My Zimbio

Monday, April 9, 2012

Exemplary Online Educators and a Community of Inquiry

The readings this week centered around best practices for educators in online teaching. Two of the readings (Garrison et. al., 2000; Perry & Edwards, 2005) discuss the importance of creating a “community of inquiry” in an online learning environment. Garrison defines three intersecting areas which create this community; namely a social presence, a cognitive presence, and a teaching presence.
Although the remaining reading by Liu et. al. (2005) examined actual practice rather than developing theory, the authors categorized instructor roles into four categories to determine how instructors interact with students and the learning environment. Three of the four categories, in my opinion, overlap the areas established by Garrison. The four roles listed by Liu were Pedagogical, Social, Managerial, and Technical.
The pedagogical role intersects with Garrison’s idea of the cognitive presence. The instructor interacts with the course to provide content and interacts with the students to facilitate learning. “The pedagogical roles of online instructors revolve around facilitating educational process for students’ understanding of critical concepts, principles, and skills. Such tasks include encouraging students’ knowledge-sharing and knowledge-building through interactive discussion, designing a variety of educational experiences, providing feedback, and referring to external resources or experts in the field.” Perry and Edwards (2005) focus on the cognitive presence of the teacher, examining three characteristics of online teachers within the cognitive domain. Exemplary online teachers were found to be challengers, affirmers, and influencers. These traits overlap well with the roles of feedback-giver and interaction-facilitator described by Liu in the pedagogical arena.
I feel that the courses I’ve taken with Dr. Aworura have had strong cognitive presence. Dr. A. does an excellent job of creating a “triggering event” (Garrison et. al., 2000) and facilitating students’ discussion and exploration of the topic to allow us to connect and apply new ideas.
Obviously, the social presence and the social roles of instructors overlap. Interestingly, although Garrison shows this to be of equal and overlapping importance to the other two areas in a community of inquiry, Liu’s report indicates that this area tends to be looked at as of less or minor importance by many of the online educators involved in that study. Liu cited lack of awareness of the importance of this role, concern about time constraints, and lack of technology as reasons for this apparent apathy toward developing a social presence.
In our program, I feel that great importance has been placed on the social aspects of our learning community. We take time at the beginning of each course to greet and get to know one another. Because of this, I’ve come to know many of my fellow students in a casual way and have a picture of them in my mind when I’m discussing course material with them. Our class discussions are strong, lively, and interactive. Students engage in “expressive but responsive, skeptical but respectful, challenging but supportive” (Garrison et. al., 2000) discussions where we encourage one another to think outside the box and dig deeper for understanding. I have enjoyed these exchanges and grown as a person because of them. Group activities have allowed us opportunities to work with one or more students in a closer way. Although the dynamics of asynchronous communication often complicate this process (and in some cases make it downright impossible), I have worked in several groups where we have had a great flow of ideas and have complemented one another’s strengths. This collaborative learning meets the goal specified in Garrison as drawing “learners into a shared experience for the purposes of constructing and confirming meaning.”
The teaching presence isn’t a perfect match with the managerial roles. Some of what Garrison defines as a teaching presence overlap more with the pedagogical role, but instructional management is a part of the teaching presence as defined, and the parallel is apparent. “When education based on computer conferencing fails, it is usually because there has not been responsible teaching presence and appropriate leadership and direction exercised” (Garrison et. al., 2000). The roles of conference manager and organizer and planner expressed by Liu are useful in establishing leadership and direction, but Garrison’s reference to building understanding may fall more into the cognitive presence.
In our program, I have seen Dr. A. establish and maintain a strong teaching presence. Even during my first couple of courses, when Dr. A. experienced a situation which took her outside the country into areas of limited internet connectivity, although she struggled to stay on top of all her teaching responsibilities, she was quick to respond to student messages, offered direction, and provided a well-organized environment and well-facilitated discussions. In contrast, I have taken online courses where the teaching presence was weak and where I felt isolated, like I was learning on my own. I do not feel these courses were as successful in stimulating my critical thinking skills, and I felt slighted, like I wasted my time in the class and could have learned as much without the tuition charge.
I work with teachers in other departments whose online courses amount to little more than “a correspondence course via email” (Roberts & Br anna n as cited in Perry and Edwards, 2005). These courses fail to establish any social presence, and the cognitive and teacher presences are limited. Students work in isolation on problems. Teaching is often limited to reading the text and completing assignments and assessments. Those teachers with a stronger understanding of the dynamics of online learning may offer multimedia support, additional offline resources, Powerpoint slide presentations of instructor notes, etc., but fail to establish any kind of community and do not facilitate discussion among students. It may be that the courses being offered do not lend themselves well to a rich online environment. I would be interested to sit in the face-to-face courses of these instructors to find out if their traditional classrooms are focused on lecture and also lack discussion and student interaction.
The only area discussed by Liu for which there was not a parallel described in the Garrison model is the technical role. This role also lacks a parallel in traditional education. Educators have been asked to fill a role for which they are under-qualified and unpaid. This is an unfortunate side-effect of online learning. Even under the best of circumstances with well-designed courses on robust learning platforms, students and teachers can experience technical difficulties beyond their control. Operating system and browser incompatibility, problems with plug-ins, viruses, and scheduled or unscheduled server shut-down can interrupt the flow of an online course, prevent the instructor from using powerful tools, and wreak havoc with student access. When students lack the skills necessary to troubleshoot their problems, the teacher is forced into the role of technical support and often has to try and resolve student issues, redirect their inquiries, or find a work-around solution. In a small college like A&M Texarkana, there may be a lack of funds or resources to provide actual technical support staff. In future definitions of exemplary online educators, there may be a greater emphasis placed on the instructor’s ability to support the students with technical problems, although I do not feel this should ever become a routine part of their job description.


Garrison, D. Randy, Anderson, Terry, and Archer, Walter (2000). Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education 2(2-3). Elsevier Science Inc.
Liu, Xiaojing, Bonk, Curt, Magjuka, Richard, Lee, Seung-hee, and Su, Bude (2005). Exploring Four Dimensions of Online Instructor Roles: A Program Level Case Study. American Education and Communication Technology (AECT) International Conference.
Perry, Beth and Edwards, Margaret (April 2005). Exemplary Online Educators: Creating a Community of Inquiry. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education-TOJDE Volume: 6, Number: 2.

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