Making the implicit explicit: improve online learning through ‘presence’

By miranda.prynne, 14 January, 2021
Dara Cassidy explains how the Community of Inquiry provides a framework to help translate teaching strategies that come naturally in the classroom to the online learning environment where they require more deliberate planning
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When teaching on campus, we tend to think in terms of particular activity types, each with their own formats and associated expectations – all of which are very clear to both students and faculty.  

Module plans typically encompass a series of lectures, tutorials and practical sessions, each with a time, a place and a well-rehearsed set of activities.  

In the lecture theatre, students know their primary role is to listen and take notes, perhaps asking or occasionally answering questions. In the tutorial room, they know they need to engage in deeper discussion, offer opinions and respond to others. In a practical class, such as a lab, they need to engage in structured, hands-on activities guided by more experienced students or staff.

In the online environment, these familiar cues and routines disappear. For most students who have limited experience of learning online, it is not always clear what to do and unless intentionally planned for, many of the invisible supports they may have taken for granted when meeting tutors in person disappear.  

For teaching staff too there may be uncertainty around how to perform their role online. Luckily there is plenty of literature offering guidance on how to plan effective online course design and delivery.  

One of the most widely used and researched frameworks for online teaching is the Community of Inquiry. This was devised by distance education experts Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson and Walter Archer in 2001, as a way to conceptualise the key elements required for learning in an asynchronous online environment.

At its core lie three related concepts of social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence – and it is when an instructor successfully develops all three that the best learning outcomes are achieved. 

Social presence 

Social presence is the extent to which students and teachers are able to present themselves as real people in the online environment. It may be created using videos and photographs to help members get a sense of each other and the injection of personality, such as humour, into communications, for example.  

Effective social presence has been shown to sustain the motivation of online learners. It is in this learning space that students often find reassurance, build relationships, and use each other as a “cognitive resource”, research has shown. 

Strategies to develop social presence 

  • Upload your photo and a brief informal bio to the virtual learning environment (VLE). 

  • Create a one- to two-minute welcome video, outlining the key information about the course. 

  • Seek to develop a class community through introductions, icebreakers and collaborative work.  

  • Let students know the channels through which they can engage with you and with classmates. 

  • Communicate a policy on response times to forum questions and emails and try to adhere to it. 

  • Allocate time for admin and dealing with student queries. 

  • Set online drop-in hours that students can engage with you. 

  • Provide personalised responses and feedback where possible. 

Teaching presence 

Teaching presence is related to the instructional design of a course or module. It incorporates all the choices the teacher makes in terms of the content they deliver, the tasks they set students, the feedback they give and the modes of delivery they employ.  

Teaching presence was defined by Garrison, Anderson and Archer as the “binding element” in the creation of an educational community of inquiry. It can be established and sustained by being responsive to students – for example, through short messages acknowledging their contributions – providing guidance on tasks and activities; facilitating, critiquing and developing online discussion; and regulating the amount of content covered.  

Strategies to boost teaching presence 

  • Ensure that the course layout and materials in the VLE are clear and well structured.  

  • Ensure teaching activities are well planned and signposted in the schedule. 

  • Maintain a schedule of regular communication – a weekly announcement on the key things that students need to focus on that week works well. 

  • Maintain a regular presence on the forum discussions to encourage students to stay engaged. 

  • Ensure quick turnaround for feedback on assignments. 

  • Ensure opportunities for discussions are included with pre-recorded content, for example, through posing relevant questions on a discussion forum.

  • Reinforce expectations about what students need to do online, for example, “watch that video before the next live session” or “complete the online quiz before next Monday”. 

  • Provide very clear, explicit instructions. 

Cognitive presence 

Cognitive presence refers to the extent to which students are intellectually engaged in online activities. Cognitive presence is a prerequisite for critical thinking.  

It is significantly influenced by teaching and social presence. Instructional design strategies that promote active learning, reflection and the provision of timely feedback have also been shown to promote cognitive presence. Discussion forums are particularly suited to the development of cognitive presence. 

The development of cognitive presence is a four-step process involving: 

1) A triggering event (problem to be solved).

2) Exploration (brainstorming, questioning, and exchanging information with peers).

3) Integration (assessing how the outputs from the exploration phase resolve the problem).

4) Resolution (implementing a solution or reaching a consensus). 

Strategies to develop cognitive presence 

  • Pose thought-provoking questions. 

  • Encourage students to make their thinking explicit. 

  • Identify and clarify misconceptions.

  • Probe student responses and encourage them to justify their positions.  

  • Encourage different perspectives. 

  • Help students make connections between ideas. 

  • Introduce materials in a timely fashion to support the critical inquiry process. 

  • Model the critical thinking process. 

Many of the strategies outlined above may be implicit in the activities you do in your classroom teaching. The Community of Inquiry provides a way of thinking about what you already do to help make these implicit strategies explicit, so that you can carry them over to your online teaching.

Dara Cassidy is head of online education at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Dara Cassidy explains how the Community of Inquiry provides a framework to help translate teaching strategies that come naturally in the classroom to the online learning environment where they require more deliberate planning