Three ways to facilitate higher-order thinking in online education

March 7, 2017 karinawp No comments exist

Reflection on: Community of inquiry as a theoretical framework to foster “epistemic engagement” and “cognitive presence” in online education (Shea & Bidjerano, 2009)

How to improve cognitive presence in online education

This study of 2000 online learners by Shea & Bidjerano (2009) confirms the constructs of teaching, social and cognitive presence as theorised by the Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000). Additionally, the analysis presented is detailed enough to highlight the relationship between teaching and social presence on the development of cognitive presence, of particular interest for online learning in higher education, where higher-order thinking is the main objective. The three highest response items describing teaching and social presence that influence cognitive presence are dissected below:

“I felt comfortable participating in the course discussions”

Author’s suggestions for helping students gain comfort and confidence in online discussions:

  • encourage students to reflect on their comfort levels with online discussion
  • promote reflection on why they feel this way and how they might overcome this discomfort
  • simultaneously emphasise that facility with online discussion appears essential to productive learning in this environment

My ideas – At the start of the course (or even before) conduct surveys or anonymous questionnaires to ascertain participants previous experience of online course discussions. By sharing and deliberating the results the instructor will be able to elicit ideas of how to reduce inhibition and increase participation. The instructor may focus the student’s attention on the value of open and honest online discussion by providing real-life examples for review. This could be in the form of video/audio/text testimonials from previous course participants. By creating and storing student testimonials and maintaining a list of ‘tips’ instructors will help students to feel at ease and actively participate  in online discussion forums.

“The instructor helped focus discussions on relevant issues that helped me to learn”

My ideas – it sounds obvious, but as the instructor you need to make sure you have time and energy to lead the online course. You need to block the time out in your calendar, you need to get a good night’s rest, in order to be really ‘present’. I say that because, when no-one can actually see you, it is very easy to turn up tired and unprepared. Secondly, I suggest the use of a particular format for leading a discussion, to have scaffolded stages where different participants are allocated different roles (e.g., instructor brings the discussion topic and ensures everyone stays on topic, note-taker who summarises the points at the end, moderator who ensures everyone takes a turn to speak, etc.). Repeat this format several times and then rotate those roles, instructor included. Finally, rotate with instructor  purely as an observer giving feedback on how well those roles are being carried out. In this way, the presence and participation of an expert is continuous, simultaneously allowing for individuals to experience the role of instructor for themselves.

“Getting to know other course participants gave me a sense of belonging in the course”

My ideas – there are many fun ways participants may get to know one another, depending on the platform used. For example, by completing learner profiles, by sharing personal pictures (favourite objects/places) or making a video self-introduction. These ideas, executed at the start of the course, will help students to establish connections with their classmates and build a strong foundation for future collaborative work. Writing, sharing and inviting comments on reflective journals (e.g. blogs) of the learning process itself would also be beneficial for maintaining and deepening personal connections.

Future research

The paper suggests knowing more about the kinds of discourse that lead to higher levels of engagement would be the next logical step in terms of future research. For example, “It may be that higher average cognitive presence scores can be attained through, for example, a strict emphasis on direct instructional approaches” (p552). Also “Qualitative research that examines the nature of the discourse in online threaded discussions would shed light on the kinds of instructional conversations that lead to social and cognitive presence as well as those that results in lower levels of engagement and learning.” Some food for thought as I drill down on what areas of online community I would like to focus on for my upcoming research project.


Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical Inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2, 1-19.

Shea, P. & Bidjerano, T. (2009). Community of inquiry as a theoretical framework to foster “epistemic engagement” and “cognitive presence” in online education. Computers and Education, 52 (3), 543 – 553.

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