Conversations about e-learning at William & Mary are on the rise. Rachel, Jamison, and I have been working with two Arts & Sciences faculty who are in the process of developing the College’s first two fully online courses (to be taught during summer session). Faculty in graduate programs in business and education have been discussing the affordances and constraints of experimenting with more flexible course offerings for the working professionals who fill many of the seats in those programs. Other faculty in the Arts & Sciences are participating in committee work pertaining to e-learning, both exploratory and experimental (with some folks planning to “flip” a class lecture next semester).
Can the W&M Classroom Experience Be Replicated Online?
One of the recurring points that we have heard from folks in nearly every discipline is that the classroom experience at William & Mary absolutely cannot be replicated online. Period. We’ve asked folks to articulate what makes our classroom experiences here so robust, and consistently, we hear anecdotes about small class sizes; faculty and student collaborations; undergraduate student research; and the many opportunities for collaborative learning experiences that happen both between faculty and students, and among students, both within and outside of the classroom. I concur that some of the richest learning experiences I’ve had as a doctoral student here have occurred in class discussions with other educational practitioners, as we mutually grapple with how to bridge the educational theories we learn in the classroom with our own professional practices. Recently, it is the biweekly dissertation meetings I have with my advisor, Dr. Judi Harris, that continue to both challenge my thinking and also provide me with highly individualized learning experiences.
It is somewhat unfortunate that MOOC-mania has been the impetus for engaging in conversations about e-learning on campus. Sure, MOOCs are sexy and a little bit rock and roll. Still, those of us who’ve attempted MOOCs are likely to agree they they are the antithesis of the high-touch individualized learning that we applaud on our campus. To that end, I’d like to share a framework for e-learning that may possibly be more aligned to the William & Mary experience, Communities of Inquiry.
The Community of Inquiry Framework
The Community of Inquiry framework first emerged in 2000 as a synthesis of the results of a research study on the characteristics of online learning in higher education. This framework is currently used by educational researchers, course designers, and those engaged in faculty development for e-learning.
The framework consists of three intersecting domains:
- The cognitive presence: The intentional design of online learning activities and experiences that promote critical thinking.
- The social presence: Opportunities for students to project their personalities online, and represent themselves as real people. This includes opportunities for interaction among students in an online class.
- The teaching presence: The design, facilitation, and direct instruction of course content by the professor.
According to this framework, the goal of a quality online course is the intersection of all three domains. Whereas research studies that consider all three domains within one study are somewhat lacking, there are multiple papers supporting the value of each of the individual domains in an online course (you can read more about the cognitive, social, and teaching domain studies if you are so inclined).
Cultivating Communities of Inquiry
The Community of Inquiry model purports the importance of social interaction, frequent instructor communication, and higher order thinking activities for a quality online course. I know a few folks on campus have given MOOCs a whirl (I’m one of them), but I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard someone chat about the challenging class project or the robust discussions they’ve had in their MOOCs. If the Community of Inquiry model aligns more closely to what we’ve defined as “the William & Mary experience,” how do we operationalize this in our e-learning initiatives? I’ve included a few practical examples for each domain.
- Scaffold learning activities that move from content consumption toward application and analysis.
- Vary learning activities in order to provide students with multiple opportunities to explore, practice, question, and reflect.
- Offer problem-based and project based learning experiences.
- Create a course introductions discussion board in which students will only be asked to introduce themselves and to engage with their peers.
- Build questions and assignments that encourage students to make connections between the course content and their own experiences.
- Offer learning opportunities for online collaboration among students.
- Include multimedia components like short online lectures, Web presentations, and course video announcements.
- Facilitate discussion board conversations by engaging with students and by challenging them with new questions.
- Provide timely and individualized feedback on student assignments.
An Example Teaching Experiment
Finally, I’ll leave you with this teaching experiment from Jeremiah Holden, PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin and instructor at the University of Michigan. This experiment in design thinking, “Redesigning the Everyday,” encourages graduate students to collaborate with their classmates and to draw from their lived experiences in order to redesign everyday tasks. This course was taught completely online. Here we have an example of a graduate-level online course that moves beyond content delivery to get to learning experiences that, based on Holden’s description, are collaborative, personally relevant, and intellectually challenging. (Thanks Troy Davis, Director of Swem Media Center, for sharing this teaching experiment)!
While we may not ever be able to exactly replicate the face-to-face William & Mary classroom experience, if we decide to develop more online learning opportunities for students, we might consider the pros and cons of a content-centric MOOC model course and a student-centric Community of Inquiry model course, and evaluate how drawing from one or both models might get us closest to the William & Mary experience.