MOOCs revisited and the Community of Inquiry – #HumanMOOC

For the last couple of weeks, I have been participating in a MOOC – Humanizing Online Instruction, know as “HumanMOOC”. This is in itself a remarkable statement by my standards. I have tried several MOOCs in the past and never before made it past week one. They seemed to consist mostly of “talking heads” and, unless someone is a truly gifted presenter, this is quite dull. If I just want to find out what someone has to say on a topic, I find it easier and more convenient to read their books and articles.

But HumanMOOC is different – much more cMOOC in spirit (if you aren’t familiar with the critical distinction between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, Tony Bates has recently published an excellent blog post on the topic). The spirit behind it is one of building community and exploration, not learning and repeating. There is also some interesting research being done around it – but that is probably a topic for another post. One other point I will note is that it is being run by a US team and I think I may be the only participant in the UK. This in itself is interesting – it offers exposure to a different pedagogical culture and way of thinking.

The most interesting discovery I have made so far has been the framework that is used to structure the course itself, which is the community of inquiry framework. This framework is not at all exclusive to online learning, but is often helpfully applied in that context. It is probably to my discredit that, despite working in the field of online education for about six years, and holding a Masters degree in the subject, I have never come across it before. It does seem to be largely used in North America so maybe that is the explanation – in the UK I sometimes think we rarely get past Gilly Salmon’s five stages, if we even get that far.

This, I think, is a shame. Online education seems to me a field that is in need of frameworks like this, which can give structure to how we approach designing and teaching our courses. Too much online education is designed according to someone’s hunch about what works, or just trying to replicate the face-to-face environment as far as we can. This framework gives us something more interesting and practical to work with.

For those not familiar with the framework, it can be summed up with the diagram below:

Screenshot 2015-03-23 at 20.45.49


In other words, there are three aspects to consider when designing and delivering online education. Further research (Akyol & Garrison, 2008), admittedly with a small sample, seems to confirm the validity of the framework in action, and that the three aspects reinforce each other, and that each aspect is linked with increased levels of student satisfaction. Teaching and cognitive presence are also linked with higher perceived learning although not social presence.

Over the course of the MOOC, we will examine these three aspects, so I will probably have more to say about them later on, but my initial reaction is that the way we tend to think about online education focuses excessively on the teaching presence. We all put quite a bit of thought into how we design programmes, and a reasonable amount into tutor monitoring of forums and feedback. But there is generally much less emphasis on supporting the development of a community among the students, or helping them to develop meaning. Perhaps we have still not shaken off our belief that the instructor must be at the centre of everything. Some rebalancing is needed.

We started off the course focusing on teaching presence and, in various ways, we were encouraged to experiment with voice and video communication to establish this presence. Here, there is a very simple message: it is very helpful if instructors can communicate by video and audio as well as by text. This seems to be common practice in the US but the more reticent British have yet not embraced it. When I studied my Masters recently with the Open University, nearly all communication with my tutors was text-based and I never set eyes on any of them. I think it would have helped if I had. As I noted at the start of this post, video is not the answer to everything but it can be a useful supplement to other forms of communication. Maybe we British need to get better acquainted with our webcams.


Zehra, A. & Garrison, D. (2008) “The Development of a Community of Inquiry over Time in an Online Course: Understanding the Progression and Integration of Social, Cognitive and Teaching Presence”, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, v12 n3-4 p3-22.


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