On the Community of Inquiry

The Community of Inquiry1 model, as set out in Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes & Garrison (2013), analyses learning in formal education settings into three components: social, cognitive, and teaching. The social component refers to establishing and maintaining a trusting, open and cohesive group. The cognitive component refers to reflective and discursive activities which support individual learning. The teaching presence refers to the organization and facilitation of group activities. Although this analytic separation is somewhat artificial, it captures some vital and exciting aspects of physical and online learning environments which resonate for me as I notice a recent “affective turn” in my professional work. I will talk about three such resonances in this blogpost.

I revisited Bloom’s taxonomy as part of a pedagogical course recently, and I noticed that I had only been aware of the knowledge and skills domain in the past, i.e the cognitive domain. The psychomotor domain, related to acquisition and mastery of embodied practices is less relevant to most of the teaching I am involved with (apart from the occasional guitar lesson), but I was struck by the affective domain which seems to be widely neglected in academia. This domain includes the kinds of attitudes and values that we want students to internalize. There’s a slight air of indoctrination about this domain, so it could help to conceive of it in terms of making values and attitudes possible for, or available to, students. Presumably it’s safe to say that we would like to produce students that are anti-racist and pro-sustainability, but we might have to think quite carefully about somehow requiring them to support not second-wave but third-wave feminism, for example. And how do we assess their commitment to that viewpoint? Might one risk giving a lower mark to a student who is politically too right-wing for my liking? (Is this a risk even in a course that does not have explicit ILOs or assessments linked to socio-political issues?) Perhaps this kind of sentiment has made teachers reluctant to prescribe values and attitudes as outcomes in their course descriptions. Or it could be because a teacher of, say, mathematics believes that values and attitudes of most kinds are not relevant to their students’ progress through their programmes. I don’t have to think very hard for values and attitudes to appear highly relevant to the teaching and learning of Academic English, yet they don’t appear in the descriptions of any of the courses I teach. The Community of Inquiry model provides a research basis for their inclusion in future, both for pedagogical purposes, as a core component of open and trusting teamwork (which could apply in any subject), and as an interesting and transformative perspective on the subject matter of language use.

The other two instances where the affective dimension of online collaboration has become relevant for me recently have been more personal. I am participating in an Erasmus+ project with teachers from a dozen European countries, and until a week or two ago, all of our interactions had been online. This meant that I knew some people by email only, and others via Skype or Zoom. All of our interactions had been quite business-like and transactional. Then we had a physical meeting in France, and it suddenly became natural to make more small talk, and even to share deeply personal stories about our lives and worldviews. This community building exercise transformed the feel of the project for me, and it provided new momentum. Could this have happened via purely online methods?

The ONL course has shown me that it is possible to develop authentic relationships in purely online situations. The PBL sessions in particular have been very valuable, particularly when individuals have felt comfortable to share aspects of themselves that they might have initially felt were “off task”. This might mean making small talk or sharing an anecdote before the business of the meeting started, but it also meant participating in the work together—collaborating—in a more authentic way. It meant being idiosyncratic and knowing that the others would receive that in a supportive and constructive manner. This feeling of trust emerged partly simply due to meeting twice a week for many weeks. It was facilitated by what felt like a “Eurovision Song Contest” vibe of very good-natured and smiley interaction despite the awkwardness of the computer mediation and the uneasy choice of English as a lingua franca. Having time to reflect on the process, and making the PBL process and the wider course part of the content of the meetings helped to increase and solidify the cohesion of the group.

Cleveland-Innes (2018) proposes affective presence as a fourth component of the Community of Inquiry model. I agree that it is certainly a component that permeates the other three (cognitive, social and teaching), and it could even be the most important one to formalize and make explicit when using online methods for collaborative learning.

  1. Vaughan, N. D., M. Cleveland-Innes & D. R. Garrison (2013) Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press.

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