Social connection and community
In the previous section we explored some of the theory and research behind various types of student engagement, focusing on the individual learner. To foster quality engagement, however, we also need to think about the interpersonal and social aspects of teaching and learning. Thinking about the social side of a given course is particularly important if you are an instructor or TA of an online course. The social aspects of learning that can be most difficult to translate into the online environment.
Well before the advent of the internet, Michael G. Moore began developing the seminal theory that would shape the design and delivery of all forms of distance education from the 1970s to the present day. This is the theory of transactional distance, which Moore defines as “a psychological and communication space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner” (Moore, 1991).
All courses, no matter how they are delivered, involve some level of transactional distance, but online courses in particular can involve much more of this type of distance than their face-to-face counterparts. Transactional distance has almost nothing to do with how far apart people might be physically — rather, in online courses it is our reliance on technology rather than personal contact that raises the level of transactional distance.
A learner's ‘distance’ from [their] teacher is not measured in miles or minutes.
Transactional distance, as a psychological experience, creates a substantial barrier to student engagement. The more distant we feel from instructors, TAs, and fellow students, the less able we are to create the cognitive and affective connections required for quality engagement. As such, the work of overcoming transactional distance (as much as possible) is paramount to facilitating online courses. The good news is that since transactional distance has nothing directly to do with distance in space, it can be effectively overcome even when your students are on the other side of the globe. The more challenging news is that if we are not careful about transactional distance, it can degrade online student engagement even for students who live just down the street.
Overcoming transactional distance in an online course is an art as much as a science, but every effective strategy for doing so requires a good understanding of the social aspects of online learning. For that reason, and in order to lay the groundwork for the more practical advice found in other units of this resource, it is important to talk a little bit about how online courses function as communities, and then think through the essential types of student interaction that take place in every online course.
Check and reflect
Please take a moment to reflect a little on the concept of transactional distance. First, think about a topic that you might be interested to learn about but have not yet studied in depth. Now think about two ways of trying to learn more about that topic:
- High transactional distance: In this scenario, you are going to learn about your chosen topic by taking an online course that includes several hours of high-quality podcasts by an expert presenter you don’t know personally. You will write a final exam, and it will be graded by a computer. There is technical support available, but your instructor is not present in the course to take questions, and there are no other students taking the course along with you. What types of challenges do you foresee in learning this way? How close or distant do you expect to feel to the presenter and to the topic, and how do you think this will this impact your engagement and learning?
- Lower transactional distance: Now imagine that instead of the above, you will enrol in an online course where the content is delivered with the same high-quality podcasts, but this time the course involves a dedicated instructor or TA who can answer your questions, who responds quickly to your e-mails, and who seems to take a sincere interest in how you are doing with the material. What advantages do you think such contact will have as you master the subject? What impact do you think this closer contact with a teacher will have on your engagement with the material and why?
After you’ve thought a bit about these two scenarios, try listing some preliminary strategies for reducing transactional distance in your own courses. Consider whether there are any tasks you might add to your Facilitator Checklist to help reduce transactional distance in your course. This may involve communication and coordination with other co-facilitators (e.g., TAs).
Community in online courses
Human beings are social creatures, and we learn most effectively when we can locate ourselves within a community. The sense that there are others around us interested in the same ideas and problems, invested in solving them, and available when we need help is essential to building the feeling of security and focus that overcome transactional distance and lay the foundation for deep engagement. It is no surprise, then, that research in online education (and education more broadly) shows that students who feel isolated and alone have substantially less success on average than those who feel connected to their peers, their instructors, and their TAs (Rovai, 2002; Jaggars & Xu, 2016).
Community of inquiry framework
In 2000, when online higher education was in its infancy, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer published a seminal paper introducing a theoretical model for approaching online courses and discussions called “community of inquiry.” Since then, the model has been widely adopted by educators and researchers across the world of online education (Garrison, 2017). The model details three essential types of presence that form the building blocks of a course community — a community of inquiry. The three presences are:
- Cognitive presence
- Teaching presence
- Social presence
Traditional education models have implicitly centred on educational communities from the very start. Every classroom is a small community of people brought together to explore a subject (cognitive presence), learn from an expert (teaching presence), and support one another through it all (social presence). If you have ever taught or acted as a TA in a traditional, in-person course, you have likely undertaken various activities that contributed to teaching, social, and cognitive presence, and the sense of community in your course, though you may not have realized it. The small talk just before class begins, the excitement in your voice as you talk about a favourite subject, the extension on a paper for a student who has fallen ill, the joke or anecdote told to lighten the mood — these are all simple (and sometimes unconscious) ways of fostering the three types of presence and a sense of community.
When facilitating an online course, however, building a sense of community may not come as naturally, especially when you are first getting started. It is often important to be more intentional and plan how you will build and contribute to the learning community in the course you are facilitating. For this reason, it is helpful to break down the concept of community into the three presences above in order to make sure all three types of presence are available in a given course. To do so, it is important to think specifically about how students are interacting with the content, facilitators, and other students in your course. In essence, presence is what students experience when together as a community they establish a high degree of engagement within three particular modes of interaction in an online course (which we will discuss below).
Check and reflect
If you have taught or facilitated courses in a classroom before, reflect on some of the ways that you have consciously or unconsciously established the three forms of presence in your course, and built a sense of community. How have you been accustomed to establishing each of the following?
- Teaching presence
- Social presence
- Cognitive presence
Now try to think of a few ways that you might transfer some of the face-to-face strategies that you have identified into your online course. Record your initial ideas for establishing the following online in your:
- Teaching presence
- Social presence
- Cognitive presence
As a reminder, you may want to add or refine some tasks or strategies in your Facilitator Checklist. Your list of strategies should grow as you work through the rest of this resource, so keep it handy, and add to it as you identify new techniques that you would like to try in your own course.
Our discussions of engagement and interaction are designed to provide you with concrete strategies for building a community of inquiry. Fostering engagement and fostering community are two sides of a single coin.
Building on the work of Astin (discussed in the previous section) and following from his own research into transactional distance, Michael G. Moore (1989) made a second major contribution to distance and online educational theory by identifying three essential types of interaction that are needed in order for students to succeed in a given course, especially one taken at a distance.
If engagement amounts to the investment that students make in various aspects of the learning experience, then Moore’s interactions are the discreet spheres or spaces in which opportunities for engagement can be found. In this brief section we will introduce the categories of interaction in order to lay a foundation for the following units wherein we will provide some more practical advice for building presence and thus fostering engagement within each of these three spheres.
Three types of student interaction
Moore’s (1989) three broad categories of interaction are:
- Student-content interaction
- Student-facilitator interaction
- Student-student interaction
Student-content interaction takes place when students are exposed to, and begin to interact deeply with, content resources like books, articles, videos, artwork, and so on. Student-content interaction can also encompass the creation of new content on the part of students, from traditional exercises like writing essays and research papers, to newer types of activities like creative projects or group podcasts. Student-content interaction is a part of nearly every learning environment, whether in-class or online, at every level of the education system. Student-content interaction is so important that for many of us it is the first (and sometimes the only) thing we think of when we think about teaching and learning.
Student-facilitator interaction takes many forms, but broadly speaking this type of interaction encompases all the ways in which students feel and sense the presence of a course facilitator. In Unit 3. Student-Facilitator Interaction we will discuss this highly important mode of interaction and the impact is has on student engagement, student outcomes, and student mental health, as well as on your own feelings of engagement and enjoyment of the course.
Student-student interaction is about peer connection and learning. Students can play an important role in building a sense of community in an online course by supporting each other, answering questions, and lightening the burden on the facilitator to guide all forms of interaction. Ideally, online courses have a space for students to gather (virtually) in order to interact in groups or as an entire class. As a facilitator, you set the stage for these interactions and may offer some guidance, but students should be empowered to interact directly with each other in student-led interactions.
With the right techniques, you will find that online classes can create student-content, student-facilitator, and student-student interaction that equals or even exceeds in-class versions of the same course. You can get to know your students, build rapport, help them through key challenges, get them learning from each other, and start learning new things yourself through your online courses, just as you are used to in a classroom. It really is possible and we will discuss some of the techniques you can use to help make interaction happen. Indeed, if you are a new online instructor or TA, you may even find that some of your new skills for engaging students online can begin to enhance your face-to-face teaching as well.
Check and reflect
1. Let’s try a quick reflection exercise. If you have access to the course you will be facilitating or have an idea of the format and content, think for a moment about some of the features of this course that will impact student-content interaction. Consider the content and how it will be delivered. Is there a significant amount of reading, a lot of multimedia, something else? What activities, tools, and assignments will students use to practise and demonstrate their learning? What is the expected enrolment for the course, and how many students will you be supporting as they work through the content? What else might impact students as they interact with course content?
Jot down some of the major challenges and opportunities you think you might have when it comes to helping build student-content interaction.
2. Now think about student-facilitator interaction. What opportunities do you see for helping students get to know you and to build trust and rapport? Is there opportunity to create some introductory content about yourself or your relationship to the topics, or content, in the course? What do you see as your teaching/facilitation strengths and how might you translate those to the online context? Where might your own voice and personality shine through?
Jot down some of the things you might do in order to help build student-facilitator interaction. What challenges might you face?
3. Finally, reflect on opportunities for student-student interaction in your online course. How might you encourage students to interact with one another? Are there discussion forums in the course? Group activities? Other collaborative assignments? How can you foster a safe learning environment while exploring the course content together? Do you foresee any risks or challenges in student-student interaction?
Jot down some of the things you might do to enhance student-student interaction and some of the challenges you think you might face.
The rest of this resouce is dedicated to these 3 important forms of interaction, so keep these initial thoughts and questions handy as you work through the rest of this resource. As you learn more about these modes of interaction, you are encouraged to update your response to these questions with strategies that feel authentic for you and that apply to your particular role, discipline, and context.
Blended or synchronous online courses
To conclude this unit, we would like to comment briefly on blended and synchronous styles of course facilitation. This resource will focus mainly on facilitating asynchronous online courses. However, many online courses today may include synchronous strategies like:
- digital conferencing: where some interactions take place online or virutally.
- flipped classrooms: where content is delivered online, however the amount of class time does not change, rather that time is devoted to in-person discussions, activities, and interaction.
- hybrid courses: similar to flipped classroom, but there is a reduction in in-person classtime and more online interactions.
If you are using synchronous strategies, we trust that the real-time or in-person elements of these course environments are familiar and that you are already good at building student engagement through live conversation. It is important to observe, however, that even with huge improvements in conferencing technology and other tools for synchronous connection, live online discussions remain challenging to manage. Poor bandwidth, hardware and software problems, and timing lags all limit the degree to which authentic and reliable engagement is possible through synchronous online tools. In addition, many students choose online courses for the flexibility they offer, precisely because they cannot devote time during normal business hours to their course (perhaps they are in a far-off time-zone or have a job).
For all these reasons, we believe that asynchronous strategies for building engagement tend to work best in most online courses and should be at the heart of your plan for fostering engagement. If you do use synchronous strategies in your online course, think of these as the icing on the cake — something extra — rather than planning for them to become the primary means by which you build student engagement.
Erickson, D. (2020, April 1). Q&A: A founder of distance education weighs in on its educational benefits. Retrieved from https://news.wisc.edu/qa-a-founder-of-distance-education-weighs-in-on-its-educational-benefits/
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Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher eduation. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.
Jaggars, S. S., & Xu, D. (2016). How do online course design features influence student performance? Computers & Education, 95, 270-284.
Moore, M. G. (1989). Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.
Moore, M. G. (1973). Toward a theory of independent learning and teaching. The Journal of Higher Education, 44(9), 661-679.
Moore, M. G. (1991). Editorial: Distance education theory. American Journal of Distance Education, 5(3), 1-6.
Rovai, A. P. (2002). Building a sense of community at a distance. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1), 1-16.