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Stewart, Mary K. Communities of Inquiry in Technology-Mediated Activities. C&C, Sept. 2017. Posted 10/20/2017.

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).


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Cox, Black, Heney, and Keith. Responding to Students Online. TETYC, May 2015. Posted 07/22/15.

Cox, Stephanie, Jennifer Black, Jill Heney, and Melissa Keith. “Promoting Teacher Presence: Strategies for Effective and Efficient Feedback to Student Writing Online.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 42.4 (2015): 376-91. Web. 14 July 2015.

Stephanie Cox, Jennifer Black, Jill Heney, and Melissa Keith address the challenges of responding to student writing online. They note the special circumstances attendant on online teaching, in which students lack the cues provided by body language and verbal tone when they interpret instructor comments (376). Students in online sections, the authors write, do not have easy access to clarification and individual direction, and may not always take the initiative in following up when their needs aren’t met (377). These features of the online learning environment require teachers to develop communicative skills especially designed for online teaching.

To overcome the difficulty teachers may find in building a community among students with whom they do not interact face-to-face, the authors draw on the Community of Inquiry framework developed by D. Randy Garrison. This model emphasizes presence as a crucial rhetorical dimension in community building, distinguishing between “social presence,” “cognitive presence,” and “teacher presence” as components of a classroom in which teachers can create effective learning environments.

Social presence indicates the actions and rhetorical choices that give students a sense of “a real person online,” in the words of online specialists Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt (qtd. in Cox et al. 377). Moves that allow the teacher to interact socially through the response process decrease the potential for students to “experience isolation and a sense of disconnection” (377). Cognitive presence involves activities that contribute to the “creation of meaning” in the classroom as students explore concepts and ideas. both individually and as part of the community. Through teacher presence, instructors direct learning and disseminate knowledge, setting the stage for social and cognitive interaction (377).

In the authors’ view, developing effective social, cognitive, and teacher presence requires attention to the purpose of particular responses depending on the stage of the writing process, to the concrete elements of delivery, and to the effects of different choices on the instructor’s workload.

Citing Peter Elbow’s discussion of “ranking and evaluation,” the authors distinguish between feedback that assigns a number on a scale and feedback that encourages ongoing development of an idea or draft (376-79; emphasis original). Ranking during early stages may allow teachers to note completion of tasks; evaluation, conversely, involves “communication” that allows students to move forward fruitfully on a project (379).

The authors argue that instructors in digital environments should follow James E. Porter’s call for “resurrecting the neglected rhetorical canon of delivery” (379). Digital teaching materials provide opportunities like emoticons for emulating the role of the body that is important to classical theories of delivery; such tools can emphasize emotions that can be lost in online exchanges.

Finally, the authors note the tendency for responding online to grow into an overwhelming workload. “Limit[ing] their comments” is a “healthy” practice that teachers need not regret. Determining what kind of feedback is most appropriate to a given type of writing is important in setting these limits, as is making sure that students understand that different tasks will elicit different kinds of response (379-80).

The authors explore ways to address informal writing without becoming overwhelmed. They point out that teachers often don’t respond in writing to informal work in face-to-face classrooms and thus do not necessarily need to do so in online classes. They suggest that “generalized group comments” can effectively point out shared trends in students’ work, present examples, and enhance teacher presence. Such comments may be written, but can also be “audio” or “narrated screen capture” that both supply opportunities for generating social and teacher presence while advancing cognitive goals.

They recommend making individual comments on informal work publicly, posting only “one formative point per student while encouraging students to read all of the class postings and the instructor responses” (382). Students thus benefit from a broader range of instruction. Individual response is important early and in the middle of the course to create and reinforce students’ connections with the instructor; it is also important during the early development of paper ideas when some students may need “redirect[ion]” (382).

The authors also encourage “feedback-free spaces,” especially for tentative early drafting; often making such spaces visible to all students gives students a sense of audience while allowing them to share ideas and experience how the writing process often unfolds through examples of early writing “in all its imperfection” (383).

Cox et al. suggest that feedback on formal assignments should embrace Richard Straub’s “six conversational response strategies” (383), which focus on informal language, specific connections to the student’s work, and maintaining an emphasis on “help or guidance” (384). The authors discuss five response methods for formal tasks. In their view, rubrics work best when free of complicated technical language and when integrated into a larger conversation about the student’s writing (385-86). Cox et al. recommend using the available software programs for in-text comments, which students find more legible and which allow instructors to duplicate responses when appropriate (387). The authors particularly endorse “audio in-text comments,” which not only save time but also allow the students to hear the voice of an embodied person, enhancing presence (387). Similarly, they recommend generating holistic end-comments via audio, with a highlighting system to tie the comments back to specific moments in the student’s text (387-88). Synchronous conferences, facilitated by many software options including screen-capture tools, can replace face-to-face conferences, which may not work for online students. The opportunity to talk not only about writing but also about other aspects of the student’s environment further build social, cognitive, and teacher presence (388).

The authors offer tables delineating the benefits and limitations of responses both to informal and formal writing, indicating the kind of presence supported by each and options for effective delivery (384, 389).