Cultivating Online Social and Teaching Presence with the Community of Framework Theory

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Think of your experiences in online courses or as a remote worker – do you (or did you) feel part of a community? Do you feel a social connection to your peers, to your instructor or your boss?

Now think about how that feeling connects to how engaged you are in your course or job. Do you remember to log in? Are you excited to get to work? Do you feel cared about?

I teach for an online and asynchronous graduate program based in Orange County, California from my home in Tempe, Arizona. I have a long history as an online student too. I took several classes for my bachelor’s degree online. I received my first master’s degree online over three and a half years while living and working in Yosemite National Park. Now I’m studying for a doctorate in education entirely online, too.

Remote working and schooling situations like mine are relatively normal and boy, do I love working and learning from the comfort of my home, no commute required! But normal doesn’t mean that you or I are completely satisfied with them.

Community, Where Art Thou?

One of the biggest things missing for me from the online experience is a sense of community. When I worked in-person and I needed help, or feedback, or just a friendly chat, I could walk over to any of my coworker’s offices. Social coffee visits were a daily occurrence.

Now that I teach online, I am isolated. The easy camaraderie of working in the same environment as others is gone. If I need help or feedback, I’m often at a loss with who to ask. Friendly chats? Forget about it. Tone in email is everything and I am very careful how I word my thoughts in my work emails, lest my chair think ill of me, or worse, completely forget that I exist. (Possible!)

Right off in the doctoral application process, I was asked to propose a local to me “problem of practice” which I could work to better understand and consider how to ameliorate. I proposed to focus on how I may build a sense of community in my online and asynchronous courses.

If I feel isolated as an instructor, and if I don’t remember most of my own online instructors or classmates from my own online schooling, I can certainly put myself into my students’ shoes.

Indeed, my students regularly comment that they would like more of a social connection to their peers and instructors, a connection that I suspect our current teaching practices do not sufficiently provide.

Always More to Learn

What’s interesting about my current expertise as an online instructor is that I know instructional design very well (I would hope so since I teach it!) and I know how to be a fairly effective online teacher. What I know I learned from online teaching rubrics like Quality Matters and the California State University’s Quality Online Teaching and Learning, from attending a High Impact Practices conference, and from my own continuing study. It’s clear from these rubrics and frameworks that online teaching presence and cultivating social ties between learners is important.

But what I don’t know much about is the theory and research behind these rubrics and frameworks.

That theory and that research is what I want to become an expert on by the time I defend my doctoral dissertation. Only two weeks in to my doctoral studies, I’m already focusing on the research behind that feeling of social connection in online learning environments and learning so much, well described by the community of inquiry theory.

The community of inquiry (CoI) theory describes three elements that shape learning: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence (Olpak, 2022). Students that experience strong social and teaching presence in their courses are more engaged and perform higher academically (Guo et al., 2021). Thus, I am planning to study how students experience social and teaching presence or lack thereof in their MSIDT courses.

As an online instructor, I hold regular Zoom office hours, send weekly announcements, and keep on top of my email. But my attempts at providing a teaching presence are somewhat haphazard, and my attempts at building social presence outdated at best.

I plan to explore how MSIDT students experience social and teaching presence in their courses with the goal of designing an intervention grounded in the CoI framework.

Online Teaching Strategies Ground in Community of Inquiry Theory

Fiock (2020) conducted a very thorough lit review of the CoI body of research and compiled an extensive list of specific strategies (141-149) for cultivating cognitive, social, and teaching presence. Here are the ones related to teaching presence that I want to mindfully incorporate into my teaching this semester. Some of these I already do, some I want to be more intentional about or start doing:

  • Use short videos of yourself to introduce the course and particular topics
  • Share personal stories, professional experiences, and use emoticons
  • Make many human connections early in the course to ensure all students feel comfortable communicating with you and each other
  • Create areas where students can communicate with each other (class email, student discussion tab, virtual social café, etc
  • Use audio/video to embed feedback on assignments within them
  • Personalized feedback; one-to-one emails
  • Provide feedback, even if feedback consists of a simple acknowledgement that the work was received
  • Grade frequently; every week or more often

There is always more to improve about my online teaching! I’m looking forward to learning so much more.

References

Fiock, H.S. (2020). Designing a Community of Inquiry in Online Courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 21(1), 135-153. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1240692.pdf

Guo, P., Saab, N., Wu, L., & Admiraal, W. (2021). The community of inquiry perspective on students’ social presence, cognitive presence, and academic performance in online project-based learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 37(5), 1479-1493. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcal.12586

Olpak, Y. Z. (2022). Community of inquiry framework: Research trends between 2000-2020. Online Learning, 26(2), 350-368.

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