Online Programs Strive to Create ‘a Community of Inquiry’

Woman working from home on her laptop

With family responsibilities and a demanding, executive-level job, Kristen Sanchez had time for just one course a semester for the Master's in Integrated Marketing Communications program at Georgetown University.

To say she was busy is an understatement. But even so, late last winter, as she was well into her final project, or Capstone, she started feeling a bit sad that her Georgetown experience was coming to an end. From her first class in the fall of 2016, the program—taught mostly by working professionals—was immediately applicable to her job as Vice President of Marketing for SAP National Security Services. And it was comprehensive and broad-based enough to be just as relevant when, less than a year later, she became the company’s Vice President for Corporate Communications.

But beyond all that, it was the people that she would miss most: her peers from a variety of occupations, and staff members like the program's Faculty Director Wendy Zajack and her Capstone advisor, Andrea Koslow.

“They always were an open book. They always encouraged us and said, ‘Call me anytime. You guys can text me, you know.’” Sanchez said. “I feel like they were all very inviting and very proactive.”

So, what changed for her on March 18 when the University announced it would be moving classes online because of the emerging pandemic? What happened with all those wonderful personal connections? That sense of community?

In truth, practically nothing. Because Sanchez, who lives in Ashburn, Va., with her partner and three school-age children, took all her classes and made all those personal connections online. And while, like other online students at Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies (SCS), she was invited to attend in-person classes anytime, for her that just wasn’t possible.

A Rigorous Approach

From the moment when K-12 schools and colleges began moving online, to now, when educators at all levels are facing difficult decisions about whether to return to face-to-face classes, the idea of online education has been commingled with the mix of complex emotions surrounding the coronavirus. Even the nomenclature of some academics, who use terms like “emergency remote teaching,” suggests an air of apprehension surrounding the practice.

This is misleading. Online courses have been around for decades, and numerous studies have found that they are comparable in quality to face-to-face classes, just different. Yin Wah Kreher, an Instructional Designer and Project Lead at SCS, cites a meta-analysis of thousands of research papers published between 1996 and 2008, which concluded that learners in the online learning environment perform slightly better than those in traditional classes.

“There may be students who think that online learning is easier than face-to-face learning because they don't have to travel, and nobody is actually seeing what they’re doing” Kreher said. “But no, it's just as rigorous, and there's a lot of effort put in to design online courses, and sometimes we have instructors telling us that, because they have gone through this process of designing online courses, it actually helps them to design face-to-face courses better.”

The advantages of remote learning are readily apparent to anyone who takes an online course. Because they are usually asynchronous (often in conjunction with synchronous discussion sessions and small-group meetings) students can fit the classes into their own schedules, proceed at their own pace, and review the material as often as necessary. And because students don’t have to commute to class, the programs expand access to those who might otherwise be unable to attend because of distance from the campus, tight work and family schedules, or disability.

Certainly, there are benefits to learning in close physical proximity to others, the most obvious being the personal connection and sense of community that can develop. But, educators who design online courses are acutely aware of this benefit and, in response, are intentional about building virtual communities in their programs.

“When I design my courses I always say, in the orientation module, ‘You are a community. You are forming a community of inquiry. You’re learning together,’” Kreher said. “To foster a community, we build into the course social presence. We build cognitive presence and teaching presence. And when they intersect, that’s the sweet spot where they learn the best.”

An Unprecedented Challenge

For these unprecedented times, the more relevant comparison than online courses versus traditional ones is between face-to-face classes and those formerly in-person courses that had to be moved online because of the coronavirus. This process has been uneven, particularly at the high school level, but also at colleges and universities. Designing an online course can take six to eight months, but this kind of preparation wasn’t possible for face-to-face courses that had to be moved online quickly.

But, even though they had just weeks’ notice, course designers at Georgetown were cognizant of the challenges they faced and moved quickly.

A good example is the school’s certificate and professional development programs. On March 3, two weeks before the University announced it was moving all classes online, a team from the programs began planning how they would respond if Georgetown was forced to suspend face-to-face classes.

“It was very important for us not to have our learners log into Zoom and just sit in front of a screen and listen to someone talk,” said Jeffrey Warner, Senior Director for Professional Development & Certificates. “That’s not the educational experience we gave in the classroom, and that’s not the educational experience we were going to give now.”

The initiative, called “Flex Learning,” emphasizes real-time, synchronous learning; face-to-face discussion; individual guidance; spontaneity; and immediate feedback.

Feelings of Apprehension—and Optimism

In some cases, the apprehension students felt about their classes moving online was offset by relief that they would not have to go to SCS and sit for an hour or more in a classroom.

“In these difficult times, I’ve talked to people, and I’ve seen how it’s affected them,” said Nimra Hafeez, a student completing the Master's in Human Resources Management graduate program. Taking classes online “in the comfort of your home is kind of relieving you of that very stressful feeling. Because, imagine if, especially in these times, you had to rush out and go to classes. It would have definitely added to your stress.”

Eventually, these stressful times will end, and when that time comes, what will we have learned? Might there be some benefits from this transition to online curriculum, even though it was enacted, not for pedagogical reasons, but for public health ones?

Kreher thinks there will be—that this period, however painful, will lead to innovation that will benefit all students in the future.

“Now, because everyone has to go online, they have to think about opportunities they never thought about before,” she said. “So, instead of traditional ways of teaching and learning, now they have to think: How can I be creative? So, I think it forces people to reimagine education.”

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