A Rear-View Look at Online Learning in 2021 and the Road Ahead

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session Leadership

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Online learning can and should be an engaging and informative experience for faculty and students. A Community of Inquiry is accomplished through the use of tools designed to facilitate interactions and best practices that enhance learning through lived experiences.  The result is a personal and more connected online course experience.

Extended Abstract

The Pandemic has certainly changed the way we, as educators, look at learning. The online modality that some of us used part time in our teaching portfolio, has become the main way for learning this past year or so. Yes, it was a very challenging time for us educators, but it also provided us with opportunities to rethink the way we approach online teaching to enhance the student’s learning process.

Over the course of the past two years our students have provided us with feedback as to how to make our online courses more interactive and, therefore, more beneficial to their learning and their investment in an education at our University. Common themes from student recommendations in online courses include:

  • A knowledge of who their instructor is.
  • More networking opportunities with other students.
  • Assignments that are relevant and timely.
  • Exchanging experiences of both students and faculty.
  • Timely feedback on assignments.
  • Meaningful responses from faculty on student assignments.

These student preferences align with the three aspects in Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, and Archer’s (2001) Community of Inquiry (CoI).  Cognitive presence is characterized as the inquiry process in which students are presented with an issue and through continuous dialog and reflection, develop meaning and affirm understanding (Garrison, 2009).  Next, Garrison (2009) described teaching presence as the design, facilitation, and instruction that supports meaningful learning experiences.  Finally, social presence refers to the student’s ability to relate to the classroom community, project their individual personalities, communicate with purpose, and create interpersonal relationships in a trusted environment (Garrison, 2009). 

Enhancing Social Presence

Effective online learning should start with a goal of making such courses feel more like in-person courses. This may be difficult for those of us who have traditionally not thought of that approach to online courses. The good news is that it is not a difficult task. 

At the onset of an online course faculty know little about the students entering the classroom.  This presents a challenge when designing and preparing for an effective online course experience.  One solution is a Student Dashboard, built directly into the Learning Management System (LMS).  Our college piloted the Student Dashboard concept which gave faculty insight into each student’s academic program, GPA and persistence trends. 

The student data points armed the faculty with additional information useful pre-term during the course design and prep phase.  As an example, a course comprised of Freshman level students are likely to need more guidance around the online platform as compared to a classroom of upperclassman.  Likewise, programmatic insight can be useful in developing discussion topics and course assessments as well as establishing student personas during the introductory portion of the course.  During the course the Student Dashboard reflects performance data point such as GPA and persistence rates to help assist at-risk students. 

Since launch in January 2021, over 385 faculty have utilized the Student Dashboard with over 1,017 dashboards accessed during the first quarter. 

With additional student insight prior to the term start, faculty can begin the process of building a CoI at the onset of the course.  Doing so requires a commitment from the faculty to share yourself with your students and to encourage them to do the same.  One of the ways this can be accomplished is to convert written introduction assignments at the start of the semester into video assignments.

Video-conference platforms such as Zoom can be used to conduct Introduction sessions with either individual students or a group of students very early in the semester. This has proven to be both an informative and fun way for both students and faculty to exchange personal and professional items. Feedback from student over a four-semester period has graded Zoom Introduction sessions as being 82.7% very effective and 11.8% as being effective.

With the tremendous growth of social media, students would like more opportunities to network with other students in their online courses.  Our University recognized that need to further enhance social presence.  Extending beyond the classroom our students can now network and interact in a new social platform called eUnion. This social platform provides an internal network channel exclusive to students, as well as faculty and other University employees.  With functions similar to traditional social networking platforms, users are able to create a detailed profile, upload a profile picture, and create a digital persona.  This digital persona offers students the ability to showcase their past experiences, interests, hobbies, and even one’s personality.  This enhanced profile provides faculty and students with more insight than is traditionally shared within an in-course student introduction.

Within eUnion, users are able to make connections, send direct mail, and interact in groups.  Group membership provides students with information, opportunities to interact, and connect with users with like interests.  For example, every student is enrolled into a Program group which serves as a networking opportunity among students across courses.  The Program groups feed includes both information and interaction opportunities.  Users can comment, respond, and like posts. 

The College of Business group currently has 10,730 members, 18 program groups, and several business and student interest groups.  The platform serves to enhance the online student experience, facilitate connections, and increase engagement between students, faculty, and staff.

Enhancing Teaching Presence

To enhance teaching presence in the online classroom, faculty can use Self-Created Chapter or Module Videos. We, as a College, are moving away from the use of generic videos from such sources as TED Talks and YouTube. In their place we are asking faculty to create their own videos on the chapter or module material in their courses. This allows our faculty to insert their own experiences and thoughts on the course material into their courses. These self-generated videos by our faculty have receive very effective scores of 90.4% and effective scores of 7.0% from our students.

While most courses have excellent assignments, students would like to also include current events related to their courses. We have started using an open template concept that give faculty the ability to bring into their courses relevant and current topics. Often faculty will ask students for their input on such topics.

Our students have reported (91.5% very effective and 5.1% effective) that engagement activities have had a major impact on their enhanced learning capabilities. Likewise, students believe (94.1% strongly agree and 5% agree) that engagement activities have greatly increased the mutual respect between themselves and their instructors.

Enhancing Cognitive Presence

CoI is achieved through enhanced methods for building cognitive presence. Faculty have a good deal of knowledge that students would appreciate us bringing into our online courses. In a like manner, our students also have their experiences that would enhance the learning of the entire class.  The question remains how best to facilitate those exchanges.  

Additional application of video-based technology in exercises include optional Zoom Discussion Sessions. We started using optional Zoom Discussion sessions a few semesters ago. It gives students the option to either type out their responses to the discussion topics and add at least two replies to other students or participate in an hour-long optional Zoom session with other students on that week’s discussion topic.  To date between 60-70% of the involved students have participated in these optional Zoom sessions. Student feedback on these optional Zoom sessions has been very positive. Students graded these sessions as being 91.1% very effective and 6.3% as being effective.

Timely feedback has always been a major concern. Our University policy is for all assignments to be graded and returned within a week. Our online courses tend to work over a Monday to Sunday schedule. The issue is receiving feedback on assignments on a Saturday or Sunday may be too late. Students with heavy work schedules may have already submitted the next week’s assignments. An unofficial goal is to complete the reviewing, grading, and forwarding back to Students assignments within two days.

Meaningful feedback on assignments can have many interpretations. One of those interpretations should not be just “Good job!”. Effective meaningful feedback should contain two elements in an online course.  The feedback should address how the student did in the assignment. In addition, faculty have the opportunity to include their thoughts on the assignment based on their experiences. Such knowledge probably would be discussed in a classroom environment. So, why not bring such experiences to the students by way of meaningful assignment feedback comments.

Building a Community of Inquiry

The pandemic forced many to re-imagine the higher education experience.  With little time and often limited guidance, faculty scrambled to transition face-to-face courses into the virtual classroom.  What we learned is that enhanced engagement activities can personalize an otherwise isolating learning environment.  Recommendations include the use of Student Dashboards to house critical data points, video-based introduction activities and interactive discussions, meaningful and timely feedback, and social networking opportunities outside of the classroom.  With decades of online learning experience and industry recognized rankings in the distance learning space, real-world application of these engagement efforts illustrate best practices in online learning.   



The presentation includes interactive features, including a role play scenario and live polling. 



Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, 5(2), 1–17. doi:

Garrison, D. (2009). Communities of inquiry in online learning. In P. Rogers, G. Berg, J. Boettcher, C. Howard, L. Justice, & K. Schenk (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Distance Learning, Second Edition (pp. 352-355). Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-60566-198-8.ch052