Study Results from an Online Student Orientation: Using a Community of Inquiry Model to Help Students ‘Learn How to Learn’ Online

Concurrent Session 8
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Brief Abstract

As director of an online graduate program, I admit students who have experience working and communicating online. However, some are more ready than others for online learning. To better prepare students, I created a community of inquiry-focused online student orientation (OSO). The results of my OSO research are presented here.  


Julie Watts is professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Stout. She is founding director of the online MS Technical and Professional Communication. Her research interests focus on program assessment as well as the communicative dynamics and culture of the classroom learning community and what instructors can do to facilitate student learning.

Extended Abstract

As director of an online master of science program in technical and professional communication, I admit students who often have decades of experience working in industry. A majority of these students work with ease online and can demonstrate their facility using a variety of Web-based tools that enable them to communicate, collaborate, and connect—everything from email to Slack to social media and beyond. A growing number also note that they have experience learning online and have completed online training modules prescribed by their company meant to help them learn a new task or tool.


Despite these experiences, some students are more ready than others for online graduate learning. Students who are confident in their workplace skills and online abilities are often taken aback when faced with the challenges of succeeding in an online graduate seminar. If students do not quickly cultivate strategies to successfully tackle these trials, their academic success and even their continuance in the program is at risk.


In fact, the adult working professionals who enroll in my program are already vulnerable in terms of retention. Studies show that nontraditional students are retained less frequently in programs and courses than traditional students (Hadfield, 2003; Lee, 2011). While any program should provide students with the tools students need for success, it is especially imperative for those programs serving nontraditional students online.


The proposed strategy, which is the focus of this study, is the online student orientation (OSO). This study reports about the use of a course-embedded OSO meant to help students “learn how to learn” online.


The literature about OSOs indicates that they can be characterized thusly: OSOs help students to address technological barriers (Taylor, 2015), acquaint students with university resources (Jones, 2013), and help students discern how to learn online (Cho, 2012). While OSOs that familiarize students with technology or student services are fairly common, OSOs that help students discern how to learn online are less abundant (Wozniak, 2012). This latter type of OSO—the one I am assessing in this study—works best when an orientation is required (Gullixson, 2015), embedded into a course, and when orientation activities such as “critical reflection and dialogue” occur throughout the semester (Levy, 2006, p. 236).


The OSO, designed to help students learn how to learn online, was structured using a community of inquiry (COI) model. COI is a theoretical framework that identifies the “crucial prerequisites” of a “successful higher educational experience” and how these should function when that experience was computer-mediated (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000, p. 87). COI argues that a community is comprised of an instructor and students, and both need to be “present” in different ways to cultivate an online environment that’s conducive to “deep and meaningful learning” (Rourke & Kanuka, 2009, p. 23). Three presences work together to constitute a COI: teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence.


COI was developed as a theory to understand online pedagogy, collaboration, and student learning. Thus, the concepts, behaviors, and tasks comprising the model are specific to the online learning environment. COI’s three presences create a learning space that promotes students’ deep learning. Using COI as the theoretical underpinning for an OSO will help students to recognize behaviors, actions, and messages that not only help to promote teaching, social, and cognitive presence but also deep learning. 


My study’s OSO was embedded into an online graduate seminar meant to familiarize students with the technical and professional communication discipline by summarizing its key theories and research methods. I served as instructor for the course. Students are advised to take this seminar early in the program, ideally during their first semester. However, since the program includes spring, summer, and fall admission periods, and this graduate seminar is offered each fall semester, some students take the course after they have completed one or more semesters of coursework. The seminar and the OSO relied almost exclusively on asynchronous delivery.


Students interacted with the OSO during week 1 of the 15-week online seminar. In the OSO, students were introduced to the COI model through a video introduction, a journal article describing the COI concepts (Lambert & Fisher, 2013), and a blog article, “Five-Step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning” (Morrison, 2012). Students then contributed to a discussion board about how the COI concepts explained in the video aligned with those discussed in the blog and how one strategy, behavior, or task could be used to inculcate cognitive, social, or teaching presence in the seminar. Students individually responded to the journal article by drafting a two-page response paper. Students also wrote a final exam about graduate online learning.


I responded to the following research questions in this study:

  • How satisfied were students with the OSO? What modifications did they suggest?
  • How did students use COI to analyze their experiences as online graduate students?
  • What effect did the OSO have on students’ abilities to “learn how to learn” online?
  • At what rate were students who completed the OSO retained in the program?


I disseminated a pre- and post-course survey, and I analyzed students’ week 1 discussion board posts, response papers, and their final exams. The purpose of the surveys was to ascertain student perceptions of graduate online education before and after their enrollment in the graduate seminar and (in the post-course survey) to assess the effectiveness of the OSO.


Fifteen students were enrolled and participated in the OSO, 10 females and 5 males.  Six students were in their first or second semester in the program, six were in their third semester, one was in his fourth, and two were in their final semester.


The study yielded a wealth of data, which I continue to analyze. I report a handful of the major findings respective to my four research questions. 


Satisfaction and Modifications. Post-course survey results showed that the majority of students found the “readings and videos” used in the OSO to be “useful” (n=7; 6/7 respondents). One student remarked: “This course was one of my first online graduate courses. I thought it was a great way to ease into the course and add skills to my ‘toolbox.’” However, other students noted that the OSO was more useful to new program students: “Good for first-time students, but not for ones who have taken several courses.”


Impact of COI model. In the discussion board posts, half of the students who posted (6/12 students) analyzed how they could better build social presence into their work as online graduate students. In this forum, social presence was the most frequently discussed aspect of COI. This deviates somewhat from the literature, which indicates that working adult students tend to seek out social presence less frequently or in different ways than other student groups (Ke, 2010; Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006). Students noted the importance of building relationships: “This is my third full semester in the program and I’m starting to remember and recognize names. But, it reminds me that I should be working to build relationships with my fellow grad students that span more than one class or one semester.” Students also connected building social presence with improving cognitive presence: “Assigning thought-provoking questions based on assigned readings … is one strategy to include both cognitive presence and social presence. The higher level questions enables students to think critically and students provide feedback – agreeing, disagreeing, or asking more questions. Acknowledgement from peers enables a student to feel valued in a community of learners.”


Learn how to Learn Online. To understand how the OSO affected students’ abilities to “learn how to learn” online, I examined the final exam essays for the six students who were in their first or second semester of program study. While students identified the ways the seminar changed their perceptions about learning online, few comments pointed specifically to the OSO. One of the two students who spoke directly about COI concepts acknowledged the challenges of online graduate education: “In my admissions essay to MSTPC program, I’m embarrassed to say I said I was prepared to participate in a distance education program because I had completed computer-based training. The two styles of courses are nothing alike. There are no discussions, connections, or critical thinking requirements in a computer-based course. However, college courses — both face-to-face and online — require all of the above. The key difference between face-to-face and online courses is the distance. As an online learner, I can’t go out for dinner and drinks after class with my classmates or crash an instructor’s 50th birthday party, but I am still able to make new friends and achieve deep learning.


Retention. All of the students who completed the OSO were retained into either the subsequent spring or summer semesters (2 of the 15 students were enrolled in their last semester of the program; they graduated). This retention rate compares favorably to the 89% overall retention rate for graduate students across my institution during the same time period (Program Fact Sheet).