Building Campus Expertise through a Faculty Community of Inquiry for Online Teaching

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Hear how a faculty learning community uses the Community of Inquiry Framework to help University of Wisconsin-Madison instructors address misconceptions by exploring and applying best practices for quality online course design and teaching. The program engages participants with social, cognitive, and teaching presence that inspires teaching transformation. Practical and time-tested strategies are shared.



Karen Skibba, PhD, is an Online Faculty Development Program Manager for Educational Innovation Program Development in the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As project manager of a faculty learning community called TeachOnline@UW, she is responsible for helping instructors learn how to design and teach quality online courses. She authored book chapters on educational technologies and online and blended teaching and learning, and presents her research at international conferences. Karen received her doctoral degree in Adult and Continuing Education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Jonathan Klein is an Instructional Design and Technology Consultant for University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Letters and Science where he leads online course design and production services. Jonathan holds a Master’s degree in Information and Communication Technology and a graduate certificate in Instructional Design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He also holds professional development credentials from several learning technology and leadership organizations, including an OLC Instructional Design Certificate (January 2018 cohort), the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Program (2013), and the MOR & Associates Information Technology Leadership Program (2015).
Maria Widmer is an Instructional Designer for the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. Maria has worked in distance education for ten years, having previously designed and taught a high-enrollment online undergraduate arts course. Maria holds a M.Ed. in Learning, Design, and Technology, an Educational Technology Integration certificate, and an eLearning Design certificate, all from Penn State University. With a background in film production, educational software development, and online instruction, Maria is driven by a mission to make technology-mediated higher education an engaging, accessible, and effective force for transformational learning and social change.

Extended Abstract

Instructors who are new to teaching online have many misconceptions of what it takes to successfully design and teach effective online courses. Some of these misconceptions include that online learning is not as effective as face-to-face, instructors and students do not need to collaborate as much, posting online lectures is the main way to teach online, and quizzes and exams are the best way to assess online learning (Sieber, 2005). Many also believe that teaching online is easier than teaching face-to-face and will take less time for the instructor and students.  However, quality online courses require a significant investment in time to plan engaging content and a variety of effective assessments. Frequent interactions and feedback during implementation is also needed.

To address misconceptions, a cross-campus committee of instructional designers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a two-semester collaborative faculty learning community in fall 2015 that continues today called “TeachOnline@UW.”  This committee realized that in order to transform online teaching practices and help instructors create engaging content and authentic assessments, it was important for instructors to be part of a learning community to work on their own courses and share ideas with colleagues while sharing challenges and learning new strategies.

The main goal of the TeachOnline@UW faculty learning community is to advance high-quality online learning opportunities. The two semester program has three main goals:

  • Prepare faculty to design and teach rigorous and effective online courses.
  • Provide an authentic online learning experience.
  • Bring together instructors from across campus to share ideas, experiences, successes, and challenges about teaching online.

The learning community is divided into two online courses over two semesters. One semester focuses on how to plan and design a quality online course. The second semester focuses on strategies for teaching and facilitating online courses. The online modules were followed by face-to-face or webinar sessions where the participants collaborated with colleagues on their course planning and share experiences and strategies.

Participants said being situated as “online students” is invaluable as they learn from experience and gain a 360 degree view of what it is like to design, teach, and participate in an online course.  “I am so much more aware of the challenges of being an online learner and will design my course to meet those challenges the best I can.”

Applying COI to a faculty learning community

To help instructors identify and address misconceptions in online course design and teaching, the Community of Inquiry theoretical framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001) was explored in the beginning of the program. This framework represents a process for creating deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experiences through the development of three interdependent elements: social, cognitive, and teaching presence. Since this framework is one of the most heavily researched and recognized regarding how to design meaningful online learning experiences, the three presences were used to structure the TeachOnline@UW learning community.

Following is an explanation of the framework and how social, cognitive, and teaching presences were implemented in the faculty learning community to help transform the learning community participants’ perceptions and practice of online course design and teaching.

Social presence is “the ability of participants to identify with the community, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop interpersonal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (Garrison, 2009). Learners want to get to know their instructors and course colleagues to feel part of the earning community, reduce feeling isolated, and build a climate of trust and an environment that is safe to take risks and share their personal ideas and concerns.

Building social presence was one of the main reasons the learning community approach was selected as the best way to offer online professional development. The collaboration of instructional designers and instructors from across campus is cited by the participants as the most valuable part of the program. Many said this was the only time where they were able collaborate with others who also teach online to talk about the issues they were most concerned about.

Following are key Social Presence strategies utilized in the faculty learning community:

  • Had discussions both online and face-to-face that provided extended time required to develop authentic relationships with other online instructors and instructional designers: The instructors were grouped with their college colleagues during the synchronous face-to-face and webinar sessions to build on existing local connections.  Then they were mixed during the online group discussions so they would be exposed to a variety of opinions and ideas.
  • A variety of spaces were provided for free talk during lunch at the face-to-face sessions and online in an “Internet Café” and “Share Resources” discussion forums.
  • The participants shared the “trauma” of the student experience, including falling behind on activities and feeling overwhelmed at times.

One participant shared, “I really valued meeting and getting to know people outside of my department who were similarly interested in improving teaching.”

Teaching presence is the “design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes” (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001). Teaching presence is manifested in everything the instructor does to guide, support, and shape the learners’ experiences. Another important element of the learning community is modeling how an online course is organized, showcasing engaging content and assessments, and demonstrating what it means to facilitate an online course.

Following are key Teaching Presence strategies utilized in the faculty learning community:

  • The online courses showcases Quality Matters standards, a variety of technologies, and research-based content that is practical and encouraged new ways of thinking about course design and teaching.
  • The lead “instructor” demonstrates persistent presence and sends personalized e-mail messages to participants to remind of course deadlines and encourage participation.
  • The instructional design facilitators provide continuity with the instructors as they continue to work on their courses after the program is completed.
  • Clear expectations are set with regular reminders on how to successfully complete the course and achieve enough points to receive the promised stipend.
  • A variety of opinions are shared by experienced online instructors (many who are past participants) through presentations and video testimonials.
  • The facilitators encourage participants to share challenges and ideas both online and during the synchronous sessions. They also provide feedback on assignments and collaborative activities to provide guidance and encouragement.

One participant wrote: “Seeing that the facilitators were engaging with what I was doing, rather than just grading for completion was something that made me want to participate more and made me feel like my voice was being heard.”

Cognitive presence is “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse” (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001). The primary focus of cognitive presence is to develop a higher-order thinking process (i.e. critical thinking or practical inquiry) that integrates existing learning with new learning through reflection, discussion, and feedback. The learning community was carefully designed to provide a variety of reflective and application activities to facilitate learning and encourage learners to explore their ideas, thoughts, and beliefs in order to meaningfully connect with the content and then apply the strategies to their own online courses.

Following are key Cognitive Presence strategies utilized in the faculty learning community:

  • The participants could choose from 14 challenging and applied activities per course to create their own course activities, documents, and plans to get a good start on their courses.
  • The instructors collaborated together on group discussions to problem solve how to handle difficult challenges such as course planning and assessment, academic honesty issues, managing course workload, building an online learning community, and much more.
  • This courses provided opportunities to practice creating online videos and writing and facilitating online discussion questions. They also tried out different collaboration technologies.
  • Many reflective activities were provided, including pre-assessments to identify assumptions and discussions and collaborative Google Docs to share challenges, solutions, and lessons learned.
  • Participants completed a detailed module plan on how they will align and develop engaging assessments, learning activities, and content in addition to an online journal to reflect on how they will address online teaching challenges.

 “My big takeaway from this course is an overall increased awareness of the components necessary for creating, delivering and managing an online course,” said one participant.

Learning Community Results

To date, 175 instructors have participated in the program and have taught 350 online courses. In a recent survey of all participants reported that they were 100% satisfied with the program and gained practical knowledge and strategies needed to make improvements to their course design and teaching.

They are now the experts on campus who share what they learned about online course design and teaching at campus events, department meetings, and provide important input to campus strategic initiatives helping meet the strategic needs of their department, college, and university.

One participant summarized: “I have become convinced that online courses can be just as good, if not be better, as face-to-face courses in accomplishing students' learning.  Importantly, the active learning approach has renewed and enhanced my enthusiasm, interest, and enjoyment of teaching.”