Tuesday, October 15, 2019

One Way to Examine the Educational Experience

I have been reading about the concept of "community of inquiry", a model that attempts to explain how, in a variety of contexts, groups of individuals work together to share and develop knowledge.  The concept originated as a philosophical explanation of the process of scientific inquiry, but has come to be applied in other areas, including education.  One of the foundational premises that distinguishes the community of inquiry model from more traditional epistemological theories is that knowledge should not be conceived of as fixed and absolute truth that can be discerned by any single rational observer, but instead as a contingent and potentially fluid understanding of truth that depends upon common agreement in a social context for its legitimacy.  It is not hard to see the value of such a premise in learning and teaching the law.

Community of inquiry is too rich and intricate a concept to be explicated entirely in a single blog post.  However, one aspect of community of interest theory, as applied to education, is easy to grasp, and potentially a helpful way to examine the robustness of a course, workshop, or other legal educational experience. 

In this schema, a meaningful and effective educational experience depends on three interdependent elements:

  • Social presence: This is the ability of those in the community of interest to perceive others, and to be perceived themselves, as real individuals in that community.  This facilitates interaction and collaboration.  Notably, this concept arose early in consideration of online learning platforms, where social presence may not arise naturally.  At the same time, even in live classrooms, factors such as a teacher's openness and receptivity, opportunities for students to be heard, and activities and platforms through which students can work together can all enhance social presence.
  • Cognitive presence: This is the extent to which the necessary "raw materials" are available and accessible for members of the community to use to construct and confirm meaning and thus to develop their own knowledge.  These raw materials include reading materials, lectures, experimentation, feedback, and the like -- much of what traditional models of education consider to be the greater part of education.
  • Teaching presence: In the law school context, teaching presence usually refers to the carrying out of two essential functions by the professor or lecturer: first, the design of the educational experience, including the selection of content and activities; and second, the facilitation of that educational experience, meaning the real-time execution of those activities and provision of assessment arising from them.

In the broadest terms possible, these three presences correspond to the people who will learn, the stuff they are supposed to learn, and the teacher who will help them learn it.  What I think is useful about this model is that it suggests1 that we can look at pairs of these elements to help us determine how to improve three sometimes noticeably troublesome aspects of the learning experience: climate in the classroom, productivity of discourse, and transmission of content.

  • Climate in the classroom is defined by the intersection of teaching presence and social presence.  Thus, problems with climate (inattention, unruliness, anxiety, competition, etc.) can be addressed by considering changes not just to how the teacher is leading the class (teaching presence), but also to the structures that facilitate social participation.
  • Productivity of discourse is defined by the intersection of social presence and cognitive presence.  Here, then, the sense that students are not making the best use of their opportunities to interact with the teacher and with each other can be addressed by considering changes not just to the structures that facilitate social participation, but also to the raw materials that are available and accessible to the students to use for discourse.
  • Transmission of content is defined by the interaction of cognitive presence and social presence.  If students do not seem to be absorbing enough of the information provided in class for them to be able to build upon what they already know to construct new meaning, this can be addressed by considering changes not just to the raw materials that are available and accessible, but also to how the teacher is leading the class.

There is a lot more to explore in the community of inquiry model; this handy and practical way to think about possible ways to improve classroom experience seemed like a good place to start.

[Bill MacDonald]

1 See https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/; http://cde.athabascau.ca/coi_site/documents/Garrison_Anderson_Archer_Critical_Inquiry_model.pdf



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