Dynamic Conversations: Do parasocial relationships in online learning communities reinforce or reduce power imbalances between staff and students?


From our first edition of Dynamic Conversations: Learning Communities, Neil Sutherland CMBE and Rachel Williams of Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, explore how parasocial relationships in online learning communities affect the power balance between staff and students. 

The importance of engaging students through online communities has been bought to the forefront of attention in the last academic year, with many questions around how to bring students ‘in’; how to keep them engaged; and how to keep them connected to their programme, modules, staff, and friends (e.g. Valverde-Berrocoso, 2020; Rapanta, 2020).

The value of social media has been clear here, with literature discussing the significance of creating meaningful two-way dialogue (Rahman et al, 2019); active participation opportunities and student-led content (Chugh and Ruhi, 2018). Enacted effectively, practitioners have argued, social media has the potential to offer students a different kind of learning environment.

As the Programme Team on a large Undergraduate Business & Management programme (around 1000 students across four levels of study), we rely on social media channels not to ‘teach’ content, but to build communities and relationships: using the space to engage students, to provide reassurance, and to give them a sense of continuity throughout the academic year. In 2020 we received a 97% satisfaction score in the National Student Survey, with many qualitative comments relating to our social media.

However, our approach runs counter to the suggestions in literature, where instead of taking an interactive, two-way, dialogic approach, instead we build parasocial relationships. Loosely defined, this refers to the imagined close relationship that an audience member has with a performer who is seen/heard via remote communication technology (Horton and Wohl, 1956).

In the past, it has been used to describe how we may come to see celebrities and influencers as ‘real friends’ (Stern et al, 2007), who influence our perceptions of the world. Parasocial relationships result in people feeling as though the ‘other’ is talking directly to them, despite this being ‘illusionary’ (Houlberg, 1984). The emphasis on this in our groups came from necessity rather than design, because we consistently found that students were not forthcoming when encouraged to actively engage, but the content that gave the impression of conversation with students was far more popular. This included weekly rundowns, reflections, discussions on mental health, podcasts and office chats, which all featured the common characteristics of a presumed intimacy, optimism, openness, and an impression of interactivity and personalisation (Giles, 2002).

We wonder: do these parasocial relationships reinforce or reduce power imbalances between us and our students? To what degree are these relationships beneficial to student experience and development?

On one hand, we could argue that parasocial interaction creates a feeling of ‘safety’ for students – that they have the impression of us being ‘there’ and ‘with them’. Whilst this is more of a passive relationship, it means that all students can all see our humanness and personality in informal settings, not just those who chose to actively engage with us.

We have noticed not only an increase in the number of students who reach out to us privately (both in response to videos – for example discussing LGTBQ+ or Mental Health issues) but also that building rapport is more straightforward given that students have the impression that they ‘know’ us from our communications. To this degree it could be argued that we are reducing the power distance and imbalance between staff and student, and creating safer spaces for interaction on a more personal and informal level.


On the flipside to this however, it could be argued that we are promoting and rewarding a passive engagement with us and the programme and reinforcing dependency relationships. Despite this working well for issues of student happiness, comfort and satisfaction, it raises the issue of if we are running counter to more progressive modes of engagement that demand we find more innovative methods for encouraging active student engagement .

Of course, this also gives rise to the idea that in constructing an image of ourselves as ‘gatekeepers’ of the programme, of parental figures or all-knowing connoisseurs, we are in fact deepening the power imbalances between ourselves and our students (Taylor and Boser, 2009). We choose what to reveal and when, how certain narratives are constructed, and could even be seen as manipulative in constructing pseudo-participative relationships.

We outline these issues not because we have one-and-for-all answers, but because we wish to encourage reflection on challenges that educators face within online communities. The reality is that parasocial relationships represent a grey area – and we invite discussion on the matter. To what degree are these relationships preferable, or necessary in Higher Education? What can we learn from social media practice more generally? Is two-way dialogue and co-constructed learning the answer for all student/staff relationships?



Rapanta, Chrysi. Botturi, Luca. Goodyear, Peter. Guardia, Lourdes and Koole, Marguerite. (2020) ‘Online University Teaching during and after the COVID-19 crisis: Refocusing teacher presence and learning activity’ Postdigital Science and Education, 2: 923-945.

Valverge-Berrocoso, Jesus. Del Carmen Garrido Arroyo, Maria. Buros Videla, Carmen. (2020) ‘Trends in Educational Research about e-Learning: A systematic literature review (2009-2018)’ Sustainability, 12(12): 51-53.

Rahman, Shahedur. Ramakrishnan, Thisgarajan. Ngamassi, Louis. (2019) ‘Impact of social media use on student satisfaction in Higher Education’ Higher Education Quarterly, 74(3): 304-319.

Chugh, R. Ruhi, U. (2018) ‘Social media in higher education: A literature review of Facebook’ Education and Information Technologies, 23: 605-616.

Horton, Donald. and Wohl, Richard. (1956) ‘Mass Communication and Parasocial interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a distance’ Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 19(3): 215-229.

Stern, Barbara. Russell, Dale. and Russell, Cristel. (2007) ‘Hidden Persuasians in soap operas: Damaged heroines and negative consumer effects’ International Journal of Advertising, 26: 9-36.

Houlberg, Rick. (1984) ‘Local television news audience and the parasocial interaction’ Journal of Broadcasting, 28(4): 423-429.

Giles, David. (2002) ‘Parasocial interaction: A review of the literature and a model for future research’ Media Psychology, 4(3), 279–305.

Taylor, Peter. And Boser, Susan. (2009) ‘Power and Transformation in Higher Education Institutions: Challenges for Change’ IDS Bulletin, 37(6): 111-121.


To read more submissions from the first edition of our Dynamic Conversations series and join the conversation, please click here.