Students in online/distance education usually study alone at home. This makes socio-emotional aspects like interaction with peers and social presence in online learning environments essential, but also challenging. Although online learning environments (e.g. Moodle) are central to all learning activities, their design and affordances are rarely considered in order facilitate socio-emotional aspects. Here, we use a model (Weidlich & Bastiaens, 2017) based on the work of Karel Kreijns (Kreijns et al., 2013) as a guide help us design sociability. Extrapolating from ideas of ecological psychology, we suggest that certain design characteristics (i.e. social affordances) will make students more likely to engage in social interaction etc. We implemented three such affordances, realized through Moodle plugins.
In a pre-post quasi-experiment (n=143), students in the experimental condition found the environment to be more sociable, perceived more social interaction, felt more social presence and experienced a sound social space. There was no effect for learning achievement. What surprised us, is that awareness and engagement with these affordances was not related to the effects we found. Instead, students seem to have these more favorable perceptions independent of being aware of these features and independent of actually using them. What makes these findings interesting, is that our intervention was subtle; materials, activities, instructions were held constant. As a result, effects can be attributed to the small but meaningful changes we made in the environment that apparently affected socio-emotional perceptions (e.g. social presence) and increased satisfaction over a 4-week period. This supports the ecological approach of enriching the learning environment with social affordances to benefit the learning experience.