Using a Community of Inquiry Lens to Examine Synchronous Online Discussions in Graduate Courses

Using a Community of Inquiry Lens to Examine Synchronous Online Discussions in Graduate Courses

Barbara Brown, Sarah Elaine Eaton
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 34
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3292-8.ch010
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Instructors use synchronous sessions in higher education online courses to connect with students in real-time discussions. In this qualitative study, researchers examined 12 recordings of synchronous activity in four educational research graduate courses. Students completed a survey with open-ended questions after each synchronous session, and students and instructors were interviewed at the end of the term so that researchers could learn more about how synchronous online discussion cultivated a scholarly community of inquiry. Findings suggest that engagement strategies, such as student-facilitated presentations and case study discussions, fostered social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence. Findings also suggest that engagement strategies were valuable for promoting interactivity during synchronous sessions. Although synchronous discussions were used as a pedagogical approach and companion to asynchronous course work to support students' learning, unreliable technology presented challenges, possibly limiting the quality of discussions in online environments.
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As technological innovations for online learning have developed, so has its popularity and demand in higher education (Alexander et al., 2019; Allen & Seaman, 2012, 2017; Donovan et al., 2019; Johnson, 2019). A survey of Canadian universities and colleges found the number of institutions offering online courses increased from 76% in 2011 to 79% in 2016, and “two thirds of all Canadian post-secondary institutions consider online learning as very or extremely important for their long-term future” (Donovan et al., 2019, p. 6). The adoption of online education has been supported, in part, by administrators who see it as an avenue to increase access and enrollment, circumvent space shortages, and maintain budget efficiencies (Barr & Turner, 2013). Teaching online can also influence innovation in pedagogical practice (Donovan et al., 2019). In turn, students are attracted to online learning for its convenience and flexibility (Drefs et al., 2015). Additionally, the format of online courses may be beneficial for some students who, for multiple reasons, do not typically do well in on-campus classes (Rudestam, 2004), or for students who want greater flexibility in how they learn (Watts, 2016).

Researchers have argued that online courses can improve learner participation and interactions for enhanced learning (Bower, 2016; Garrison, 2017; Hrastinski, 2009); and that student-centered approaches can foster a sense of community in online courses (Bower, 2016; Park & Bonk, 2007; Young & Bruce, 2011). Moreover, supporting interaction and building a sense of community among learners are important components of the online environment (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Garrison, 2017; Qiu, Hewitt & Brett, 2014). With online undergraduate and graduate courses becoming more accessible, Lee and Brett (2015) discuss the need to develop instructional strategies and technological supports to enhance interactions, specifically in online discussions. In a literature review about communication in distance learning, Watts (2016) indicated that a key issue in distance learning is a presumed lack of interaction in online courses. Hence, Watts recommended designing both asynchronous and synchronous interactions to connect instructors and students for discussions.

Traditionally used in online courses, asynchronous discussions have been widely studied and show promising results for engaging students in learning (Lee & Brett, 2015; Shea et al., 2010; Watts, 2016). Synchronous discussions have also been shown to positively impact student learning, particularly with the availability of newer communication tools, such as “synchronously using audio, video, text chat, interactive whiteboard, application sharing, instant polling, webcams, emoticons, and working together in breakout rooms” (Martin, Ahlgrim-Delzell, & Budhrani, 2017, p. 16). However, some researchers have argued that synchronous delivery can also promote inequality, particularly if some students are unable to attend the real-time sessions (Banna, Grace Lin, Steward, & Fialkowski, 2015). Engaging students through interactivity is an important consideration as demand for online coursework and quality learning experiences continues to grow in post-secondary institutions using both asynchronous and synchronous communications.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Pedagogical Approach: An educational decision made by the instructor to support student learning, engagement, and instructor-student, student-student or student-content interactions.

Discussion: A pedagogical approach used to promote knowledge communities building in the form of dialectical conversations and through drawing on the multiple perspectives of the participants in the discussion, and their unique experiences and knowledge contributions.

Case Study Discussion: Instructors use real and problematic situations to prepare questions and provocations to initiate class discussion and promote interactivity during class.

Community Of Inquiry: A theoretical framework used for understanding the interaction of social, cognitive, and teaching presence in online courses.

Signature: A style of teaching or structure that is common to the discipline, profession, or specific area of study.

Collaboratory Courses: Graduate level courses designed to support students in conceptualizing and conducting research. In the collaboratory courses, students are also expected to contribute to a scholarly community and provide peers with constructive feedback about their research.

Student-Facilitated Presentations: An opportunity for students to present their work during a class and facilitate a discussion with peers and the instructor.

Synchronous Online Discussion: A real-time discussion using a combination of text, audio and video features to engage in conversational-style discussion to build community and have access to immediate feedback from peers and the instructor.

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