Approaches to online learning

At this point in time we are remote teaching rather than moving to online learning, but there is a wealth of information and research into online learning to explore. This page introduces some of the key concepts that can help develop your remote teaching and online activities, and explains some of the terminology that you will find in the literature.

Communities of Inquiry

The key writers on developing online learning emphasise the importance of developing online communities based on constructivist perspectives on learning. The most important and influential of these is Garrison’s work (with various collaborators (Garrison and Vaughn 2008)) developing Dewey’s Communities of Inquiry (CoI) approach to apply to online environments. Garrison’s CoI framework was developed in the late 1990s and has subsequently been extensively researched and applied in multiple distance and blended learning contexts, developing its original focus (for instance, to include learning presence (Shea and Bidgerano 2010)). It focuses on social learning, students investigating problems and issues not memorising solutions, and cyclical reflection. It positions students’ interaction (with each other, with the disciplinary materials, and with the teacher) at the heart of online learning. In summary, “collaboration to test and confirm personally constructed meaning is essential and integral to a community of inquiry” (Garrison and Vaughn, 2008 p. 17), and teacher capabilities to engender this collaboration pose the greatest challenge in online learning.

Diagram of the Community of Inquiry learning framework

Figure 1 The Community of Inquiry model Image source










Presence in Online Environments

CoI positions the learning experience (figure 1) at the intersection of three overlapping presences:

Social presence – students should feel confident enough to bring their personal and academic experiences to their learning, to share and help everyone get to know each other and create cohesion within the community. There are three dimensions to this: open communication, group cohesion, affective/personal presence. (Or affect, interaction, cohesion (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison & Archer, 2001)

Cognitive presence – reflective cycles of learning supported by collaboration and teacher facilitation with a focus on asynchronous text-based communication, that aims for deep (rather than broad) learning. CoI envisages this as developed through a staged cycle of learning activities:

  • Triggering event
  • Exploration
  • Integration
  • Resolution

Teaching presence – these are the activities that the teacher undertakes to develop both social presence and interweave this with providing materials and interventions to support students’ cognitive presence. There are three key roles for teachers in this

  • Design and organization of activities and triggering events
  • Facilitation of discourse to support social presence
  • Direct instruction – creating trigger events, summarising, concluding

Gilly Salmon’s work

The CoI cycle of Triggering event, exploration, integration and resolution outlines stages to thinking about how to organise online learning. Another model using a staged approach is Gilly Salmon’s 5 Stages of Online Learning, which covers:

  1. Access and motivation
  2. Online socialisation
  3. Information and exchange
  4. Knowledge construction
  5. Development
Infographic of Salmon's 5 stage model

Figure 2 Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage model of online learning.











Salmon describes the online teacher presence as e-moderating, and, similarly to the CoI model, sees this role changing as students learn. In figure 2 you can see how these reflect the changing challenges of social and cognitive presence as learning activities develop, from welcoming and encouraging, through tutoring, and facilitation to supporting and responding. Salmon has also developed a framework for developing what she calls etivities, which are online activities. These focus on collaboration, clear communication with students, guiding students to participate, and the role of the e-moderator (Salmon 2013, and resources on Salmon’s website).

While CoI provides the conceptual framework for understanding much of the discussion about online learning, Salmon’s work provides some practical applications. Beetham and Sharpe’s (2007) edited volume provides a broad overview of the relationship between design and learning and explores other influential frameworks such as Laurillard’s Conversational Framework.

Further information

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