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By Felix Lecocq
Editor, MindEdge Learning
Can you recall a time in your past when someone taught you a life skill?
Maybe a family member showed you how to change a tire, or a roommate taught you how to clean the oven. In my experience, learning a new skill like this always ends the same way. After I’ve seen a demonstration of the task, I confidently nod and say, “OK, thanks, I think I got it.” Then, the moment my teacher walks away, I look down at the unfinished task, and I suddenly have no idea what I’m doing.
The difference between the knowledge you have by yourself and the knowledge you can access when collaborating with peers or a teacher is called the “zone of proximal development.” This term was coined by Lev Vygotsky, a 20th-century Russian psychologist who studied the importance of collaborating with peers and instructors while learning.
Even if you know how to change a tire, you might struggle to do it without someone else’s supervision and support. Research has shown that collaborating with a peer is helpful even when that peer has no more knowledge than you do. Collaboratively approaching a problem is effective because you and your peer can pool your knowledge and critically discuss the problem together.
What does this mean for online learning? Most of us think of taking an online course as a solitary activity. When you are a learner sitting at your computer, it might feel like there isn’t much opportunity for collaboration. However, three researchers from the University of Alberta say that online learning can provide learners with a sense of community, allowing them to access not only their own knowledge but also the knowledge available to them when collaborating with others.
Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer have established the idea of a “community of inquiry” in the context of online learning. When an online course provides learners with a community of inquiry, they say, learners can access a greater breadth of knowledge and enjoy a more effective educational experience.
There are three primary elements of a community of inquiry that are crucial to successful education: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence.
Cognitive presence refers to the extent to which learners can articulate the knowledge they have retained. In a traditional classroom setting, an instructor might measure cognitive presence through student papers or presentations. An online course can also provide cognitive presence, by giving learners a variety of assessment questions and games that require learners to engage critically with the course material and answer in their own words.
Teaching presence refers to the design and facilitation of the learner’s education. In a classroom, the teaching presence would probably take the form of the instructor and syllabus. In an online learning environment, educators can effect a teaching presence by providing clear learning objectives and organized assessments, so learners know what to expect and can feel that the course has a logical order.
Social presence refers to the extent to which learners can express themselves emotionally. In a classroom, this might take place through group projects or class discussions. Online, educators can facilitate social presence by providing simulations and interactive exercises. For example, an assessment question might ask, “Imagine yourself in the situation described. Using the knowledge you have learned in this course, how would you respond?”
Social presence in online learning may also involve asking learners to reflect on their own personal beliefs and experiences in the context of the course material. For example, in a course on business ethics, an assessment question might ask learners to reflect on an ethical crisis they have experienced in the workplace, using the vocabulary and concepts from the course.
So, even if you’re taking an online course on your own, you’re not really alone. If the course has successfully provided cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence, you will experience a community of inquiry that will provide you with the support and social engagement to help you learn more effectively. And eventually, learning within a community of inquiry might just give you the experience and confidence you need to change that tire on your own.
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