Discussing discussion

Interaction in discussion boards provides variable engagement in the online classroom. Too many rules tied to the grading rubrics encourage students to limit their interactions to what is required. Not enough structure in the prompt discourages students from responding at all.

To facilitate cognitive presence, the discussion prompt and expectations should be very clear. Ideally, the instructor will model appropriate responses. Even more ideally, there is learner support in place, perhaps a peer tutor, who can facilitate the discussion.

The instructor must also examine the rules in place for discussion boards. Telling students that they must post once and reply twice means that you will get little else. Creating more formative discussion boards improves the response. Rather than asking all students to post once and reply twice, consider pairing students to reply to each other. Research states that paired students are able to construct ideas together better than a group. The instructor must still read the posts and make sure everyone is participating.

The rules around discussion boards are often prescriptive and lackluster. Student performance will improve with better interaction.

Community of Inquiry meets Community of Practice

The community of inquiry (CoI) may be essential for teaching in a remote situation. How does this relate to the learning theory of the community of practice (CoP)? How do the teacher, social, and cognitive presences translate into the elements of the community of practice: the domain, the community and the practice.

I believe they work in tandem. The CoP assumes a practice that the CoI does not assume. The CoI assumes a cognitive presence that is only suggested by the CoP. The CoI framework is academic. The CoP framework is task based. In online art education, they work together. There must be inquiry, there must be cognition, but the learner and the teacher are collaborating to create, rather than only constructing knowledge.

The CoP framework encourages one to develop expertise in a community. It is first and foremost a learning environment, not necessarily an education environment. Participants collaborate around learning objects and boundary objects. The CoI framework does not formally address learning objects. IThe learner support presence in the CoI framework becomes a boundary object that moves the CoI framework into alignment with the CoP.

Learner Support as scaffolding

An properly designed and built online class contains a series or learning activities that are scaffolded to provide a path for students to develop their own knowledge. These activities require a teaching presence, a cognitive presence, and a social presence. What if they also contain, built into the scaffold itself, learning support.

Scaffolding in education is the act of creating learning objects that build on other learning objects. You learn addition before multiplication. You learn to write a sentence before writing a paragraph. Learning builds on itself.

In an online class, learner support could be part of the objectives. What if a learning object included an instruction to meet with a tutor and discuss the next objective. In this way, you are building in learning support. That objective met, the student would know that learning supports are available. The learning objectives of the tutoring team could include such things as :

  • Recognizes when to make an appointment
  • Understands how to make an appointment

Rather than duplicating what is taught in the classroom, the support is in the classroom with learning objectives that support a student in ways that transcend the subject matter.

Self Efficacy/Learner Support

The success of any online student is dependent on their own self efficacy. A student must be able to learn separate from other students and the instructors. A student must have some basic technological skills. A student must be able to locate the course syllabus, due dates, discussion boards. A student needs to be able to interact with the instructor and other students while remaining remote from all of them.

These requirements mean that students have some amount of executive functioning skills at hand before they begin. Few students start college with all those skills in place. Luckily, learner support can step in where those skills are not fully developed. However, students do need self efficacy in accessing learner support services. One way around that stumbling block is to provide learner support in the classroom, embedded in the LMS.

Put learner support in the place students learn.

Martha

Learner Support Presence

The Community of Inquiry Framework does not include all potential presences in online learning. One such possible presence is that of learner-support. Learner support is often mentioned in terms of embedded librarianship, but it goes beyond that. Tutors, supplemental instruction, advisors, academic coaches, counselors are all part of the learner support team.

While digital learning assumes a certain amount personal responsibility, but that is often a hold-over attitude from days of yore, when remote learning was very different. With schools developing online programs to save money and reach a greater population, they are bound to have students with a greater need for traditional support services.

For learner support to be present, there must be buy-in from faculty, from the instructional design team, and from the students. Administration must acknowledge the importance of providing learner support in the place of student learning — the learning management system or the remote classroom space. Without such an acknowledgement the support services are stuck in the past and cannot reach the students who need them.

The Cognitive Presence

How do we construct meaning through sustained communication?

The third presence in the Community of Inquiry Framework is the cognitive presence. This is, basically, thinking. As students, we create meaning through our reading, our communications, our actions, our activities. Not all students are prepared to bring a cognitive presence to the online classroom. Many things have to be in place before a student’s cognitive presence can be activated. If accommodations are needed, they must be in place and acknowledged by the instructor. If the student needs materials, they must be obtained before the class begins. If a student needs technological or academic support, those must also be in place. Only when the brain is ready and able to work will cognition happen.

But in online classrooms, it needs to go beyond the cognitive presence. We really need to be discussing metacognitive presence. A student in an online class must have the ability to learn to learn. If we depend too much on the student being ready for online learning, we will be disappointed.

The Social Presence

Theory of online education proposes three areas that must be present for successful education. The Social Presence, the Cognitive Presence and the Teaching Presence. The social presence is often encouraged by the use of discussion boards in a learning management system.

A standard practice is for students to write one post and then comment on a specified number of other student posts. Different rules pertain at different academies. Some institutions do not all responses until an initial post has been made. All of the rules are designed for assessment of discussion posts, rather than for encouraging a social presence. If social presence is the purpose of discussion board posts than the rules will have to change.

One idea that might improve the standard discussion board include breaking a large class into several smaller groups. My own experience with this is that unless all the discussion is done in the smaller group, most participants will do as little as possible in the small group. If the discussion emphasis is still with the bigger group, that’s where the energy will be directed. Students of all sorts are faced daily with cognitive load problems. Students of online classes have an increased load, merely due to the responsibility inherent in online learning. Unless your students are extrememly gregarious spreading the course effort into many different conversation puddles limits the effectiveness of all of them. One central discussion lake with a limited number of participants is preferred.

Online learning: What is missing

The community of inquiry framework for online learning indicates that three themes are essential for effective education. There must be a social presence, a cognitive presence, and a teaching presence. Each piece is required for a successful online experience. How those presences balance each other is determined by the designer of that experience. The teaching presence can show up as the designer, but also a facilitator of dialogue.

In Stodel, Thompson and MacDonald’s article from 2006, they discuss what appears to be missing from online learning. The themes they uncovered include robustness of online dialogue, spontaneity and improvisation, perceiving and being perceived by the other, getting to know others, and learning to be an online learner. Online dialogue can be frustrating if the balance of social/cognitive/teaching is out of whack. Students often feel that they are writing into a void. I have seen this in action in a startling manner. One student, uncomfortable with independent ideas, made a habit of copying discussion posts from other students. It would not have been so noticable perhaps, except they would copy even personal experiences. The student managed to continue this practice for over a year before any of her instructors caught on. Other students, however, warned each other. It was only the comments from students that brought this behavior to light. This is a demonstration of out-of-balance teaching presence. While this example is extreme, anyone who has taken on an online course could probably speak about unresponsiveness on the part of faculty or other students.

Face to face education includes body language that makes dialogue richer and more evocative. Online dialogue misses the physical element, the embodiment of meaning. Too often, online dialogue requires the use of emoticons or overly praise-ful responses, when in face to face interactions the conversation would be more organic and admit of disagreement.