Virtual classroom connections: enhancing three presence elements via online tools

Nguyen Hoang Thuan and Pham Cong Hiep provide practical tips for enhancing three types of presence – teaching, social and cognitive – in online learning and teaching, based on their research

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RMIT University Vietnam
27 Aug 2021
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Making the implicit explicit: improve online learning through ‘presence’

about 1 year ago
Using the Community of Inquiry to improve online learning outcomes

Maintaining teaching, social and cognitive presence as part of the community of inquiry (CoI) proposed in the work of Randy Garrison, emeritus professor at the University of Calgary, has long been key tenet of higher education. But in online learning, designing and implementing learning activities to address these presence elements and maintain engagement and connection are even more essential.

So we decided to examine students’ perceptions of online presence based on differing approaches by lecturers and their institution during three semesters of online learning in 2020, using data from focus groups with 20 undergraduate students at a Vietnamese university.

We found the three key forms of presence – teaching, social and cognitive – that make up an effective community of inquiry need to be made explicit to learners through purposeful learning design supported by effective educational technologies. Here are some tips to help achieve this, based on using Microsoft Teams (Teams) but applicable to many other teaching tools.

Develop teaching presence

Teaching presence covers all aspects of the design, organisation, facilitation and direct instruction of an online course which support personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes. Students are highly aware of teaching presence, our research showed, and feel satisfied when they have ongoing and reciprocated interactions with lecturers. Here are some easy ways to develop better student-teacher interactions:

  • Get to the online class five minutes early to chat with students

  • Use Together mode, which digitally places all the participants in a shared background, making it feel like you’re sitting in the same room with everyone

  • Use both voice and chat functions to respond to students

  • As a lecturer, share your own photos and contact details

  • Allocate consulting times for the whole class or groups of students 

  • Set up a drop-in Teams meeting where students can ask questions

  • Stay in the online class until most students leave as, usually, some stay back to ask questions.

Boost social presence

Social presence refers to the degree to which a learner feels personally connected with other students and instructors. Students are not clear about whether this is important to their learning, though it appears to boost their morale and excitement in online classes, according to our study. Big class sizes and lack of prior personal contact were found to be the main reasons for lack of socialising. To address these challenges and boost social presence, we can:

  • Ask students to post a brief introduction and share a photo of themselves on the Teams channel before the first class 

  • Before each class, ask all students to turn on their camera and microphone to have five minutes of socialising

  • During online class, call out students’ names to ask for input

  • Encourage students to share personal achievements, learning experiences or relevant reading with others in the group

  • If a question has been asked by multiple students, share it and the answer with the group

  • Introduce a fun game before each class so students are relaxed and open to more conversations.

Ensure cognitive presence

Cognitive presence refers to the extent to which learners can gain understanding and construct meaning through collaboration and reflection. Our study suggested that live chats, lecture recordings and the availability of Q&A message histories enable students to review the content after the classes. Other steps to enhance online cognitive presence include:

  • Encourage students to post questions throughout online classes in the chat or via a shared discussion forum

  • Pose challenging questions for online discussion using available search tools

  • Ask specific students to comment on a problem rather than addressing the whole class 

  • During online lectures, use breakout rooms for student discussion. The breakout can be done automatically, which randomly adds students to certain groups, or manually, so students are assigned. The lecturer can visit each room to initiate discussions. Afterwards, ask each group to present their outcomes

  • Use the drop-in Teams meeting to clarify misunderstandings

  • Record online teaching sessions, so students can re-watch and revise later.

These tips, which help improve the three presence elements based on the CoI framework, should be used in combination so they maximise the impact on students’ learning and satisfaction.

Nguyen Hoang Thuan is senior programme manager in digital business and Pham Cong Hiep is senior lecturer in logistics and supply chain management, both at the School of Business and Management, RMIT University Vietnam.

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