Synchronous meetings, community of inquiry,COVID-19, and online graduate teacher education

April 2021

Source: Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 37:2, 111-127

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Before the pandemic began in Fall 2019, the authors planned an in-house self-study involving three sections of the same 100% online advanced licensure course examining contemporary U.S. immigration and its intersection with K-12 schools.
In an effort to recruit nationally across multiple time zones and concerned about scheduling conflicts, the course instructor proposed eliminating the one-hour monthly synchronous meetings that had punctuated the sixteen-week semester format of the course since its original design in Spring 2011.
The research team framed the proposal as an opportunity for self-study.
With the department chair and degree coordinators’ support, the course was offered with one section punctuated by monthly synchronous meeting sessions.
In contrast, the other two sections were offered without synchronous meetings.
The research question initially aimed to explore whether the synchronous sessions made a difference and what sort of difference to student perceptions of Community of Inquiry (COI) development.
However, when the authors’ initial analysis of the survey data revealed, somewhat surprisingly, no significant difference between the three sections’ perceptions of COI, they turned to semi-structured qualitative interviews to capture elaborated student reactions to their online experience that semester.
In this article, they begin with a brief explanation of COI—the theoretical framework the guided their questioning and analysis, and they outline the study.
They discuss their findings and the insights this self-study potentially provides into COI in online graduate teacher education.

The purpose of this self-study was to investigate student perceptions of the development of a COI in three online courses with five literature circles/modules distributed across the semester.
One of the courses incorporated online synchronous meetings, and the others remained completely asynchronous.
The research questions were as follows:
1. Do monthly synchronous meetings enhance the development of COI in an otherwise asynchronous online course?
2. What aspects of the course design and facilitation enhance the social, cognitive, and teaching presence, thus assisting in developing a community of inquiry?
3. What aspects of the course design and facilitation might further enhance COI?

Course participants
Sixty-nine advanced teacher licensure candidates enrolled in three sections of the course in spring 2020.
The course focused on examining the intersection of globalization and education with specific attention to the experiences of Latinos and the contemporary phenomenon of transnationalism.


COI survey
The COI survey was administered to the students electronically.
Students enrolled in the course were notified about the online survey through an email from the instructor.
The COI survey (Arbaugh et al., 2008) included 34 Likert scale items and an additional five demographics items.
The survey required 5-10 minutes to complete and remained open for approximately two weeks.
After the survey, students could opt into an interview by clicking on a link that took them to a separate survey requesting an email.

Survey respondents
Fifty-seven students responded to the survey, which resulted in a response rate of 82.6%—the students who responded participated in either a course with synchronous meetings (n = 14) or a completely asynchronous (n = 43) course format.

Interview questionnaire and participants
The researchers contacted the students who volunteered to be interviewed on the survey via email to set up interviews.
The researchers hosted 15 students for interviews in a synchronous meeting environment individually.
The interview protocol presented the interviewees with the COI framework and definitions of each presence followed by questions about aspects of the course design and facilitation that aided in building each presence and what course design and facilitation methods would have further improved the development of a COI.

Data collection
Data were collected in two phases.
The quantitative data from the COI survey was administered at the end of the Spring 2020 semester.
The COI survey is a validated instrument to measure the teaching presence, cognitive presence and social presence in blended and online courses.
The qualitative data consisted of interviews with student-volunteers.
These took place in the weeks following the conclusion of the course.

Findings and discussion

Synchronous interaction in building a community of inquiry
The COI survey items were rated high in all the course sections regardless of synchronous meetings.
This result aligns with Lee et al. (2017), who investigated student perceptions of social presence studying in asynchronous and synchronous environments.
Notably, Lee et al. found no significant differences except that students in the synchronous environment reported higher appreciation for classmates’ humor.
Likewise, this survey analysis suggests that carefully planned asynchronous courses can develop and sustain COI and that the COVID-19 emphasis on synchronous instruction might very well be just a knee-jerk response.

Teaching presence
Transitioning from F2F instruction to online instruction requires a shift from direct instruction to facilitated instruction or instructor-centered to learner-centered (Redmond, 2011).
It is evident that the instructor of this course encouraged students to engage in the learning process by setting a warm and inviting tone through messages and feedback that was timely and relevant.
The instructor also kept student learning progress as the primary focus by encouraging student discussion and individual exploration of each book for personal connection and interpretation before discussions and instructor commentary.
Examining various interpretations of the texts after this process allowed for a more open analysis of various perspectives.
This pedagogy may be why the students rated the COI items high in all sections regardless of the presence of synchronous meetings.

Social presence
The results of this study highlighted the importance of the instructor’s role in an online course.
Emerging research suggests the possibility of adding the construct of instructor social presence to COI somewhere in the overlapping realms of teaching and social presence (Pollard et al., 2014). Instructor social presence is heightened by a sense of closeness and immediacy reinforced by instructor persona, course design, and online communication strategies (Richardson & Lowenthal, 2017).
The instructor expressed a persona by setting a warm and inviting tone in which allowed the students to view the instructor as a co-learner rather than the course leader.
The instructor was accessible and provided consistent, timely positive encouragement through announcements and feedback.
The caring persona and the timely, supportive feedback provided by the instructor of this course support the idea that the instructor’s social presence influences students’ work ethic and satisfaction.
In the current study, instructor social presence transcended the technology used within the course that seemed to be more a matter of student preference (Kovanovic et al., 2015).
Additionally, allowing students to choose assignment products promoted students to express themselves, which may have increased social presence.
This assisted students with meaning-making which Shelton et al. (2020) recommended as one of the humanizing strategies in online teacher education.

Cognitive presence
There was evidence that the students in this course reported appreciation for the choices of assessments and stated the choice of assignments increased social and cognitive presence.
Selecting different ways to express their knowledge required that they cognitively explore the topics differently and be creative in how they presented that new knowledge.
Achievement data was not collected and might be a fruitful direction for future research.

The current study supports the notion that teaching presence drives social and cognitive presences, enabling the development of COI.
Careful course design coupled with effective facilitation strategies increases the likelihood of the development of COI.
This course was refined over many years and achieved QM Certification as a mark of its quality.
The facilitation strategies of the instructor also evolved and improved over time with experience and training.
Faculty currently transitioning from F2F to online can benefit from more experienced faculty knowledge and experiences, such as this course’s instructor.
Additionally, instructor social presence is critical to students’ perception of an online learning environment promoting COI.
When learner’s feel isolated and nervous, having a caring, communicative, and approachable instructor can ease those feelings and shift the focus to the learning at hand.
Setting this tone can be done by sharing personal details, conversational and encouraging language and being responsive to students.
Humanizing online learning is an emerging framework that encompasses this concept.
Pacansky-Brock et al. (2019) defines four interwoven principles to humanize online learning: empathy, awareness, presence and trust.
Instructors should cultivate student trust by being vulnerable.
Presence requires intentionally presenting your authentic self to communicate imperfect and personal learning journey.
Awareness requires acquiring knowledge about students and their support needs.
Empathy requires understanding the student’s perspective without judgment and supporting their learning goals.

Arbaugh, J. B., Cleveland-Innes, M., Diaz, S. R., Garrison, D. R., Ice, P., Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. P. (2008). Developing a community of inquiry instrument: Testing a measure of the community of inquiry framework using a multi-institutional sample. The Internet and Higher Education, 11(3–4), 133–136
Kovanovic, V., Ga sevic, D., Joksimovic, S., Hatala, M., & Adesope, O. (2015). Analytics of communities of inquiry: Effects of learning technology use on cognitive presence in asynchronous online discussions. The Internet and Higher Education, 27, 74–89.
Lee, D., Spear, R., & Kero, P. (2017). Perceptions of social presence among public university graduate students enrolled in synchronous and asynchronous coursework.
Pacansky-Brock, M., Smedshammer, M., & Vincent-Layton, K. (2019). Humanizing online teaching to equitize higher education.
Pollard, H., Minor, M., & Swanson, A. (2014). Instructor social presence within the community of inquiry framework and its impact on classroom community and the learning environment. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 17(2), 41–52.
Redmond, P. (2011). From face-to-face teaching to online teaching: Pedagogical transitions [Paper presentation]. Proceedings ASCILITE 2011: 28th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education: Changing Demands, Changing Directions (pp. 1050–1060). Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE).
Richardson, J. C., & Lowenthal, P. (2017). Instructor social presence: A neglected component of the community of inquiry [Paper presentation]. Paper Presented at the the International Scientific Conference eLearning and Software for Education.
Shelton, C., Aguilera, E., Gleason, B., & Mehta, R. (2020). Resisting dehumanizing assessments: Enacting critical humanizing pedagogies in online teacher education. In R. E. Ferdig, E. Baumgartner, R. Hartshorne, R. KaplanRakowski, & C. Mouza (Eds.), Teaching, technology, and teacher education during the COVID-19 pandemic: Stories from the field (pp. 125–128). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). 

Updated: Nov. 07, 2021