Thursday, December 15, 2005

Communities of Inquiry - Discussion Boards or Blogs?

James Farmer wrote a great piece in his blog Incorporated Subversion about Communication Dynamics – Discussion Boards vs. Weblogs. He based his analysis on Garrison and Anderson’s Model of a Community of Enquiry.

It’s worth summarizing here just so I have a copy that I can refer to ( I love linking back to original sources, but sometimes I just want to have my own copy too!).

Garrison and Anderson (2003) state that “a community of learners is an essential, core element of an educational experience when higher order learning is the desired learning outcome” (p 22). They went on to say that in higher education a critical community of learners, “is no longer just an ideal, but has become a practical necessity in the realization of relevant, meaningful and continuous learning” (p 23). But to achieve higher order learning we must have effective communication – to create a community of critical inquiry - this is “at the heart of all forms of educational interaction” (p. 23)

Presence: Social, Cognitive

In their research into how to create a community of inquiry Garrison, Anderson and Archer define social presence as “the ability of participants in a community of inquiry to project themselves socially and emotionally, as “real” people, through the medium of communication being used.” They define cognitive presence as “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse” (Garrison, Anderson 2000).

So, what’s the better tool for communities of inquiry - Discussion boards in online learning environments or blogs?

Traditional OLE’s are represented by the ubiquitous Learning Management System. In Canadian higher learning WebCT (merging with Blackboard) is the market leader.

So what can you do in an LMS? The primary tool for communication is the asynchronous Discussion Board. You can post messages to a shared area or reply to existing messages in order to form a thread.

There is email – but its internal to the system only – and there is no connection to individual students email accounts (hence offering no “push” facility), they add little to the overall communication dynamics of the OLE. Communication features include reading previous messages, posting new messages, and posting a reply to a previous message (in this case forming or contributing to a thread).

Is there any social presence? Can students “project themselves socially and emotionally, as ‘real’ people” (Garrison & Anderson 2003)? Can they express themselves through anything but text? Personal expressions –like a picture, a signature, link to a personal website, some identifying characteristic – can be added, but they are not accommodated easily. And they are really just afterthoughts, like ciphers in the snow that someone may click on and read, or may not, at some time. Is there anyone else on line to read it as I post it? You wouldn’t know – no presence notification advises you of anyone else being “in” the forum when you’re there. This lack of knowing if anyone is “reading” also impacts on your ability to project a presence.

What about cognitive presence? How do you engage in a community of inquiry if there is not one there? What level of discourse is possible with an audience of one? The opportunity to reflect, “construct and confirm” meaning. in a discussion board is not possible. Is anybody out there?

How about a Weblog to facilitate communities of inquiry?

With a weblog a user can add entries, publish by time and date, allow comments to be posted, let readers know when a new entry has been made. In higher education and in high schools weblogs are being used as personal online research and knowledge management tools (like I’m using this one). And many are using it as an ever-evolving e-portfolio and representation of personal identity. This is my space, I can make it my own, and choose to share my research and thoughts or not. And you can choose to respond and engage me in a discussion. And notice of your comment entry is “pushed” to me e-mail, and I can choose to respond to you immediately.

Weblogs allow social presence – the blog is private space with the blogger’s identity stamped all over it. The blogger owns the blog and the entire publication process. Although the primary communication is through text, pictures can be added, links to photo, audio or videoblogs can be inserted.

Weblogs certainly support sustained discourse as evidenced by the development and spread of linked entries throughout the blogosphere, but is the discourse reflective, critical and purposeful? By it’s nature the weblog is a reflective medium – akin to a diary or journal – and it can be archived – to create a historical portfolio of entries. It can offer both social presence and cognitive presence.

So which communication tool is best for a community of inquiry of higher order learning? I vote for the weblog. A teacher could even position their wblog as an organic central node to the class, and the “push, pull” technology of the webfeed could keep the discourse happening, and the teacher is able to facilitate and direct cognitive and social processes.

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