E-learning models are theoretical constructions that assist practitioners in designing effective learning experiences for students participating in online courses. They are distinct from learning theories in that e-learning models are concerned with the pedagogical principles that undergird instructional practices or with the effective implementation of such instructional practices. Among the many e-learning models that are presented in Pachler and Daly’s Key Issues in E-Learning (2011)—the majority of which are based on socio-constructivist learning theories—three stand out as being vital to the successful implementation of e-learning: the Community of Inquiry model, the Conversational Framework, and Computer-Mediated Communication. Each of the three models selected will be described and evaluated in detail before turning to a discussion of how they might be used in practice to improve the quality of e-learning in a hybrid course on the Western humanities.
The Community of Inquiry Model
In the Community of Inquiry model, learning is seen as both an individual and a social process. Individual learners construct knowledge from a personal perspective and then compare and confirm their constructions to the norms, values, and knowledge of society via social interaction with their peers (Pachler & Daly, 2011). A community in this context is less structured than a formal group—where the objectives, membership, and means of communication are predefined and preplanned by an expert—but more structured than a group of friends—in which no objectives are imposed and membership is voluntary. The sort of community that the Community of Inquiry model demands for its effective implementation is a group in which there is a shared goal that does not prevent learners from pursuing their own personal objectives simultaneously (Jézégou, 2010). In order to form the community required for these social interactions take place, one must take account of three types of presence that emerge in the context of online learning: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence (Liu & Yang, 2014).
Social presence refers to the ways in which learners and instructors project their identities in an e-learning environment, cognitive presence refers to the ability of learners to construct knowledge through communication with their peers, and teaching presence refers to the actions and tools used by instructors to facilitate the development of social and cognitive processes in pursuit of defined learning goals (Liu & Yang, 2014). Teaching presence provides the necessary structures for a community’s formation, social presence fosters a community’s development by introducing students and instructor to each other, and cognitive presence ensures the community’s continuing usefulness to its participants. All three forms of presence are necessary aspects of a community of inquiry both in its formation and its maintenance.
How social interaction leads to enhanced learning—employing the Community of Inquiry model as a theoretical base and using content analysis as a means of analyzing messages—is the subject Liu and Yang’s (2014) study of asynchronous online discussions. The results of the study were that students displayed the greatest amount of cognitive presence in discussions involving the analysis of case studies and the least amount of cognitive presence in discussions involving the exploration of theoretical concepts. However, students reported enjoying the discussions of theoretical concepts over the discussions of case studies in their reflections on the course. Even though the analysis of case studies produced the greatest amount of cognitive presence, the topic requiring students to relate course content to their life experiences produced the greatest amount of high-level cognitive presence. Based on these findings, the researchers recommended developing discussion topics that would take account of both student interests and student learning by choosing case studies with a strong life experience component included. By integrating life experience and course content in asynchronous online discussions, instructors can encourage the best possible results from the community of inquiry and its activities.
The Conversational Framework
Laurillard (2009) described the Conversational Framework as an integration of four approaches to pedagogy: instructionism, constructionism, socio-cultural learning, and collaborative learning. The model places emphasis on learning as a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, “a continual iteration between teachers and learners, and between the levels of theory and practice” (p. 11) and is applicable to both face-to-face and e-learning contexts. The instructor is given a privileged position in this model because he or she is responsible for defining the concepts to be taught and for designing the tasks to be completed by students.
The purpose of the Conversational Framework is to ensure the proper use of technology in the pursuit of learning outcomes. Technology must be used to support pedagogy rather than replace it and the Conversational Framework challenges technology to deliver an enhanced learning experience (Laurillard, 2009). To illustrate this feature of the model, Laurillard examines a classic learning design for a museum field trip and a technology-enhanced version of the same trip. Apparent in the design of the technology-enhanced museum field trip are a number of opportunities for students to participate in the “iterative exchange of ideas” (p. 14) that constitutes effective learning: Students use mobile devices to respond to questions about the relations between paintings, set quiz questions for other students, answer quiz questions set by peers, upload their observations and photos to a shared web site, and make notes. Back in class, the instructor is able to draw upon the observations and photos taken by students to create a digital catalog of the event in which students recognize their contributions to the learning experience.
Though not specifically oriented toward e-learning, the Conversational Framework can and should be used to design meaningful learning experiences that employ technology as a central means of pedagogic support. The model is broadly supportive of socio-constructivist principles of learning and easily could be integrated with the Community of Inquiry model to provide students with a rich and satisfying learning experience.
Computer-Mediated Communication is a model of e-learning that emphasizes text-based asynchronous exchange between students via discussion forums and e-mail. The benefits of this model of e-learning are that students are freed from the “constraints of time, space and physical context” (Pachler & Daly, 2011, p. 65) that would normally apply to classroom discussion and are able to respond to the presentation of ideas—from their instructor or their peers—at their own pace. The consequences of such an arrangement are that students enter an asynchronous “conversation” with enhanced opportunities for constructing knowledge and begin the process of resolving divergent ideas by sorting through the meanings made available to them by their peers. Thus, Computer-Mediated Communication is a literate practice that encourages the development of academic discourse via the exchange, organization, and re-organization of ideas—key factors in supporting the active and collaborative learning at the heart of socio-constructivist theories (Keengwe, Onchwari, & Agamba, 2014).
Computer-Mediated Communication complements both the Conversational Framework and the Community of Inquiry model by emphasizing collaborative constructive transactions between students (Pachler & Daly, 2011). These transactions find their counterparts in the Community of Inquiry model’s concept of cognitive presence and the Conversational Framework’s concept of iterative exchange. Integrating and applying these three models to an e-learning context would provide instructors with a flexible array of tools to encourage the development of students’ capacity for knowledge creation and dissemination.
Implementation of E-Learning: Current Practices
I currently teach a hybrid course covering the Western humanities from prehistory to the Gothic period. I did not have much time to plan my course before the start of the semester, so I did not incorporate learning tasks in the online learning environment that would stimulate active learning and encourage collaboration among students. Students are required to take quizzes covering material from the textbook and complete short writing assignments in response to a topic they select from a range of options, both of which are submitted via the Desire2Learn learning management system. Optional features of the course include discussion forums where students can ask questions or comment on the week’s subject matter, downloadable copies of the presentations used during lectures, and embedded videos on topics related to the week’s lessons.
Despite the availability of discussion forums and supplementary videos, only a handful of students have made use of them. Most seem content to submit their quizzes and short writing assignments without ever interacting with their peers, online or in person. In order to enhance the learning experience of these students it will be necessary to apply the models of e-learning described in this paper to my course with the goal of fostering social interaction and thus knowledge construction.
Implementation of E-Learning: Improved Practices
The first move I would make to improve practices in my hybrid course would be making it a requirement for students to post to the discussion forums on a topic chosen for its relation to their life experiences. Not only would students be required to post to the discussion forums on a number of carefully selected topics, they would also be required to respond to their peers with comments, questions, or criticism. In order to encourage the development of a community of inquiry, students would be tasked with creating a self-portrait—constructed from text, images, or sounds—that could be shared with their peers. Additionally, I would moderate the discussion of topics by collecting and summarizing students’ viewpoints before requiring another round of posts in response to questions based on this overview. Thus I would build social presence into the course, facilitate iterative exchange through repeated interaction on the discussion forums, and encourage collaboration between students by requiring direct responses to the ideas of their peers.
All three e-learning models are reflected in this simple change to my instructional practices. Further changes to improve practice are possible, but they would probably require more planning on my part to fully implement. Some ideas for such changes include the use of wikis as a means of collaborative knowledge creation and idea exchange, the use of social media to enhance social presence and establish a basis for the formation of a community of inquiry, and the use of peer assessment of short writing assignments to develop students’ critical thinking skills.
The Community of Inquiry model, the Conversational Framework, and Computer-Mediated Communication form a complementary triad of e-learning models that can assist instructors in designing learning tasks that will enhance student learning outcomes through collaborative interaction with peers. Based on socio-constructivist learning theories, these three models work well together and provide the dedicated instructor with a powerful set of tools to align pedagogy with practice.
Despite the lack of evidence for online discussion’s purported ability to enhance critical thinking skills (Pachler & Daly, 2011), instructors can and should employ these models in an effort to raise the level of cognitive presence in such discussions. To do otherwise would be to abandon socio-constructivism in favor of a traditional content-based pedagogy that is a poor fit for technology-enhanced environments. Because e-learning imposes distance between instructors and their students, between students and their peers, a course must be designed with features that help all participants overcome the sense of isolation that can result. The models presented herein are suited to that monumental task.