Let’s strive for an ecosystem of learning, shall we?

What is online learning? What about blended learning? How does one design for one, or the other? Are they interchangeable? How does a flipped classroom fit into the picture? So many questions. And so many more answers.

In case you missed my earlier blogs, my foray into online and blended learning started just under two years ago. It has been a very steep learning curve, one that I have jumped in with both feet, with my eyes wide open.

From the beginning of the ONL course, I have looked forward to this topic, for the simple reason that it’s directly related to what I do. That is, in fact, my primary role here at the university; I design online and blended learning courses, in collaboration with the university’s academic staff.

What I have learnt in this topic has very practical implications to what I do. So it was for purely selfish reasons that I offered to be the leader for the topic. And so I lead, the only trouble was, I find myself with no followers.

Due to conflicting schedules and heavy workloads, my team has now dwindled to three, Bengt, Caroline and myself. Over the two weeks, we did not have the opportunity to meet all at once. But what we couldn’t do synchronously, we strived to achieve asynchronously. I walked the talked, taking to heart what we collectively learnt in the previous two weeks, to communicate efficiently and effectively to facilitate asynchronous collaboration. That I did.

We did manage to pull together a presentation, but I can’t help but feel that I had monopolised the topic. Was I being bossy? Did I overstep some invisible boundary? Maybe. But we needed to get things done, no? Don’t get me wrong, I was more than happy to take on the work, I quite enjoyed putting it all together.

But I gleaned several very important lessons from this topic and our overall experience. First, it made me think long and hard about the design process, specifically against the Community of Inquiry framework, and using the Gilly Salmon 5-stage model as a guide.

I was reminded yet again of the real challenges faced in the pursuit of building and maintaining a community of online learners. But it did make me think of the fundamental strategies to include in the design stage to mitigate these challenges. It also brought up some fairly creative ideas to encourage community building, especially among a community of international students.

Finally it also made me think hard about the facilitator’s role in promoting this very online community and how a fourth presence comes into play, apart from social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence. How in reality emotional presence permeates the entire CoI experience. Fascinating stuff – especially for someone like me, who wears her heart on her sleeve!

Creating the right environment for learning isn’t an easy task. It requires an understanding; and an appreciation of a whole host of things, from pedagogy to psychology. Enter the Community of Inquiry framework, one that, according to Lipman, 1991, is “the most promising methodology for the encouragement of that fusion of critical and creative cognitive processing.”

A good online or blended learning module is like a carefully orchestrated symphony, where every single musician, from every single section is playing the right note, at the right time, according to the right tempo, under the expert guidance of the conductor, in this case, the teacher. But the beautiful music can only be achieved because everyone has the same score to guide the music making.

The score is your plan, your blueprint, as it were. Just as time, effort and inspiration are needed to create that flawless musical masterpiece, so too does your flawless lesson plan.

And you begin at the design phase, getting back to basics, articulating your learning objectives. With these in mind, you can then go ahead and plan the activities to scaffold the learning process.

So where does the CoI fit in? According to the framework, learning happens best when three things collide – social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence. And when your learners are at that happy intersection, the learning also continues, over and above that temporary state.

So it is not our job to cultivate a healthy ecosystem at that happy intersection; an ecosystem that will continue to grow organically. And within these ecosystems, personal learning networks will naturally develop, smaller communities of like-minded individuals who are in pursuit of similar interests.

Beyond social, cognitive and teaching presence, Dr Cleveland-Innes suggests a fourth presence, a very important one, and that is emotional presence – something that permeates all three of the above. I personally find this really fascinating, because we’re all emotional beings are we not?

In fact many studies have shown how emotions affect learning, and many others have shown how learners who are in better control of their emotions learn better. So we cannot take emotions out of the equation when thinking of the CoI framework. Without getting into too much detail, the general rule is that the happier and more secure we are, the better we learn.

But emotional presence does not translate well in an online environment. Much is lost online, the non-verbal cues, the facial expressions, the body language, the spontaneity.  Turn taking becomes a lot more belaboured during online meetings. Overlapping conversations don’t work as well in the virtual world. And don’t even get me started on humour! Try cracking a joke when your punchline is delivered to participants at different times.

That said, all is not lost. It doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope of creating online learning networks. It just means we must work twice as hard at it, but the payoff is certainly well worth the effort.

All in all, it has been a great learning experience, and we should all strive to build an ecosystem of online learning, one where we can all grow together and support each other.

Cleveland-Innes, M. (2019). Emotion and learning – emotional presence in the Community of Inquiry framework (CoI)?

Salmon, G (2013) The Five Stage Model

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press. Chapter 1 “The Community of Inquiry Conceptual framework”.

2 thoughts on “Let’s strive for an ecosystem of learning, shall we?

  1. Sounds like by taking the driver’s seat, you have really learnt a lot. It’s good that you point out the importance of emotional presence but also highlight some of the challenges when communication takes place in a text-based environment. I like your analogy of the orchestra and the music though think that perhaps it needn’t be an entirely “flawfless musical masterpiece” as criterion; perhaps the flaws make us human, more interesting and adds to the emotional presence. I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs, all the best!


    1. Thank you for your comments. We did discuss at some length the challenges and limitations of text-based communication, like the absence of non-verbal cues which leads to some room for ambiguity in terms of nuances etc.
      Thanks again for dropping by 🙂


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