Over the past decade, phenomenal advances have been made in the application of communication and information technologies to support student learning in higher education. Yet, in proportion to overall provision of higher education, the use of technology for online learning (OL) by core faculty has been minimal. Hence I’m very interested in exploring “areas for improvement”.
Online learning creates specific challenges indeed. The provision of optimal interaction in order to reduce transactional distance (see Moore, 1993) is an important one in asynchronous online learning, given that there can exist a “lack of active student participation and effective interaction coupled with lack of immediacy” (Schullo, 2005:4). Morevoer, independent studies have often resulted in learner isolation and high drop-out rates; one explanation for this is the fact that courses delivered at a distance may lack sufficient student support (Cookson, 1989; Kember, 1995; Rekkedal, 1983; Rovai, 2002).
While synchronous online learning holds the potential to significantly reduce transactional distance, there is a “lack of proven pedagogical strategies used in distance environments to create conducive learning opportunities in synchronous environments” (id.:3).
My research explores the virtual graduate seminar, that is, the graduate seminar offered synchronously online within a virtual classroom and supplemented by asynchronous online discussions. It is considered an application of blended online learning design (BOLD) (Power, 2008).
Seen as an extension of blended learning (i.e., on-campus instruction supported by web-based resources), BOLD is defined as a combined asynchronous-mode learning environment (i.e., a web-based course) and synchronous-mode learning environment (i.e., a course offered in real-time via a “virtual classroom”), resulting in a completely online learning environment (Power & Vaughan, 2010:22).
Blended online learning design draws partly from the community of inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000). In the field of computer-supported collaborative learning (Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers, 2006), a valuable framework guiding the establishment of a knowledge-building community, such as the virtual graduate seminar, is the Community of Inquiry framework which “identifies the elements that are crucial prerequisites for a successful higher educational experience” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000:87).
In the everyday world, humans “naturally work together in learning and knowledge-building communities […] to help them solve problems and perform tasks” (Jonassen, Howland, Marra, & Crismond, 2008:4). As online collaboration develops, this natural trait guides virtual interaction. Research indicates that sustaining a learning community is a recommended online educational practice (Larramendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006), thanks to mechanisms such as “resolution of conflicts or disagreements, within group discussions, internalization of explanations provided by more knowledgeable peers, and self-explanation” (Arbaugh & Benbunan-Fish, 2006).
The CoI framework is closely associated with higher-order learning. Furthermore, it may guide research and practice in online learning in higher education (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007) because relying “solely on independent methods of instruction cheats learners out of more natural and productive modes of thinking” (Jonassen et al., 2008:4).