Presence in an Online Course


Presence in an Online Course


The model most often cited when discussion turns to presence in the online environment is the community of inquiry (COI) model of Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (1999; see Figure 10.1). This model identifies three interrelated types of presence—social, cognitive, and teaching—that interact to create an online environment to promote learning. To this model, Shea and Bidjerano (2012) proposed adding a fourth presence, that of learning. In this chapter, we explore the COI model, current research, and best practices that the model suggests. We then turn to the more practical side of teaching online and operationalizing the COI in Chapter 11.

My goal in this chapter is not to strictly reiterate the seminal work of Garrison et al. (1999), but instead to provide a stronger case for two perspectives of the COI, that of students as well as faculty. I feel this is important in view of the work of Shea and Bidjerano (2010), who have underscored what the learner brings to the COI. Their suggestion to add a separate presence, that of learner presence as the fourth presence in the model, provided insight into the original conceptualization, and allowed me to reflect on aspects that perhaps I had not fully considered. Although the characteristics of the learner are important in terms of creating and maintaining a COI and should have a more prominent position in the model, adding the fourth presence seems to me to muddy the waters. Instead of doing so, I suggest that both learners and faculty share aspects of social, cognitive, and teaching presence that are interdependent and necessary for inquiry to occur.


Social presence was initially defined as “the ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the 226community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as real ‘people’” (Garrison et al., 1999, p. 89). In the early days of online education, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the social aspects of online courses. Some felt that a sense of community, similar to that developed in a classroom setting, would be difficult to replicate online because the subtle nuances that occurred in the classroom, such as eye contact, welcoming smiles, and body language, were absent in the online world (Garrison, Cleveland-Innes, & Fung, 2010; Palloff & Pratt, 2007). However, this has not been shown to be the case after all, as students and faculty found ways to communicate effectively and develop personal connections.


FIGURE 10.1    Community of Inquiry Framework
Source: Garrison (2007). Reprinted by permission of Dr. D. R. Garrison.

Three indicators of social presence were identified in the COI model according to Garrison et al. (1999, p. 100) and are listed in Box 10.1. The indicators were discussed in this order in the literature, and I believe many felt the order indicated a progression toward social presence—almost a formula of sorts:

Emotional expression + open communication = group cohesion


227BOX 10.1

1.  Emotional expression (humor and self-disclosure)

2.  Open communication (mutual awareness and recognition)

3.  Group cohesion


This progression indicated that emotional expression was a precursor to open communication, which was required to develop a sense of group cohesion. However, over time and based on continued research, the relationship of these three indicators shifted, a different temporal relationship emerged, and emotional expression took somewhat of a backseat to open communication and the understood common purpose of learning. Garrison, Cleveland-Innes, et al. (2010) subsequently redefined social presence as “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (p. 32) to situate the purpose of the community, that of shared learning, in a prominent place. This corresponds with work of Rogers and Lea (2005), who found that students first identified with the purpose of the course and personal relationships developed as a product of that shared purpose.

The relationship among the three presences—social, cognitive, and teaching—has not been researched as often as each presence separately (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010), but generally speaking it is the faculty’s responsibility to initially set the tone for social presence to develop and support learning (cognitive presence). Strategies to do that follow.

It is easy to forget that in the COI model the term participant includes both students and faculty in terms of developing and maintaining social, cognitive, and teaching presence. The three indicators of social presence, expression of emotion, open communication, and group cohesion have different and interdependent implications for students and faculty. The roles students and faculty have in developing social presence differed, however, in timing, focus (monitor vs. monitored), and relationship to cognitive presence.

Most nursing students returning for the RN to bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree or entering graduate school instinctively understand why they were there. They are adults who have educational goals in mind and most are self-directed—two assumptions of andragogy (Forrest & Peterson, 2006). Nevertheless, some need guidance in adjusting to the online environment and working collaboratively in groups. The role of faculty in creating social presence has therefore shifted from promoting social 228relationships to that of creating a safe space where open communication and critical discourse can occur (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). For faculty, modeling caring, professional, collegial behavior that creates a we are in this together atmosphere underscores the fact that learning is not a one-way street. Modeling also helps to create a safe space in which students are not afraid to post their understandings or make mistakes, allowing them the freedom to learn.

Indicators of Social Presence

Emotional Expression

In the online environment, emotions are expressed by introducing humor and self-disclosure. Faculty must find the balance between sharing too much personal information or humorous anecdotes as if trying to make friends, and seeming too distant, taking the sage on the stage stance. Millennial learners relate more effectively to faculty who share who they are, how and why they became educators, and how they balance work and life responsibilities (Roberts, Newman, & Schwartzstein, 2012). In addition, Price (2010) notes that millennials do not do well in an authoritarian power structure, relating better to faculty they perceive as “down-to-earth, informal, relaxed, and flexible” as opposed to those who are “uptight, strict, intimidating, or condescending” (p. 3). They describe their ideal professor as one who is “approachable and easy to talk to’” (p. 4).

Another fairly uncommon occurrence in online discussions, but one that deserves mention, involves students whose posts remain strictly of a social nature that do not contribute to the development of critical discourse. Janssen, Erkens, Kirschner, and Kanselaar (2012) studied the relationship between task and social regulation to overall group performance on a task. They found that task regulation and coordination of group processes and progress positively affected group performance, whereas dialogue of a purely social nature, such as joking, personal disclosure, and indicating agreement or lack of understanding with what the student had posted, had a negative effect. Although this supports what I said earlier, it also underscores the importance of faculty oversight to ensure that social presence in terms of emotional expression tapers off so that cognitive presence can become the prominent feature in online discussions.

Open Communication

Garrison and colleagues (1999) characterized open communication as “reciprocal and respectful exchanges” (p. 100) whose indicators were mutual awareness and recognition. Given that online education is basically a 229text-based medium, the tone and wording of not only faculty posts and announcements, but also individual e-mails should be approached with care. Phrasing should be upbeat, informal, and begin with a personal salutation (with an individual’s name or “For all” in online posts) included. Keep in mind that every piece of written communication is permanent and is an opportunity for faculty to model appropriate online behavior. Although you cannot control how another person perceives something you have written, rereading any written communication will often pick up nuances that could be misunderstood.

Mutual Awareness

Mutual awareness is part of open communication and occurs when responding to students in the discussion, particularly who you choose to respond to and how often you respond. As responding to all students’ posts in every discussion is not recommended (see Chapter 11), rotating your replies so that you respond to all students equally throughout the discussions in the course demonstrates awareness of all. If you do not track this, you may find yourself consistently replying to a few students and not to others. A tool to track your responses to students is discussed in Chapter 11.

When a student replies to another student’s post, the subtle message is that this student’s post has been deemed worthy of reply over the others in the thread. This adds a sense of camaraderie and can be a motivating factor. Students should be instructed to personalize the reply by starting out the post with “Hi, Jane,” for example, or adding “Response to Jane” in the subject line, emphasizing the personal connection. This practice, which should be encouraged, is helpful not only to display a sense of mutual awareness, but also to organize the discussion thread so it is clear who is responding to whom. Faculty should do the same when replying to students.

Whenever possible when replying to a student, mention or directly quote something a student has posted that piqued your interest or is particularly relevant to the topic, and expand upon the idea or associate it with content from another student’s post. Although this is good practice for faculty, students can overuse this approach and avoid contributing to the discussion, essentially becoming “stuck” in the mutual awareness aspect of social presence. This becomes evident when a student’s reply to a classmate includes only direct quotes from his or her post or paraphrases what they had posted. Although this is an excellent means of showing mutual support, without the replier adding additional content or asking a question to advance the conversation, the discussion will stagnate. Students who repeatedly use this approach may be disengaged in the discussion, lack preparation, or do not have an understanding of course content. For that reason, discussion posts, especially early on in the course, 230must be carefully monitored for ongoing social behavior, as some behaviors are useful, whereas others can impede the discourse from shifting to collaborative critical inquiry.


Recognition, the other aspect of open communication, is demonstrated when students acknowledge the value of others’ contributions and show agreement with and appreciation for their perspectives. Faculty can demonstrate recognition by starting their posts with “I so appreciate that you mentioned . . .” or “I agree with your comment regarding . . .,” which provides encouragement that will impact motivation and persistence. Although this aspect of presence is important to the development of a cohesive community, sustaining it is more important (and perhaps essential) if the content of the discussion relates to the affective domain rather than the cognitive. However, if the goal of the discussion is knowledge construction, continued reliance on this approach when replying to a post can be deleterious to the outcome for the entire group. Without adding a substantive comment, additional related content, or asking a probing question, posts that only reiterate what the other student has said or are strictly complimentary do not move the discussion forward. Do keep in mind that this type of behavior may indicate that the student does not understand the content being discussed, a red flag that his or her zone of proximal development has been encountered. In this instance, scaffolding from faculty may be the best choice of action (see Chapter 11) from a pedagogical perspective.

Posts indicating that the student is stuck in the open communication phase of social presence are easy to miss, but perilous to the outcome of the discussion, as well as the potential learning of the responding student. The concern is that other students will follow suit and take up this rather easy means of getting credit for posts. The best approach for faculty is to privately e-mail any student who demonstrates continued and exclusive use of mutual awareness and/or recognition when replying to a classmate’s post to problem solve, clear up any misconceptions regarding the quality of postings, point out exemplars of “good” posts within the discussion, and reiterate that the goal of knowledge construction requires substantive posts—or whatever wording is included in your grading rubric that addresses the quality of student’s responses. From my perspective, the term substantive refers to the depth of the post and demonstrates higher cognitive functioning of application, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation of course content.

Students who persist in demonstrating this type of social behavior will require continued and close monitoring, and perhaps continued private feedback, until they move on to more of a collaborative type of knowledge 231construction. My experience in teaching graduate students indicated that this behavior is not common, but I did not want to overlook it. The discussion-tracking tool is useful in helping me remember which student is exhibiting continued social presence so I can intervene as necessary.

Group Cohesion

Faculty’s role in promoting group cohesion relies, in part, on that of monitoring the quality of students’ posts and on the art of facilitation that is discussed in detailed in Chapter 11. Frequent monitoring allows you to guide students so that a discussion is what occurs rather than a series of unrelated narratives. Connecting contents of posts noting either similarities or contrasting features and mentioning student’s names and perspectives will help to promote the idea that this is a collaborative effort. Also, bringing in your own perspective and examples from your experience may help students connect and function as a group.

Group cohesiveness is essential if a collaborative group project is the deliverable from the discussion, and necessary if coconstruction of knowledge is the goal. However, achieving these ends is also a function of faculty presence in the course (teaching presence), facilitative abilities, and being aware of and understanding the cognitive level required to complete the activity (i.e., knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation). I have witnessed instances in which discussions did not involve any integration because the discussion question was written at the knowledge or comprehension level of Bloom‘s taxonomy. Because of this, students simply paraphrased information from their textbooks, resulting in every post containing the same content—a series of monologues as noted by Garrison et al. (1999). When this occurs, there is simply nothing to discuss, and students struggle to find ways to contribute to and maintain a discussion. Discussion questions aimed at the lower cognitive levels of Bloom (knowledge and comprehension) actually increased cognitive load (Chapter 1).

Course Design to Promote Social Presence

Features of course design that can promote development of social presence early on include an online forum (discussion group link) dedicated to introductions within the assigned small discussion groups if the class is large, or for the entire class if the number of students is more manageable. A class of 25 to 30 students can all introduce themselves in one link. If separate discussion forums are set up for this purpose, allowing members of other groups to peek in and join the introductions if they so desire is a good plan. The forum for introductions should be opened when the class starts, as 232students are often eager to get started and may feel a bit intimidated by posting online if the course occurs early in their academic program. Faculty should be active in this area and welcome students one by one or by grouping names in one post. It is essential to respond to the student by name, starting your post with “Hello, Mary,” “Hi, Mary,” or just “Mary,” although the latter seems a bit harsh. In large-enrollment classes where this approach is not feasible, periodically posting how much you are enjoying learning about each student and thanking them for introducing themselves will transmit the message that you are reading the introductions. Remember to use emoticons effectively to transmit feelings if the words alone do not capture them.

Although this forum provides a place for students and faculty to get acquainted, it also gives students a chance to experiment with posting in a discussion where no evaluation of their post will occur. If your course occurs early on in the academic program, structuring the introductions by providing questions for students to respond to will be welcomed. In my experience, I have not witnessed much interaction in the introductory postings, but students do share information about their personal and professional lives, so that other students have a sense of who their classmates are in terms of nursing specialty, experience, and personal interests.

Keep in mind that introductions are not an element of academic achievement (Chapter 9) so no points should be allotted to this activity. This is one course activity that is optional. However, in my experience, most, if not all, students do take the time to post an introduction.

Although the defining factors of the social aspect of online education have changed somewhat over the years, its relationship to cognitive presence remains foundational. Learners who cannot collaborate or cooperate and do not share a common goal will have difficulty developing a sense of community, where inquiry is central (Garrison, 2007).


Cognitive presence has been defined in a number of ways over the years, but the most meaningful definition, in my view, was offered by Garrison (2007) as “the exploration, construction, resolution and confirmation of understanding through collaboration and reflection in a community of inquiry” (p. 65). This is based on Dewey’s practical inquiry model as conceptualized for teaching online by Garrison and colleagues (1999). The four steps in the inquiry process model are listed in Box 10.2.

In the first step of Dewey’s inquiry model as conceptualized by Garrison and colleagues (1999), a triggering event starts the discussion and is often posed in the form of a question to be answered or a problem to be solved. 233Whatever the format, dissonance, or a sense of imbalance, occurs that must be resolved (Garrison et al., 1999). Although faculty typically start the discussion with a triggering event, as the discussion evolves students may post questions to faculty or in reply to classmates that stimulate a new and appropriate direction of inquiry. Indicators of this phase are posts that reflect “puzzlement” or “recognition of the problem” (Akyol & Garrison, 2011, p. 240).

Jul 29, 2018 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Presence in an Online Course

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