in higher education. Palgrave Learning & Teaching.

Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In: D. Keegan (ed.), “Theoretical principles of distance education”, pp. 22-38. London, New York: Routledge.

Norman, D. (2013). The design of everyday things: Revised and expanded edition. New York: Basic Books.

Sung, E. & Mayer, R.E. (2012). Five facets of social presence in online distance education. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(5), pp. 1738-47.

Withagen, R., Araujo, D., & de Poel, H. J. (2017). Inviting affordances and agency. New Ideas in Psychology, 45, April 2017, pp. 11-18.

Zilka, G. C., Cohen, R.,& Rahimi, I. D. (2018). Teacher presence and social presence in virtual and blended courses.. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 17. Online at:

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Active Learning, Belonging, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Studio and Studio-based Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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