Building Community & Engaging Students

The Community of Inquiry Model

Many of us are comfortable building rapport and community among our students in the face-to-face (F2F) classroom. We’ve honed these practices over time and through exploration of a variety of approaches. It is likely that you’ve worked intuitively to build a Community of Inquiry (CoI) in your courses, even if you aren’t familiar with that term. The CoI framework (Garrison, 2017) outlined below is useful in any setting, but is particularly designed to guide course design in online and blended environments. Although your community may look differently in a FurmanFlex course, designing the course around the CoI framework can ensure that you’ve constructed the appropriate course infrastructure to cultivate rich community in such an environment.

The CoI framework is built upon careful attention to three dimensions (Purdue, 2020):

  1. Teaching presence is defined as the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the realization of meaningful learning. In the F2F classroom you create this daily with your presence and facilitation. In a hybrid flexible environment, creating this presence involves the (1) instructional design and organization of the course and activities, (2) facilitation of the course and activities virtually and in-person, and (3) direct instruction.
  2. Social presence refers to the ability of course participants to establish an identity and persona in the social body of your course and play an active role in contributing to the learning process. In the F2F classroom, this happens through regular, consistent interaction with one another in one common experience. In an online context, social presence refers to the ability of those joining virtually to perceive others in an online environment as “real” and the projection of oneself as a real person. Social presence involves open communication, affective expression, and group cohesion.
  3. Cognitive presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse. The ultimate goal of creating a Community of Inquiry is to build a solid foundation of social presence and teaching presence to stimulate cognitive presence in a course to achieve learning outcomes and challenge participants to develop and reflect on ideas, beliefs, and values.

Research has shown that there is a relationship between the three presences and students’ perceived learning, satisfaction with the course, satisfaction with the instructor, actual learning, and sense of belonging (Akyol & Garrison, 2008). The CoI framework suggests that deep and meaningful learning in hybrid flexible environments occurs at the intersection of social, teaching, and cognitive presence (Purdue, 2020). For a brief overview of the CoI model see here, or check out this online resource on the framework.

Building a Community of Inquiry in Your FurmanFlex Courses

Outlined below are several ideas for creating each of the three primary presences of the CoI model. In all cases, we advocate a “purpose first, tool second” approach to building your CoI. This approach first asks you to identify the desired instructional and learning outcomes you have for your course (e.g. a good discussion, student collaboration, reflection, applying information) before selecting the instructional strategy or tool most appropriate for meeting your goal.

Social Presence

Social presence supports learning objectives and makes group interactions enjoyable and rewarding. Indicators of social presence include emotional expression, open communication and group cohesion (McArthur, 2018 A).

Facilitating Social Presence in Your FurmanFlex Course

  1. Build Informal Social Spaces:Unlike the brick-and-mortar classroom, students joining your FurmanFlex course virtually lack the traditional space and time borders that demarcate “class space”. This often means there is no “before” or “after” class when much of community-building occurs (Wheler, 2018). To foster social interaction among your students in both F2F and online modalities, you have to consciously build “outside” spaces that are free from content delivery and assessment. You might consider creating “water cooler” or “café” virtual platforms where the class can talk about current events and common interests. Deliberately creating space for social interactions acknowledges this fundamental aspect of education.
  2. Bring the Outside In: Students joining your courses virtually may feel compartmentalized or isolated from the wider campus community, leading to a sense of separation. Through our courses, we can help remind students that they are a part of a larger campus culture. Post announcements about events happening on campus and work to help them find ways to join virtually (Wehler, 2018). Encourage attendance at webinars and live-streaming events for course credit. Help motivate them to take part in campus organizations that have adapted to include those learning virtually. Additionally, you might consider purposefully grouping students from different learning modalities (F2F and online) in small group work or collaborative activities to create a shared social experience in the course.
  3. Have Fun Together: Although your role as an educator is not to entertain your students, there are a variety of ways you can make learning more enjoyable to build content exploration and understanding alongside social bonding. For a number of quick and easy suggestions for building team cohesion and interaction, consider this list of virtual activities.

Colleagues at Brigham Young University have these suggested strategies for developing social presence in blended courses. Most of the activities described below take place via virtual platforms, but students in both F2F and online modalities can participate simultaneously in these activities (Social Presence, 2020).

At the Beginning of the Course:

  • Create a discussion forum where each student shares an introductory post and reply.
  • Create a wiki where each student provides their name, major, hopes for the class, etc.
  • Create a community bulletin board (e.g. where each student posts their introduction on a class ‘wall’.
  • Develop a class superlatives list (i.e. food, running, diving, etc.) to engage students by asking them to post their favorite “food” or exercise activity, etc.
  • Create a collaborative presentation where each student takes a slide to introduce her/himself with text, images and/or video.
  • Ask students to submit introduction videos of themselves using their favorite mobile technology.
  • Ask students to complete an online personality quiz related to the topic or themes in your course and utilize that in their initial course introduction.

Throughout the Course

  • Incorporate trivia questions related to a concept to get students engaged throughout the course. You could even turn this into an ongoing game or friendly competition.
  • Post a link in a discussion forum to a current event/article that relates to course content and ask for informal feedback (not assessed).
  • Provide opportunities for small-group discussion during synchronous interactions – maybe a thought-provoking question to elicit student discussions in short break-out groups during your class sessions.
  • Include opportunities for collaboration such as group projects and team discussions that ask students to explore the world around them outside of your synchronous sessions.
  • Offer several live polls throughout your classes where you ask students’ opinions on something related to the course/topic (this can be really fun!).
  • Remind students about social spaces continuously (e.g. “virtual commons areas” for off-topic discussions) and offer some guidance on the purpose.

The FDC recently hosted a Coffee and Conversations Chat on building community online to crowd-source a number of ideas about how to facilitate the development of community in hybrid learning spaces. You can find the presentation slides and notes for that conversation here.

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence focuses on the importance of course design, facilitation and the development of learning outcomes and activities that promote discussion and discourse between instructor-teacher, student-student and student-content (McArthur, 2018 A).

Facilitating Teaching Presence in Your FurmanFlex Course

  1. Make Yourself Available: As the instructor, you are the touchstone of your blended course community, which means you need to model citizenship in your course. Develop your own professional social persona in multiple learning environments and provide instructions for students to do the same. Personalize your course wherever you are able by using original video announcements, overviews, and lectures. Establish the tone of the community through class correspondence, discussion board replies, and assessment feedback. Often, this also requires you to give students some of yourself (an anecdote about your weekend or a link to something you found interesting). When students are comfortable with you, they are more comfortable learning, participating, and sharing in the learning environment (Wehler, 2018).
  2. Create Personal Connections: Before the start of your FurmanFlex course, you might consider creating an internal calendar that outlines when you will reach out to students individually. After the first week, it is helpful to check-in and let them know that you’re available to them. This might be as simple as an email or a message through Moodle, or an invitation for a personal check-in before or after your synchronous course meeting (Wehler, 2018). Before and after midterms are great opportunities to check-in for confidence-boosting and troubleshooting. Before any major assessment is a good time to remind them that your door (or inbox!) is always open. Creating a draft bank of form communication messages can save you substantial time throughout the semester and ensure you maintain a consistent presence with each of your students. These messages reinforce the importance of individual attention and personalized education.
  3. Provide Regular and Consistent Feedback: Just like in our traditional F2F courses, feedback within hybrid flexible learning can take many forms and serve many purposes, occurring through a variety of mediums at different instances throughout the duration of a course.  At the heart of feedback is communication and social contact, which drives opportunities to refine and evaluate both learning experiences, instruction, and student performance from multiple perspectives. Feedback also plays the crucial role of developing student metacognition towards their self-regulated learning processes and individual performance (Wehler, 2018).

Of course, providing robust feedback also takes time. In some cases, the time demands can increase when responding to students in online platforms. Ideas for supporting useful, timely, and personalized feedback in a time-efficient manner include:

  • Setting Standards: One mechanism to both enhance your own efficiency at providing feedback and help your students cultivate peer feedback skills is the development of feedback standards and/or rubrics. Two potential models from which to build those approaches include Dee Fink’s FIDELITY model (summarized here) and Emily Wray’s RISE Model (overview here). You might find the short videos on using the RISE model for peer feedback and self-evaluation particularly helpful.
  • Use Online Mechanisms: As we think about constructing online spaces designed for feedback, this eThink blog post provides an overview with instructions about how to leverage Moodle’s workshop activity for peer review and feedback. The Moodle Quiz activity also allows you to pre-populate specific feedback for any potential response so that feedback is automatic and consistent for your entire class.
  • Group Feedback: It isn’t always possible to provide detailed feedback to each individual student. Group feedback may be a reasonable alternative. Two resources (here and here) from the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon might be helpful to experiment with different grading systems for group work.
  • Synchronous Feedback Sessions: Not all feedback needs to be written. Scheduling short (15 min) synchronous group or individual discussions to provide targeted feedback (either on-the-spot or with notes from your review) not only helps build a strong relationship with your students but reduces the time spent crafting written responses.
  • Video or Audio Notes: Another strategy to reduce your writing or typing time includes recording short audio or video notes for your students with feedback on a project or course activity. You might assign scores for an activity via an assignment rubric (in Moodle) beforehand as a guide for your comments.

The FDC recently hosted a Coffee and Conversations Chat on student feedback to crowd-source a number of ideas for how to provide meaningful, time-efficient feedback for students in hybrid and online spaces. You can find the presentation slides and notes for that conversation here.

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence is based on the iterative relationship between personal understanding and shared dialogue. The quality of cognitive presence reflects the quality and quantity of critical thinking, collaborative problem-solving, and construction of meaning occurring in student to student and student to faculty interactions.

Facilitating Cognitive Presence in Your FurmanFlex Course

  1. Articulate Clear Learning Outcomes: Student learning outcomes (SLO’s) are a critical component of all educational courses but are even more essential for FurmanFlex courses where students may engage in the course through different modalities to ensure that consistent goals are achieved by all. A learning outcome defines what the student will be able to do or know at the end of the lesson, unit, or course. Well-written learning outcomes should be student-centered, measurable, and clear (McArthur, 2018 B). Clear learning outcomes are important because they a) guide the content materials and the teaching methods, regardless of learning modality, b) can be used to make sure you reach your goals and assess progress, c) ensure students will understand your expectations and the purpose of course activities, even if these differ by learning modality, and d) ensure assessment and grading is guided by clear objectives and targets.
  2. Encourage interaction: Classroom interactions happen by proximity in the brick-and-mortar classroom, but when some students join your course virtually or some activities occur online, you have to be more deliberate about student-student and student-faculty exchanges. For class sessions you can use synchronous interaction, communal discussion boards, group projects, student presentations, wikis, and peer review groups. “Out” of the classroom, you can help create study groups, develop platforms for collaborative work (e.g. Teams or Padlet) and establish crowd-sourced notes. When done successfully, these interactions create not only a community of learners but can also become lasting friendships (Wehler, 2018).
  3. Create Communication Channels and Expectations: Spur-of-the-moment connections and interactions are common in the brick-and-mortar classroom but facilitating interaction among students in various modalities of learning, including online, takes structure and clear communication. Develop multiple channels for students to engage with material, interact with each other, and share information. It is also important that you put everything in writing, including instructions for your course activities, information about how to access and utilize course content, how student work will be evaluated, and how course participation will be assessed.
  4. Structure Opportunities for Inquiry: Based on the four inquiry process phases outlined by Garrison & Vaughan (2008), creating cognitive presence in your course should involve developing opportunities for students to move through the learning process by experiencing:

Triggering event — the problem, challenge, or task. Students are asked to encounter information that presents an idea, problem, or context.

Exploration — the process of both individual reflection and discourse with others leading to divergent ideas, exchange of information, brainstorming, and requests for feedback.

Integration — the process by which members of the community reflect individually and as a group to reach convergence or process areas of divergence by connecting ideas, identifying relationships and patterns, and proposing solutions.

Resolution — the individual or group applies and tests ideas in an applied real world scenario. Learners defend their ideas and the thinking that supports them (Ecoaching, 2020).

Virtual Platforms to Facilitate Inquiry

One of the more common methods of facilitating inquiry to build cognitive presence in hybrid flexible courses is by designing virtual platforms to encourage exploration, interaction, and discussion. Platforms like discussion boards might be used for students to analyze or critique information, reflect on concepts or debate theories, or share opinions or express ideas. Moodle offers several different types of discussion boards:

  1. A single simple discussion – A single topic discussion developed on one page, which is useful for short focused discussions (cannot be used with separate groups).
  2. Standard forum for general use – An open forum where anyone can start a new topic at any time; this is the best general-purpose forum.
  3. Each person posts one discussion – Each person can post exactly one new discussion topic (everyone can reply to them though); this is useful when you want each student to start a discussion about, say, their reflections on the week’s topic, and everyone else responds to these.
  4. Q and A Forum – Instead of initiating discussions participants pose a question in the initial post of a discussion. Students may reply with an answer, but they will not see the replies of other students to the question in that discussion until they have themselves replied to the same discussion.
  5. Standard forum displayed in a blog-like format.

As you develop platforms for online interaction, consider the following:

  • Some students may lack motivation to participate in an online discussion, for example. Ask yourself how you encourage students to participate in your course when they are more reticent to contribute to in-class verbal discussions? Do you give them other options? Coach them independently? Utilize small-group strategies to encourage those who are reticent to speak? Each of those strategies can be utilized in online platforms.
  • Not all online interaction needs to look the same. In what ways do you vary your traditional assignments so that students have space both for polished and well-reasoned arguments and free-form thinking? Are there tools in Moodle (assignment vs. journal features, for example) that might serve these disparate functions?
  • Just as in-person discussions often benefit from student facilitators, so can online interactions. What leadership roles do you assign to students in your in-person discussions? Perhaps one of those roles is someone who ensures the conversation stays “on-task”? Consider whether this would be of value in an online space.
  • Consider how you might “level-up” interactions online. You could establish a sequence of interactive steps within one activity sequence that first is conducted independently or in small groups with a next step that involves interacting with other individuals/groups by the time the sequence of tasks is complete. This is similar to the jigsaw class activity.
  • It is helpful to establish positive norms for collaborative online interactions. The Continuing Courageous Conversations toolkit includes detailed suggestions for this practice and this resource provides an example of how one might establish norms around participation and contributions.
  • There are several robust examples of discussion board rubrics here and here that might help you evaluate contributions to these collaborative virtual spaces.

Evaluating Attendance and Participation Online

Because FurmanFlex courses are likely to involve students who join through an exclusively virtual pathway and may involve course activities that all students complete online, it is worthwhile to consider how attendance and participation might be assessed for virtual activities. In general, when instructing an online course, faculty tend to utilize some combination of the following dimensions of “attendance”:

  • Records of how often a student logs in and accesses specific portions of the LMS
  • Records of activity completion – Moodle allows you to set up minimum “activity completion” standards for each activity (forum posting, assignment submission, reading, etc.) that a student has to meet before that activity is marked complete for that student.
  • Records of participation in any required synchronous activities (lectures, group chats, one-on-one meetings)

Of course, attendance is not the same as participation, which is often where a rubric comes in handy to provide clear information to the students about how their level of engagement will be assessed. Consider how you might distinguish between these two aspects in an online space. For example, if a portion of your online engagement involves forum discussion posts, you’d want to develop a pretty clear policy of sorts for how participation is assessed in forums. For example, “in order to be receive full credit for each forum post, you not only need to log in to view the post, but contribute in a way that aligns with our forum rubric posted in Moodle.” In that way, you have to do more than just spectate and log in (attend) to “participate”. It is up to you how often you assess that participation (e.g. for every forum, once a week, twice a semester).

The Furman attendance policies (can’t miss more than 15%, 25%) still apply for online and flexible courses. If you plan to include online activities in your attendance or participation assessment, it might be worth creating some mile-markers for your students that are fairly explicit. If online forums participation is required, for example, you’d want to make it clear that in order not to miss more than 15%, you can’t miss more than say 3 postings out of 20, etc. to maintain attendance standards.

Works Cited