What is online learning? What about blended learning? How
does one design for one, or the other? Are they interchangeable? How does a
flipped classroom fit into the picture? So many questions. And so many more

In case you missed my earlier blogs, my foray into online
and blended learning started just under two years ago. It has been a very steep
learning curve, one that I have jumped in with both feet, with my eyes wide

From the beginning of the ONL course, I have looked forward
to this topic, for the simple reason that it’s directly related to what I do.
That is, in fact, my primary role here at the university; I design online and
blended learning courses, in collaboration with the university’s academic

What I have learnt in this topic has very practical
implications to what I do. So it was for purely selfish reasons that I offered
to be the leader for the topic. And so I lead, the only trouble was, I find
myself with no followers.

Due to conflicting schedules and heavy workloads, my team
has now dwindled to three, Bengt, Caroline and myself. Over the two weeks, we
did not have the opportunity to meet all at once. But what we couldn’t do
synchronously, we strived to achieve asynchronously. I walked the talked,
taking to heart what we collectively learnt in the previous two weeks, to
communicate efficiently and effectively to facilitate asynchronous
collaboration. That I did.

We did manage to pull together a presentation, but I can’t
help but feel that I had monopolised the topic. Was I being bossy? Did I
overstep some invisible boundary? Maybe. But we needed to get things done, no? Don’t
get me wrong, I was more than happy to take on the work, I quite enjoyed
putting it all together.

But I gleaned several very important lessons from this topic
and our overall experience. First, it made me think long and hard about the design
, specifically against the Community of Inquiry framework, and
using the Gilly Salmon 5-stage model as a guide.

I was reminded yet again of the real challenges faced in the
pursuit of building and maintaining a community of online learners. But it did
make me think of the fundamental strategies to include in the design stage to
mitigate these challenges. It also brought up some fairly creative ideas to
encourage community building, especially among a community of international

Finally it also made me think hard about the facilitator’s
role in promoting this very online community and how a fourth presence comes
into play, apart from social presence, cognitive presence and teaching
presence. How in reality emotional presence permeates the entire CoI
experience. Fascinating stuff – especially for someone like me, who wears her
heart on her sleeve!

Creating the right environment for learning isn’t an easy
task. It requires an understanding; and an appreciation of a whole host of things,
from pedagogy to psychology. Enter the Community of Inquiry framework, one
that, according to Lipman, 1991, is “the most promising methodology for the
encouragement of that fusion of critical and creative cognitive processing.”

A good online or blended learning module is like a carefully
orchestrated symphony, where every single musician, from every single section
is playing the right note, at the right time, according to the right tempo,
under the expert guidance of the conductor, in this case, the teacher. But the
beautiful music can only be achieved because everyone has the same score to
guide the music making.

The score is your plan, your blueprint, as it were. Just as
time, effort and inspiration are needed to create that flawless musical masterpiece,
so too does your flawless lesson plan.

And you begin at the design phase, getting back to basics,
articulating your learning objectives. With these in mind, you can then go
ahead and plan the activities to scaffold the learning process.

So where does the CoI fit in? According to the framework,
learning happens best when three things collide – social presence, cognitive
presence and teaching presence. And when your learners are at that happy
intersection, the learning also continues, over and above that temporary state.

So it is not our job to cultivate a healthy ecosystem at
that happy intersection; an ecosystem that will continue to grow organically.
And within these ecosystems, personal learning networks will naturally develop,
smaller communities of like-minded individuals who are in pursuit of similar

Beyond social, cognitive and teaching presence, Dr
Cleveland-Innes suggests a fourth presence, a very important one, and that is
emotional presence – something that permeates all three of the above. I
personally find this really fascinating, because we’re all emotional beings are
we not?

In fact many studies have shown how emotions affect
learning, and many others have shown how learners who are in better control of
their emotions learn better. So we cannot take emotions out of the equation
when thinking of the CoI framework. Without getting into too much detail, the
general rule is that the happier and more secure we are, the better we learn.

But emotional presence does not translate well in an online
environment. Much is lost online, the non-verbal cues, the facial expressions,
the body language, the spontaneity.  Turn
taking becomes a lot more belaboured during online meetings. Overlapping
conversations don’t work as well in the virtual world. And don’t even get me
started on humour! Try cracking a joke when your punchline is delivered to
participants at different times.

That said, all is not lost. It doesn’t mean we should
abandon all hope of creating online learning networks. It just means we must
work twice as hard at it, but the payoff is certainly well worth the effort.

All in all, it has been a great learning experience, and we should all strive to build an ecosystem of online learning, one where we can all grow together and support each other.

Cleveland-Innes, M. (2019). Emotion and learning – emotional presence in the Community of Inquiry framework (CoI)?

Salmon, G (2013) The Five Stage Model

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press. Chapter 1 “The Community of Inquiry Conceptual framework”.

Let’s strive for an ecosystem of learning, shall we?