This is a report on the findings of the Community of Enquiry, set up in the nineties in the University of Alberta by the three authors, to investigate the then recent idea of graduate programs being delivered online, with an emphasis on discussion and debate taking place in discussion forums. They were delivering a graduate program in Communications and Technology, so it was a pretty apt study given the context.
Social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence were the three main elements identified by the group as being vital to the process of successful online learning. The online communication was text based and asynchronous. This was in the sense that a face to face classroom or video conferencing situation is synchronous, where people present are able to directly respond to each other. They were very interested in the pros and cons of both approaches, against the perceived background that too much of the learning experience was lost in the asynchronous approach.
There was an extensive study of the transcripts of students’ discussions in order to tease out how these different presences were working together to give students a well rounded and rewarding educational experience, in order to see how this experience could be improved. There is a long description of how exacting they were in analysing the data they got, most of which is scarily complex. I was very struck by their use of the phrase “unit of learning” and their attempts to define what that might even be. It seem it’s easy to quantify how many words or posts a student has written or responded to, but not so easy to quantify exactly how much “stuff” was learned. Quantitative analysis is a lot easier to do than qualitative analysis it seems. This issue prompted them to examine those difficulties specifically in another study. The study seems to have been very influential, having been cited over 600 times in scholarly publications at the time of writing.