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Faculty Resources for Online Teaching

Community of Inquiry

Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) developed a conceptual model of online learning called "community of inquiry" (Figure 1). The model conceptualized deep and meaningful learning through three presences. Cognitive presence is the degree to which serious learning can take place in an environment that supports the development and growth of critical thinking skills. Social presence relates to establishing a supportive environment such that students feel the necessary degree of comfort and safety to express their ideas in a collaborative context, and to present themselves as real and functional human beings. Teaching presence is the structure and process of learning.

Figure 1

Teachers design and organize the learning experience that takes place. Also, teaching involves devising and implementing activities to encourage discourse between and among students, teacher, and content. The role of the teacher goes beyond moderating the learning experiences by adding subject-matter expertise. 

Designing and Organizing the Online Learning Context

Flexibility in learning requires the teacher to negotiate activities to satisfy learner needs (Dron, 2007). However, the need to stimulate, guide, and support learners remains. These tasks include "the design of a series of learning activities that encourage independent study and community building, that deeply explore content knowledge, that provide frequent and diverse form of formative assessment, and that respond to common and unique student needs and aspirations" (Anderson, 2008, p.346).

However, getting the mix right between opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous interaction and group and independent study activities remains a challenge (Anderson, 2003). There are two competing models of online learning: the community of learning model and the independent study model.

Community of learning - uses real-time synchronous or asynchronous communication technologies to create virtual classrooms that model campus classrooms.

Advantages: Familiar educational model to campus-based classrooms and provides increased access. 

Disadvantages: Problem of synchronous access is compounded when class spans time zones. Asynchronous version results in a shortage of coordination and reduce opportunities for students to feel engaged with class.

Independent study - learners work by themselves and at their own pace through the course of instruction

Advantages: Maximixes flexibility and allows for continuous enrolment or "just-in-time" access to educational content. 

Disadvantages: Capacity to facilitate group, social, or collaborative learning activities is challenging. 

Fortunately, it is possible to combine both models in the same course.

Facilitating Discourse

Discourse is the process or power of reasoning (Pickett et al., 2007) and involves more than a discussion or conversation. It means that learners develop their own thought processes as they articulate their ideas to others. Discourse can help students uncover misconceptions in their own thinking or disagreements with the teacher or other students. 

Forms of discourse

The teacher may request that students articulate their reasons for enrolling in the course. Students may be asked to respond to questions every week. Icebreakers and other activities may be effective in breaking down inhibitors to free and open discourse.

Many online courses rely extensively on a model where the teacher posts questions or discussion items relevant to the readings or the other forms of content dissemination. Overreliance on this form of discourse soon becomes boring and the learning becomes teacher-led rather than challenging students to formulate their own questions and comments (Anderson, 2008). Greater levels of participation, motivation, and student satisfaction have been seen when the discussion is led by students (Rourke & Anderson, 2002). However, students may not have the necessary skills to undertake successful moderation of class discussion. Also, there are barriers felt by learners in developing critical discourse, so the activity needs to be well-structured with clearly defined roles for teachers and students, and a method of assessing students' participation that reflects the time and effort required to engage in critical discourse (Rourke & Kanuka, 2007).

Assessment of Discourse

Timely and detailed feedback provided throughout the course, and as near in time as possible to the performance of the assessed behaviour, is the most effective in providing motivation, shaping behaviour, and developing mental constructs (Shepard, 2000). Machine evaluations such as those provided in online learning simulations can be very effective (Prensky, 2001). However, there is the need for direct communication and feedback from the teacher to the students (Laurillard, 1997). Thus, feedback is an integral part of facilitating online discourse.

A commonly used component of student assessment in online education is to require students to post comments. However, this is a hotly debated topic (Anderson, 2008). Some the practice of marking for participation seems only to recall the practice of attendance marking that rewards the quantity, and not the quality, of participation (Campbell, 2002). Others contend that in the absence of incentive for participation, a community will not be created (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Most online student are adults facing much competition for their time and are less likely to participate in activities that are marginalized or viewed as supplemental to the course goals and assessment schema. 

Student assessment of any kind requires that the teacher be explicit fair, consistent, and as objective as possible. This includes requirements on the quantity of posts (e.g., two responses per discussion question) and the quality (e.g., avoid posting "I agree" or "great idea" if you agree or disagree post why; connect the post to previous postings, examples, or readings; posts should further the discussion).


Teachers provide intellectual and scholarly leadership and share their subject matter knowledge with students.

The online teacher must be able to set and communicate the intellectual climate of the course, and model the qualitities of a scholar, including sensitivity, integrity, and commitment to eh unrelenting pursuit of truth (Anderson, 2008, p.357)

Salmon (2000) developed a model for an online teacher to effectively moderate an online course. Stage one addresses any technical or social issues that inhibit participation and students are encouraged to share information about themselves to create a virtual presence. The teacher continues to develop online socialization by building cultural, social, and learning environments in stage two (e.g., online activities and tasks). The third stage, teaching task moves to facilitating learning tasks, moderating content based-discussions, and bringing light to misconceptions and misunderstandings. In the fourth stage, students focus on creating knowledge artifacts and projects that collaboratively and individually illustrate their understanding of course content and approaches. In the final stage, learners become responsible for their own and their group's learning by creating final projects, summative assignments, and demonstrating the achievement of learning outcomes. 

Qualities of an Online Teacher (Anderson, 2008)

  • Excellent teachers like dealing with learners
  • They have sufficient knowledge of their subject domain
  • Convey enthusiasm both for the subject and for their task
  • Equipped with pedagogical and andragogical understanding of the learning process
  • Have a set of learning activities at their disposal to orchestrate, motivate, and assess learning effectively
  • Have sufficient technical skill to navigate and contribute effectively within the online learning context (e.g., using the software and hardware necessary in online learning)
  • Internet efficacy is a personal sense of competence and comfort in the environment, such that the need for basic troubleshooting skills does not send the teacher into terror-filled incapacity
  • The online teacher must have the type of resilience, innovativeness, and perseverance to create and adopt new learning contexts and tools


Anderson, T. (2003). Getting the mix right again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. International Review of Research in
Open and Distance Learning, 4(2). 

Anderson, T. (2008). Theory and Practice of Online Learning, 2nd ed. Edmonton, AB: AU Press.

Campbell, K. (2002). Power, voice and democratization: Feminist pedagogy and assessment in CMC. Educational Technology and Society, 5(3).

Dron, J. (2007). Control and constraint in e-learning: Choosing when to choose. Hershey, PA: Information Science Pub.

Garrison, D. R., & Anderson, T. (2003). E-Learning in the 21st century. London: Routledge.

Garrison, R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in textbased environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The
Internet and Higher Education, 2(2–3), 87–105.

Laurillard, D. (1997) (Ed.) Rethinking university teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology. London: Routledge.

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pickett, J. P., et al. (2007) The American heritage dictionary of the English language: Fourth edition.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital game-based learning. New York: McGraw Hill.

Rourke, L., & Kanuka, H. (2007). Barriers to online critical discourse. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2(1), 105–126.

Rourke, L., & Anderson, T. (2002). Using peer teams to lead online discussions. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 1.

Salmon, G. (2000). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online. London: Kogan Page.

Shepard, L. A. (2000). The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, 29(7), 4–14.

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Designed by Matthew Cheung. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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