I’ve been on a theory binge lately. It began several weeks ago when I re-read Pragmatism by William James—what a gem. Very few ideas are as applicable as pedagogy that is pragmatic. I thought that I was a pragmatic teacher by nature- hence the title for this website. Until I came across a relatively new model called the Community of Inquiry (COI).
Theory junkies hold on- this model is the real deal.
This article is about one facet of the COI model: teacher presence. I have two goals. First, describe teacher presence and how it has pragmatic origins. Second, hold myself accountable for what I’ve read and hopefully learned regarding the COI model.
The Community of Inquiry model was originally developed to describe themes central to the learning process mediated by computers- essentially distance learning. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, distance learning experienced RAPID growth and its use as an educational option is now considered ubiquitous.
There was, and is, no doubt that learning at a distance is different than the traditional desk and classroom setting. But how? It was tough to describe- and many theorists gave it a shot. We were left with a lot of valid thoughts from a lot of influential thinkers. Whether it was Otto Peters extending the industrialized model of education to distance learning or Michael Graham Moore coining the term Transactional Distance, something was missing.
Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer took a stab at describing learning at a distance and their COI model was found to be so… let’s say pragmatic J… that we now find ourselves applying the theory to traditional education settings as well.
As simple as one can state it, according to the COI model learning occurs when appropriate levels of three components are found in an educational setting, teacher presence, cognitive presence, and social presence. Cognitive presence refers to the process of constructing meaning through communication. Social presence alludes to how the setting allows a learner to be ‘real’, or in other words feel at home during the learning process. Teacher presence has two subcomponents, and has been the focus of my theoretical attention.
(Garrison, Anderson, and Archer do a nice job summarizing the ideas and clarify their idea as time passes.)
The first ingredient to ensure appropriate levels of teacher presence is a thoughtful design of the educational experience. That is a vague statement, but it boils down to this: a teacher can increase their presence by “setting curriculum, designing methods, establishing time parameters, utilizing the medium effectively, and establishing group norms.” In other words, planning.
I know what you are thinking- “no duh, of course planning helps!” This isn’t your typical planning and is far beyond your little green scheduler. This is the nuts and bolts of your teaching methodology.
Consider the exoskeleton of an insect. Without it, the bug would be a puddle of mush. With an intact exoskeleton, the insect is kept functioning.
Course design is the foundation and frame of a house, the infrastructure of utility systems, or the storyboard of an animation. It is the frame in which you conduct your business.
Define your design and be specific. Communicate the design to your students. They will feel like their time is well spent if they understand how the course is set up.
Organization is half the battle- in fact we’ve discussed how students like teachers that are organized.
Prior to course implementation, be cognizant about course features that are considered the logistics and spell them out.
The second ingredient, assuming that you have spent the necessary time to design your course appropriately (and it does take A LOT of time), to achieve appropriate levels of teacher presence is course facilitation.
This refers to the teaching aspect of being a teacher J
With the exoskeleton in place, the different insect systems can do their thing to maintain a stable internal environment.
Facilitation, like design, is a broad word. Facilitation involves acknowledgement, asking questions, probing for deeper answers, prompting discussion, purposeful argument, and meaningful deliberation. Discourse is a fun new word that we’ll use to describe any communication that has purpose.
Prepare your questions, your probing prompts. Have a bag of tricks to extract more from your students. If they are the engine, you are the oil that keeps them going.
It is tough to swallow advice that simple says “plan your course and facilitate communication.” But it is these simple ideas that make COI so approachable and pragmatic.
Novice teachers often visit this site and send me personal emails- to paraphrase a lot of them: “I don’t know where to start.”
Follow the advice given through the COI model- start with the exoskeleton of your course- the structure. Follow up by defining your tools used to communicate with your students. Start slow and focus on specifics.
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Thanks for reading!