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Community of Inquiry: Teaching Presence

The EvoLLLution | Community of Inquiry: Teaching Presence
Teaching presence is critical to reducing the transactional distance online students feel, further supporting their success in the online learning environment.

This is the final installment of a four-part series by Debra Beck discussing the value of the Community of Inquiry framework for success in online, in-class and blended learning modalities. The first part of the series introduced the concept, and in this installment Beck will discuss the role of Teaching Presence in the success of developing a Community of Inquiry.

Anyone who has experienced teaching from the front of a brick-and-mortar classroom should have at least a general appreciation for the reality that successful teaching in an online setting requires a different kind of mindset and, in many cases, a new set of tools.

The Community of Inquiry’s conceptualization of teaching presence offers both clarity about the specific challenges of instruction in an online environment and a framework for aligning practice with that setting.

Teaching presence consists of three components: design, facilitation of discourse, and direct instruction. All play equally important roles in online teaching success.

Teaching presence begins with design: the decisions we make about learning goals for the course and the structures and processes that will facilitate student success in meeting them.  Some of the decisions are fairly universal, regardless of platform, e.g., defining learning outcomes/goals, determining topics to be covered, identifying assignments that will demonstrate student progress toward learning goals, and structuring how each will be graded.

But the online environment opens up myriad new options to create the richest learning environment possible. Will you incorporate original video content into the course? Audio? Will you embed and share content created by others (e.g., YouTube or podcasts)? What role will discussion play in your learning community? Will it happen at the class level or in smaller groups of students?

Will your course include group projects and, if so, where and how will that work take place? Within the course shell? In a wiki? On a class blog? On GoogleDrive? Somewhere else?

How will your students interact with each other and with you? Does your LMS allow audio or video responses in discussion threads? Do you want to encourage students to participate by formats other than the written word?

If so, how comfortable are your potential students with the tools they will be asked to use? What is a reasonable technological stretch for them? How will you support their skills development for tools that are new to them? What kind of ongoing support are you willing to provide as they work through the assignments using those tools?

Facilitation of discourse is another core function of teaching presence. How will you be present in class discussions? Your role as instructor is an active one: facilitating conversation, modeling appropriate discourse, sharing additional resources related to the topic at hand, probing for critical thinking, requesting and offering applicable examples, and otherwise guiding and enhancing the group learning experience.

The third component, direct instruction, encompasses the activities that make up the core elements of teaching. How will you create new content and adapt content created by others? How will you share that content in ways that are engaging for the student? How will you accommodate different modalities to stimulate learner interest and curiosity? How will you add a human dimension to your teaching presence?

Direct instruction also includes other types of interactions with students across the learning journey. These may include assistance with technical issues, response to general questions about the course or specific assignments, and feedback on assignments.

“Being there,” making oneself reasonably accessible for contact and information, is especially critical in an online setting. Online instructors have increased responsibility to convey expectations as clearly as possible—in the syllabus and elsewhere—and to be reasonably accessible to respond to questions for students. Students need to know how to reach you, and how you will respond back to them.

If I were to offer a few in-a-nutshell tips from my own teaching presence experiences to a new online instructor, I might include the following words of advice:

1. Be present in your class

“Online” does not translate into “self-study” for students. Be there to guide discussions, answer questions, push them to expand their thinking, and address technical questions. Find a schedule that works for you for routine activities—e.g., facilitating discussions, grading assignments and checking email—and commit to it.

2. Be prepared to stretch yourself technologically

You cannot simply upload old PowerPoint presentations or lecture notes and call it good. You must find engaging new ways to share content and bring it to life for students. Commit to ongoing professional development. Explore the resources available to faculty and use those support mechanisms when you have questions.

3. Select technology as carefully as you choose your assignments

Throwing in bells and whistles for their own sake risks student stress and attention diverted away from the learning that is the real goal. Know your students. Ask them to make realistic stretches (especially when introducing technology they are likely to use in the future), but don’t push them to a breaking point.