EngagementHybrid and multi-mode learning

Day 3: Creating a community of inquiry across all teaching and learning modes

Students living through the lock down

Group of students at ANU socialising
ANU students socialising in normal times.

Reading through the major ANU survey of student experience during the pandemic lockdown at ANU is instructive.  Some key quotes from the qualitative data are particularly revealing. (Please note this survey has not had a report published as yet, but once a report is available we will edit this post to include a link to it).

“The ANU experience has been designed to allow students to make ANU the central hub of their lives. For example, students can tolerate living in low quality accommodation so long as they can access quiet study spaces or heating at ANU. Suddenly being cut off from this integration had significant impacts on student wellbeing.

This has been of concern to commencing students who have left well developed support networks at home and then been denied the opportunity to develop new support networks within the ANU community due to COVID-19. For others, returning to live with parents, as younger or mature age students, creates a sense of failure. For yet others, ANU and study can be important respite from caring responsibilities.

It seems clear that any transition to remote education also needs to include transition of the broader student experience so ANU can remain an integrated part of students’ lives.”  p. 18

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What key messages can teachers take from these findings in the ANU survey of student experience during the Semester 1 closure of campus?  Do students look for belonging and community as part of their university experience? We would love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Teacher Presence is essential in online environments

Educational research has demonstrated many times that students will remain more engaged and motivated with a strong teacher presence in online courses.  Issues of identity and connectedness, as sense of community, all come to the fore in online courses – how do students develop their identity as higher education participants online, in the same or a similar way students do this in a campus environment?  Ways to ensure teacher presence online can include any of the following strategies:

  • A video or podcast welcome displayed on the main page of the course in a prominent position from the first week of the course

Here are two nice examples of introduction to the course by staff at MeriStem, ANU:

Welcome to Semester 2, Year 12 Physics, MeriSTEM

Introduction to Jay Ridgewell, Energy for Cells, MeriSTEM

  • Similarly, video or podcast updates by lecturer/s on a regular basis can be posted, for example for each topic, week or possibly a monthly update that appears in an Announcements forum.
  • Zoom tutorials that are live, and occur regularly, with structured discussions and activities to mirror what happens in face to face class.  Alternatively, live-streamed tutorials from the classroom that include off-campus students ( but don’t forget to ensure remote students are included at every stage and that audio and video are set up so that they do not miss out on important interactions and information).
  • Live Zoom sessions for group and individual consultations with the lecturer/s
  • Regular participation by lecturer/tutor in discussion forums to motivate and encourage students – voice or video can be used.
  • Clear communication channels for contacting lecturer/s and tutor/s, with available times published


Would any of these ideas work in your courses?  Are they practical to implement or not?  Can you think of other ways to  ensure students are aware their teacher is “in?” If you use any of the methods listed, or others, we would love you to share examples with us – if possible with screen shots or a link.

Building a “community of enquiry”

It makes sense that students will feel more engaged and motivated, and will be facilitated to develop more of an identity with university life, if they feel part of a community.  The “teacher presence” discussed above can be central to creating this sense of community.  This idea will become particularly useful when there are off-campus cohorts and on-campus cohorts of students undertaking the same course.  It would be very positive to build a sense of community across both groups that feels inclusive of both as members of a university learning community.

Much has been written about “community of inquiry” (Garrison & Anderson, 2003) in university online environments and there are many resources available about the idea and how to implement it.  The model of community inquiry has components of social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence, and how these work to create student experience in online courses.  Our task at ANU  is to work out how to ensure these components work effectively in a dual environment with off-campus and on-campus students. To explore the concept of a community of enquiry further, you can check out an e-book that is available via our Library database, called “Teaching in Blended Learning Environments:  Creating and Sustaining Communities of Inquiry” by Vaughn, Gleveland-Innes & Garrison et al, published 2013.

Here is a diagram of the components of what helps to create a community of inquiry in on line environments.

Community of Inquiry framework diagram

From  Creating and Sustaining Communities of Inquiry” by Vaughn, Gleveland-Innes & Garrison et al, published 2013. 

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Students need to be able to join in with extra-curricular activities at university, to really benefit from the community offered on campus.  Can we encourage students to create interest groups and the like, from a distance, online?  What are some other ways students can feel that they belong to the institution and the profession for which they are studying? It would be interesting to hear your ideas, so jump into the comments and let us know what you think!

Additional resources

Here are all of the references and resources cited in this Coffee Course, plus a few more.

ANU Coffee Course Designing Online Learning Environments

ANU Coffee Course Engaging Students Online

An Introduction to Hybrid Teaching (College, of DuPage, Creative Commons license)

deNoyelles, A., Mannheimer Zydney, J., & Chen, B. (2014) ‘Strategies for creating a community of inquiry through online asynchronous discussions.’ Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 10(1):153-165. Available: http://jolt.merlot.org/vol10no1/denoyelles_0314.pdf.

Garrison, D. R. and Anderson, T. E-Learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. London: Routledge/Falmer, 2003.

Northcote, M., 2008, Sense of place in online environments, ASCILITE Proceedings, Melbourne

PhilOnTech Blog – A Closer Look at Hybrid-Flex Course Design

Vaughan, N.D., Cleveland-Innes, M., and Garrison, D.R., Teaching in Blended Learning Environments,:  Creating and sustaining Communities of Inquiry Athabasca University Press, 2013 – e-Book available through ANU Library.

Wiley, e-book, Engaging Online Programs – 10 ways to enhance instructor presence in online programs

UNSW site Learning to Teach Online

Resources in ANU WATTLE site “Teaching Remotely

Moodle Book – Multi-Mode (Hybrid) Teaching and Learning Approach

PDF Document:  Multi-Mode Teaching Cheat Sheet

Moodle Book – AV and Technology at ANU

Moodle Book – Active and Interactive Learning


14 thoughts on “Day 3: Creating a community of inquiry across all teaching and learning modes

  1. It should be kept in mind that distance education is not new and COVID-19 lock-down is not the first, nor most extreme, form of isolation experienced by students. There are decades of literature and practice on how to help students online, who are physically and socially isolated.

    Two of the groups which distance education institutions have traditionally supported are prisoners in jail and the military on deployment. When enrolling at one online institution, the application form asked if I was a prisoner, while another asked if I was defence personnel deployed overseas. On a Skype session doing a group exercise I commented it was a sunny 40 degree day in Canberra, whereas my study buddy said it was well below zero outside and they were about to go on guard duty at their Arctic base.

    While being confined at home might seem much more pleasant than a prison or an arctic base, many of the problems and support mechanisms we can offer are similar.

    As an international online student I experienced an aching loneliness, even though I was surrounded by colleagues at a university. I never saw another student in my class face to face in three years of study and only happened across two of my professors at international conferences.

    One useful resource to overcome the sense of isolation were seminars in Canberra organized by a consortium of Australian universities for students studying education online. This allowed me to meet with people with similar concerns and interests, even if they were not doing exactly the same course. Open University UK found that students spontaneously started organizing their own such groups 50 years ago, as soon as distance courses were first offered.

    I suggest programs be designed to incorporate group activities which continue though a student’s program. This will provide continuity beyond individual courses. These activities must be for credit, counting towards a qualification, and not be extra-curricular. These activities can by face to face and online (hybrid).

    1. Thanks Tom for your insights, especially in how online learning can be an isolating experience, and that creating broader, long term group activities can help mitigate against this.

  2. Human computer interface research indicates that you don’t need much to give someone the sense they are communicating with a person. I suggest starting with photographs of the instructors on the course home page.

    Also I suggest it is the regularity of communication which is more important than the medium. I use twice weekly text posts to a class, and occasional individual messages to students. These use boilerplate text, and the students know they do, as they can read the list in the tutors guide at the end of the course notes. But students still appreciate these messages.

    Video or audio messages might be slightly better, but at a much higher production cost. I suggest twice weekly text messages are better than monthly video posts, for example.

    Generally I avoid participating in student discussion forums, as it tends to stifle the discussion. Instead I use a “dark cockpit” approach, just intervening when something is going wrong. My preferred way is privately to one student, suggesting what they should post to the group.

    The “community of inquiry” has been greatly oversold. I suggest we need to teach students how to participate in a group for common goals, while still getting what they want out of it as an individual. This balance is one which students struggle with when doing any group project. In the end each student will be individually assessed.

    Also I suggest extra-curricular activities at university have been greatly oversold. University costs students, and their families, a lot of money and time. Most students need to get their qualification as quickly as possible, so they can get on with their lives. Rather than extra-curricular activities, I suggest co-curricular ones, in parallel with courses and which receive credit towards the program.

    Programs accredited by professional bodies are the easiest to provide co-curricular activities for. Students can attend and help organize activities of their professional bodies. This can receive course credit and count as an alternative to internships and work integrated learning. Professional bodies, such as the Australian Computer Society, have moved their events online due to COVID-19, and provide a good source of activities for students. Hackerthons are a particularly useful form of student activity which have made an easy transition online. This teaches teamwork and provides opportunities for students to meet potential employers. For about ten years I have been helping out at hackerthons, typically run over 48 to 72 hours, and start-up competitions which run for a few weeks. These traditionally relied on short bursts of intense face to face interaction, but I have been surprised how well they have translated online using tools such as Slack and Zoom. These formats teach skills in demand, and have forms of assessment which could be adopted formally for programs. These are also very attractive for government and industry, receiving funding support.

    1. Hi Tom thanks again for your input, and for sharing your experience both as a distance online student and a teacher delivering blended learning with online components (did I get that right?). You make some valid points and yes, we do hear A LOT about “community of inquiry’ when we start looking into student engagement and retention. Obviously it is not the only answer, but it is an idea and it might work for some, so no harm in letting people know about it. I agree that extra-curricular activities may be a luxury some can’t afford – on the other hand, others have benefited greatly – I guess one size doesn’t fit all. It is good for students to have choices. I agree with your idea of co-curricular activities – that is a great approach, and great examples given by you.

      1. Jill, yes, last year I was doing blended teaching: online, plus face to face, using the amazing “Superfloor” of the ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre. This year, unfortunately, it is all online, from home and perhaps for the next few years.

        I do worry that “community of inquiry’ can be harmful. If we fill students with expectations that something will just happen naturally, they may think there is something wrong with them when they don’t know what to do and it doesn’t work. They may become more isolated as a result.

        Communicating with other students is difficult. It is especially difficult outside your usual discipline and cultural context. It came as a shock to me that I was very bad at online discussion with fellow education students, even worse with those in another country. I had to spend a lot of effort on dozens of drafts of each seemingly casual post and considered giving up many times. It is still very, very difficult to write these sort of posts.

        Even something as simple as asking a student to introduce themselves can induce panic (it does with me). We need to provide step by step guides as to what it is we want students to do, explain to them these things are not easy and acknowledge their effort.

        As for activities outside the confines of courses: if students benefit from them, why not include them as part of their studies? As an example, I attended a seminar by someone applying for a job at ANU. They detailed their technical skills, but I asked them about leadership experience. They said they had none, but with some prodding mentioned they had captained their university mountaineering team. It had not occurred to them that leading people up a mountain showed high level leadership skills.

        1. Thanks for your thoughts on Community of Inquiry – I absolutely agree with you that students will not generally naturally create or gravitate towards such a community in online spaces. They definitely need a great deal of scaffolding for this and there are many articles exploring the COI concept and reporting on research around it that provide methods for such scaffolding. And I don’t think we necessarily need to use the words “community of inquiry, but rather, use methods of developing that cognitive, social and teaching presence to encourage that connection.

  3. These articles and reflections raise some interesting ideas about student interactions and activities beyond the classroom.

    In my field of Earth Sciences, we commonly have one-on-one interaction with students in the lab and field. I feel like the comments that Jay R made in the video mirror some of the things that we might discuss in those settings, with more back-and-forth when it is not a video. I was wondering how to have these kinds of conversations – why did you choose to do this course? etc. – with students as suggested in yesterday’s coffee course and so it was good to see Jay’s video.

    I agree with the text above that extracurricular activities can be important for some students. I also find the diagram about presence( teaching, social, cognitive) and experience interesting. I think of a general learning experience as having aspects of all three, with students having a range of preferences for each of the presences. From that perspective, social (e.g., university extra-curricular activities or group learning in classes) may be a personal preference or not.

    1. Hi Penny, thanks for your thoughts. I am glad you found our examples of ANU lecturer videos helpful. I agree with you that some students do value a community of inquiry and having opportunities to join in a range of activities, including extra-curricular. I also think Tom’s suggestion of co-curricular groups and activities is great. What I relate to most in the concept of community of inquiry with its components of cognitive, social and teaching dimensions, is the importance of the affective side of student experience (and their teachers, for that matter.) Our human feelings come into it and are a big motivational factor for students in engaging and remaining in courses.

  4. Thank you for today’s resources. I learnt about the fact that engagement is better maintained if we show our presence, when my students gave me feedback after the 1st week of isolation, and asked when we will have a F-2-F session, to discuss the material I provided online and solve the quizzes together. Needless to say, the following week I started regular F2F sessions, which were scheduled in their timetable. Combining small-group tutorials with upper year peers, with problem-solving discussions with me worked well, and seemed to help students to keep up with the material. I found that involving the upper year students was important, as that helped students feel part of the School and the professional community. In the Medical School, students were involved at all levels of planning and decision making during the COVID isolation, which were really well received by the cohort. The regular presence of academics and leadership throughout the semester had an important role in keeping our students engaged and positive. Having many of our students returning home, across the country and even overseas, these F2F sessions, short videos, regular updates about changes and plans were paramount for the successful completion of the semester and assessments. In addition, the close monitoring of students’ health and wellbeing, and the support provided, also helped building a community. This was especially important for our 1st year students who didn’t have time to form friendship and study groups in the very short time before the isolation. I was very worried about them feeling isolated and would struggle keeping up with their study. Talking to many of them in the past couple of weeks, I asked them to reflect on their experiences during the semester and without fail they all brought up how good it was to have regular F2F sessions to catch up with me, and how comfortable they felt during the small group tutorials, working with their peers. Being able to get information not only on the content, but also practical clues about how to study, or how to cope was invaluable for them.

    1. Hi Krisztina, a couple of great ideas in your post, about what you did to engage the students – the idea of connecting groups with more advanced students is great, and it seems to have worked well for your students. When you say F2F sessions, I am assuming you meant real-time meetings using Zoom or Teams? That would definitely have helped to get that feeling of connection. And again, joining the two different phase groups was a great idea to create a sense of belonging to the profession and the institution. Thanks for sharing!

      1. Hi Jill, thank you for your comments. Just wanted to confirm, yes, F2F meeting meant real-time Zoom sessions.

  5. Thanks for this, all, I’m glad the concept of presence is at the forefront of this course. This is my first semester teaching online and even if I can sense that the zoom tutorials and other activities are working well within the constraints of the online model, I find myself pining for the more natural, genuine discussion that comes from conversations face-to-face (I teach French). When Covid-19 first hit, my colleague found an ingenious way to flip the Intermediate French course so that instead of a two-hour tutorial in a large group, students spend the first section in intensive peer-to-peer groups of three, with clear instructions of what to work on together, then we meet on zoom. One thing we’ve been able to do this semester that wasn’t an option when the campus closed down was to match up those students who are on campus so they can do their peer-to-peer work in person, in the library. They’re already commenting on the benefits to their learning and well-being. I feel quite jealous that they’re having at least a partly face-to-face experience!

  6. Hi everyone

    The community of inquiry may be oversold or even unachievable, but I actually find the analytic dimensions quite helpful in reminding me of the multi-pronged approach needed to ‘reach students’, regardless of whether a community of any sort emerges at the end. In particular, the teacher presence is perhaps more necessary than before. Like Tom, I’m also trying to communicate more with students. I’m sending weekly emails with a brief reading guide and reminder about what they could/should be doing towards their assessments. Sounds old fashioned, I know, but it seems necessary to be more ‘teacherly’ in these times by offering more scaffolds and communicating more often. I’m trying to work out ways to prompt students towards more ‘natural’ interest groupings. I’ve been thinking about ways to set up interest-based forums for them to join of their own choice, for instance, but I feel the most successful forums have been when I’ve insisted on their participation initially.


  7. I thought some of the strategies discussed in ‘Technology’ chapter of Teaching in Blended Learning Environments were quite interesting, particularly the proposal for a student-moderated discussion board. The idea of assigning students roles in the discussion forum, such as summarising the content after a designated period e.g. weekly, seems promising. There were a number of good suggestions about possible roles in the discussion under the Engaging Students Online coffee course. I am not sure how well students would take to the wiki model, but this idea seems easily compatible with the wattle discussion forum model, with which students are already familiar. Vaughan et. al.’s suggestion to allow students to pick (possibly from a range of options) a discussion forum topic that they would like to engage in on a regular basis also seems like a potentially fruitful way to encourage participation.

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