Community of Inquiry

Student engagement may be harder to support in an online portion of a course because the chemistry of the classroom doesn't exist; information is largely verbal. With text, students can't see you smile or hear the passion in your voice. But even with video, the most brilliant lecture is flattened when it’s watched on a screen. Research shows that the longer an online video lasts, the more likely students are to stop watching. This is true even for professionally produced video segments. In addition, there is a delay between every communicative element, which can reduce the sense of immediacy and connection.

Research has supported a model of three key elements that create an engaged, powerful online or technology-enhanced course where deep learning and critical thinking are supported. This model is called the Community of Inquiry, and it consists of three elements:

  • Teaching presence, which refers to the development of a well-structured set of learning experiences, the active facilitation of the course through guiding discussion and providing formative feedback, and administering the class effectively.
  • Social presence, which involves the development of trust and connection with other people in a course; and
  • Cognitive presence, which refers to students' making meaning out of information, through interaction and reflection; it reflects higher order thinking and critical analysis.

To create a community of inquiry, courses must be designed around student activities. That is, students must be taking actions and getting feedback, sharing ideas, applying concepts and thinking deeply. Meaningful and collaborative learning activities are keys to engaging students, especially in online courses.

Create a Teaching Presence

The first step in creating teaching presence begins long before the term starts. The instructor must develop the course, which should be completed beforehand and should be available to students a week before the term starts. This involves much more than the syllabus. It includes:

  • Providing orientations to online learning, and the course;
  • Developing the syllabus, with interesting and applied learning activities throughout the course;
  • Developing detailed descriptions of all class activities and assessments, and rubrics used to evaluate students’ work; and
  • Curating and/or developing learning resources, such as text descriptions, articles, textbooks, websites, videos, and other materials.

One key difference between a correspondence course and an online course is the role of the instructor; she or he should be a constant presence, guiding learning, solving problems, answering questions, inviting deeper understanding, giving useful feedback -- in a word, teaching. This role is critical in online and hybrid courses. Although effective instruction involves faculty guiding students' exploration and learning, rather than being the "sage on the stage" who personally presents all information, the role of the teacher is critical to student success. 

To create teaching presence, the instructor must be engaged and actively guiding the class experience. Maintain your presence by:

  • giving timely formative feedback on work,
  • posting announcements,
  • guiding students from one section of the course to the next,
  • actively guiding asynchronous discussions,
  • setting up text chat or webinar sessions,
  • answering questions,
  • summarizing learning,
  • handling administrative problems, etc.

Instructor presence is one of the main factors that makes learning successful, and increases student satisfaction, engagement and learning. When students perceive that their instructor isn’t active or doesn’t care about what they do, they are likely to reduce their motivation in an online course. Unlike the face-to-face classroom, students cannot see you reading their work; unless you actively write or say something, they believe you are not present. You must regularly participate to create a sense of instructor presence.

Another tip to provide strong teaching presence is to avoid extensive communication by email. When you engage in email exchanges, you are very "present" to one student, but invisible to the rest of the class. Any issues that are relevant to more than one student should be shared in the class itself, rather than in email. While students may ignore a request to post questions in a "Course Q & A" discussion topic, you can encourage it by moving questions that are emailed to the discussion. Respond by email only to let the student know that you received the email and inform them where to look for the answer. Copy-paste the question anonymously into the course discussion. Respond by thanking or complimenting them for asking the question (e.g., "One of you asked an excellent question…"), and answer it. This will encourage students to use the course discussion areas, and reduce the time you spend repeating the same information.

Create a Social Presence

A strong sense of community is important to student satisfaction, participation, learning and even retention, regardless of the delivery method of the course. Although many believe that online learning results in a sense of isolation, it is not necessarily the case; there are many ways to create a strong sense of community among learners when face-to-face time is limited or eliminated. It can be created in many ways, the most common of which are discussions, group work, and other interactive learning activities.

Many online, hybrid or technology enhanced classes involve asynchronous discussion, or discussion boards, in which students post comments and respond to one another at different times. Many also involve synchronous interactions through chat tools (for simultaneous written communication) or webinars (for simultaneous verbal communication). Synchronous discussions create a strong sense of social presence, but are not ideal for all tasks. For example, in an online course, many students expect to work on the class at different times, and it may be difficult to find a time all can attend. Having a coherent discussion is difficult because taking turns is difficult to negotiate, which can result in chaotic and confusing discussions, particularly with larger classes. Technology problems may impede some students from participating.

On the other hand, asynchronous threaded discussion facilitates focusing on course topics. It allows shy or introverted students to participate fully, as well as ESL students and others who are less likely to volunteer in face-to-face settings. It allows discussion to continue for an extended period, enabling deep analysis that applies a wide range of ideas and resources to problems. However, it lacks the immediacy of synchronous communication, and generally does not have the richness of non-verbal information that webinars do.

There are many ways to increase the sense of community through effective guidance of asynchronous discussion. Some major approaches, as described by Swan and Shih (2005), are:

  • To model and support affective expressions, through direct expression of feelings, punctuation, using symbols and emoticons, as well as humor and self-disclosure
  • To support cohesiveness through references to the group as a whole, using student names and inviting social sharing;
  • To support interaction and personal connections through acknowledgements of contributions, expressions of agreement or disagreement, invitations to discuss, and encouragement.

Create a Cognitive Presence

It is challenging to support social connections through asynchronous discussion and simultaneously support higher-order thinking and critical discourse, because many students hesitate to directly criticize one another and instead make general comments about their personal beliefs and experiences. Thus one finds ubiquitous comments in online discussions: "Great point!" and "I agree!"

However, both higher order thinking and a strong learning community can be created by explicitly requiring students to critically examine ideas and support opinions with evidence. Research has found more critical inquiry occurs when students engage in debates and case analyses than in general open discussion of ideas. In face-to-face settings, "what do you think is going on here?" can produce an effective discussion; in an online setting, this would likely lead to frustration and limited learning.

Assign students complex real-world or realistic problems to resolve, typically ones that have no single correct answer. Such problems tend to be very challenging, so students should build up to them by learning concepts and terms, then applying them in mini-cases and then larger-scale cases, and/or by analyzing situations of failure. Complex problems can be broken down into stages that students complete, revise, and integrate over time.

Furthermore, analytical, application and discussion tasks should be defined precisely. This includes specific guidelines for the amount and frequency of interaction, and rubrics that include evaluative criteria such depth of analysis, critical inquiry, and application of concepts. If you let students know what your expectations are, they are much more likely to achieve them. You can provide clear roles and responsibilities for students, formally assigning the roles such as "respectful challenger" and "integrator."