Stewart, Mary K. “Communities of Inquiry: A Heuristic for Designing and Assessing Interactive Learning Activities in Technology-Mediated FYC.” Computers and Composition 45 (2017): 67-84. Web. 13 Oct. 2017.
Mary K. Stewart presents a case study of a student working with peers in an online writing class to illustrate the use of the Community of Inquiry framework (CoI) in designing effective activities for interactive learning.
Stewart notes that writing-studies scholars have both praised and questioned the promise of computer-mediated learning (67-68). She cites scholarship contending that effective learning can take place in many different environments, including online environments (68). This scholarship distinguishes between “media-rich” and “media-lean” contexts. Media-rich environments include face-to-face encounters and video chats, where exchanges are immediate and are likely to include “divergent” ideas, whereas media-lean situations, like asynchronous discussion forums and email, encourage more “reflection and in-depth thinking” (68). The goal of an activity can determine which is the better choice.
Examining a student’s experiences in three different online environments with different degrees of media-richness leads Steward to argue that it is not the environment or particular tool that results in the success or failure of an activity as a learning experience. Rather, in her view, the salient factor is “activity design” (68). She maintains that the CoI framework provides “clear steps” that instructors can follow in planning effective activities (71).
Stewart defined her object of study as “interactive learning” (69) and used a “grounded theory” methodology to analyze data in a larger study of several different course types. Interviews of instructors and students, observations, and textual analysis led to a “core category” of “outcomes of interaction” (71). “Effective” activities led students to report “constructing new knowledge as a result of interacting with peers” (72). Her coding led her to identify “instructor participation” and “rapport” as central to successful outcomes; reviewing scholarship after establishing her own grounded theory, Stewart found that the CoI framework “mapped to [her] findings” (71-72).
She reports that the framework involves three components: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence. Students develop social presence as they begin to “feel real to one another” (69). Stewart distinguishes between social presence “in support of student satisfaction,” which occurs when students “feel comfortable” and “enjoy working” together, and social presence “in support of student learning,” which follows when students actually value the different perspectives a group experience offers (76).
Teaching presence refers to the structure or design that is meant to facilitate learning. In an effective CoI activity, social and teaching presence are required to support cognitive presence, which is indicated by “knowledge construction,” specifically “knowledge that they would not have been able to construct without interacting with peers” (70).
For this article, Stewart focused on the experiences of a bilingual Environmental Studies major, Nirmala, in an asynchronous discussion forum (ADF), a co-authored Google document, and a synchronous video webinar (72). She argues that Nirmala’s experiences reflect those of other students in the larger study (72).
For the ADF, students were asked to respond to one of three questions on intellectual property, then respond to two other students who had addressed the other questions. The prompt specifically called for raising new questions or offering different perspectives (72). Both Nirmala and Steward judged the activity as effective even though it occurred in a media-lean environment because in sharing varied perspectives on a topic that did not have a single solution, students produced material that they were then able to integrate into the assigned paper (73):
The process of reading and responding to forum posts prompted critical thinking about the topic, and Nirmala built upon and extended the ideas expressed in the forum in her essay. . . . [She] engaged in knowledge construction as a result of interacting with her peers, which is to say she engaged in “interactive learning” or a “successful community of inquiry.” (73)
Stewart notes that this successful activity did not involve the “back-and-forth conversation” instructors often hope to encourage (74).
The co-authored paper was deemed not successful. Stewart contends that the presence of more immediate interaction did not result in more social presence and did not support cognitive presence (74). The instructions required two students to “work together” on the paper; according to Nirmala’s report, co-authoring became a matter of combining and editing what the students had written independently (75). Stewart writes that the prompt did not establish the need for exploration of viewpoints before the writing activity (76). As a result, Nirmala felt she could complete the assignment without input from her peer (76).
Though Nirmala suggested that the assignment might have worked better had she and her partner met face-to-face, Stewart argues from the findings that the more media-rich environment in which the students were “co-present” did not increase social presence (75). She states that instructors may tend to think that simply being together will encourage students to interact successfully when what is actually needed is more attention to the activity design. Such design, she contends, must specifically clarify why sharing perspectives is valuable and must require such exploration and reflection in the instructions (76).
Similarly, the synchronous video webinar failed to create productive social or cognitive presence. Students placed in groups and instructed to compose group responses to four questions again responded individually, merely “check[ing]” each other’s answers. Nirmala reports that the students actually “Googled the answer and, like, copy pasted” (Nirmala, qtd. in Stewart 77). Steward contends that the students concentrated on answering the questions, skipping discussion and sharing of viewpoints (77).
For Stewart, these results suggest that instructors should be aware that in technology-mediated environments, students take longer to become comfortable with each other, so activity design should build in opportunities for the students to form relationships (78). Also, prompts can encourage students to share personal experiences in the process of contributing individual perspectives. Specifically, according to Stewart, activities should introduce students to issues without easy solutions and focus on why sharing perspectives on such issues is important (78).
Stewart reiterates her claim that the particular technological environment or tool in use is less important than the design of activities that support social presence for learning. Even in media-rich environments, students placed together may not effectively interact unless given guidance in how to do so. Stewart finds the CoI framework useful because it guides instructors in creating activities, for example, by determining the “cognitive goals” in order to decide how best to use teaching presence to build appropriate social presence. The framework can also function as an assessment tool to document the outcomes of activities (79). She provides a step-by-step example of CoI in use to design an activity in an ADF (79-81).