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The Blog on Emerging Academic Technologies


Communities of Inquiry, Cognitive Presence

When I'm teaching a workshop, providing a consultation or otherwise involved in discussion about teaching with technology, I often come back to a comment my former colleague Chris Greenhow made during one of our many conversations in the office. When observing students working together or engaged in discussion, teachers will often say, "they're so excited." But as Chris pointed out, excitement is not enough. How do we know students are actually learning? An article I re-read recently, "Critical Thinking, Cognitive Presence and Computer Conferencing in Distance Education," raises related issues, provides a few answers and raises yet more questions.

In terms of the communities of inquiry model, in which the article is grounded, for me Chris' comment was a "triggering event," or a starting point for practical inquiry where "an issue, dilemma or problem that emerges from experience is identified or recognized." Or rather, when I hear someone say "they're so excited" in conversations about teaching, that phrase is a triggering event that causes me to reflect on what happened in a different way. Students' excitement (or engagement or enthusiasm) might be more of a milestone than an end, or perhaps a beginning of rather than a sign of success. A lively discussion is energizing, but what happens after that? How do we know what insights, if any, students have gained from that discussion, especially when everything is moving so fast? Do students engaged in a lively discussion now know how to use those insights as they move towards higher order learning outcomes? And what about the quiet student who does not appear to be engaged? Is that student reflecting on what is said, or is that student tuned out? Is that student shy, or perhaps not as quick, or perhaps not confident about their language skills, and therefore more hesitant to jump in? While online, asynchronous discussions may not be as exciting as a face-to-face discussion, they do present many advantages. More reflective students, or students who for different reasons may not feel confident enough to speak up in class have more opportunities to participate. All students, as well as the instructor, can take the time to compose more thoughtful responses and feedback. And as everyone involved in discussion develops their ideas, they can refer back to what has been written online.

As Garrison, et. al. explain, the "triggering event," is only the first of four phases of inquiry, followed by exploration, integration and resolution. Once the issue to explore or problem to be solved has been identified and defined, students and teachers together brainstorm ideas, share information, and ask questions. Integration involves testing the applicability of ideas, identifying misconceptions, revising ideas. In the final, resolution phase, those involved implement solutions to problems or perhaps test a hypothesis. In their research on online classroom discussions, Garrison, et. al. found that students were most active in the exploration phase, and hardly active at all during the resolution phase. I wonder if they would have produced the same results in an investigation of face-to-face discussion, and if the excitement of discussion happens mainly during the exploration phase. After all, it's much easier--and much more fun--to brainstorm, and to bounce ideas off of each other. Evaluating and critically examining those ideas and formulating some kind of solution to a common problem is much more difficult, and much more work. What can teachers do to make sure students are successful throughout the full process of inquiry, and how do they know their students have succeeded?

Moreover, how might technology be integrated into successful practical inquiry during a course? What kinds of tools, what kinds of learning activities and what strategies might be most useful to students as they further develop, test and apply their ideas?

Garrison, D. Randy, Terry Anderson and Walter Archer. "Critical Thinking, Cognitive Presence and Computer Conferencing in Distance Education." (2001) American Journal of Distance Education.

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