Unit 1 Lecture: Building Successful Learning Communities

Return to Unit 1: Community Development in an Online Learning Environment

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“The interdependent social and economic demands of society necessitates that we learn to collaborate and collaborate to learn” (Garrison, 2017, p. 12).


E-Lecture, Unit 1: Community Development in an Online Learning Environment

A good course is one that generates enthusiasm, inspires reflective thinking, and forges a sense of community and shared goals between learners. For the purposes of this unit, we will focus on the sense of community that has been proven via research to foster positive learning experiences for online learners. Through your previous studies, you should be familiar with constructivist pedagogical principles already. In this unit, we will focus on a specific framework used to analyze constructivist learning: the community of inquiry. The framework is dynamic and can be applied across disciplines and age levels, and adjusted to meet the specific needs that a group of learners may require, which is critical in a rapidly changing world. It breaks down the collaborative constructivist approach to online teaching and learning into 3 interconnected and interdependent categories, each with sub-categories that adjust as a course progresses. “The Community of Inquiry framework identified the key elements of an educational transaction that could be studied in concert such that their interdependencies could be understood. This framework is not a static model but attempts to explain the educational experience from a process perspective.” (Akyol, Garrison, 2008, p.3). This is the lens through which we will look at the effectiveness of specific learner engagement strategies.

For a refresher on the concepts behind a CoI Framework, watch this video

Online learning environments require different strategies for success than face-to-face environments. While there are many pedagogical approaches available to instructors of online courses, the collaborative constructivist approach emphasizes the importance of engaging in activities that allow a learner to imbibe meaning via their experience with the material, then refine these ideas by collaborating with other learners by gaining their perspectives (Garrison 2011 p5).  This is important, particularly to online learning, due to it’s allowance for flexibility within roles of instructor and learner and it’s emphasis on the self-directed movement of information from knowledge to understanding via discussion.  These 2 ideas make this approach ideally suited for online teaching and learning as they work against the propensity of an online learner to absorb ideas unchallenged in isolation. “Research has favored applying constructivism learning theory to the design of instruction in learning objects and e-learning settings” (Koohang and Harman, 2005).

Garrison (2017), acknowledges the Community of Inquiry framework as being built upon 3 interconnected presences: Social, Teaching, and Cognitive. These presences seek to enforce and inform each other, which each holding importance to varying degrees throughout the lifespan of a course. Additionally, there are 3 dimensions held within Teaching Presence, which we will explore further in Units 2-4. As explained by Garrison (2017) and explored further in Online Instructional Effort Measured through the Lens of Teaching Presence in the Community of Inquiry Framework: A Re-Examination of Measures and Approach (Hayes, Shea, Vickers, 2010) the dimensions of teaching presence are recognized as design & organization, facilitation and direction. There are social, cognitive, and teaching responsibilities for the instructor within each of these dimensions.

While the three presences certainly are important, our focus in this course will be on Teaching Presence, and specific instructor actions that can increase learner engagement and satisfaction. In an article by David Annand (2011), he mentions a study by Diaz et al. (2010) that surveyed graduate and undergraduate volunteers across 4 US-based higher education institutions to gain an understanding of their perceptions of the three CoI presences. He states, “Their research made explicit the evolution of the CoI framework from one in which the three presences influence and interact to create the online learning experience (see Figure 1 above) to one in which teaching and social presences are hypothesized to causally affect cognitive presence, now considered the final measure of the online learning experience. Teaching presence is also considered to indirectly affect cognitive presence through its effect on social presence.”

This emphasis on instructor activities and communication serving to boost learner engagement is supported by research. In the study outlined in Graduate Student Perceptions of the Use of Online Course Tools to Support Engagement, King (2014, p. 11) states, “In the present study, students rated most highly ‘instructor feedback on assignments/assessments.’ Other features rated high by students were ‘email to and from the instructor’ and ‘access to grades.’ Students in the online environment may have felt that the feedback provided by the instructor was important to help them improve their performance on future assignments and tests and to help them understand the relevance of the assignment to their learning and career goals.” (King, 2014, p. 11). As you can see, in King’s study graduate students prioritized instructor feedback as the most important driver of engagement in their online course. In addition to that, Bolliger & Martin (2018, pp. 218-219) note in the conclusions of their study, “It is important to note that engagement strategies that support interactions with instructors were valued more than strategies that aimed at interactions with learning material and other learners. Instructor presence is very important to online learners. They want to know that someone 'on the other end' is paying attention. Online learners want instructors who support, listen to, and communicate with them. As some of the participants mentioned, they appreciate frequent updates from their instructors and want to have an instructor who is not only responsive but supportive.”

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Questions for thought:

Why is a sense of community important to fostering a positive online learning experience?

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What’s next?

In the next unit, we will cover design principles, strategies, and best practices to consider in the development of your online course to optimize learner engagement and satisfaction


Return to Unit 1: Community Development in an Online Learning Environment to finish the activities for this unit.

NOTE: You will find citations for this lecture on the Driving Learner Engagement in an Online Environment References and Resources page.


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