The first assignment for my first class at Athabasca University involved being assigned to a group to examine a topic and present at our in-person session in late August in Edmonton, Alberta. My group, which was distributed across timezones in North America, and who had previously never met, was assigned the topic of the importance of interaction and participation in open and distance learning environments. After introductory research and online meetings, we decided to approach this topic using the lens of the community of inquiry, which is a model depicting the relationships between learner interactions with content, instructors and each other. I chose to further investigate learner-content interaction, and was quickly introduced to the concept of cognitive presence, which is defined as the active interaction of learners with content to construct and confirm meaning through reflection and discourse.
The experience of researching this topic and creating a presentation with my group approximated what I was learning about the community of inquiry model. As I interacted with content through reading articles, largely written by Garrison, Anderson and Archer, I experienced social presence, meaning my learning required dialogue and discourse with my peers. These individuals assisted me by providing additional search terms and research ideas, and by commenting on my findings and slides. Feedback and the instructional design of the assignment, which are facets of teacher presence, provided a container for my learning.
Participation and interaction are elements affecting education in both face to face and open and distance settings. I am a constructivist. I believe that learning is an active process where individuals make meaning out of interactions, building upon previous experiences. I have even dabbled in constructionism, where the physical building of models and projects provides vehicles for and demonstrates learning. Learning is an active process, which requires interaction with content. Individually, learners dialogue with concepts, and neurologically, the brain develops pathways and connections to integrate new material. Learning cannot happen passively.
In the past, I have taken courses in which I found myself a passive recipient of content. I ingested the material, worked the necessary problems and completed the necessary assignments. I may even have written the correct number of posts on the discussion board within the LMS. However, I was not involved in critical reflection. Questions like the following often remained unanswered or unconsidered: Why was what I was learning important to me? To my field? To my future? What impact did learning this material have on how I understood the world around me? What role did my peers play? How did I interact with the instructor? If I am honest, and in this moment of reflection, I find myself very honest, I didn’t choose to interact with my instructors or fellow learners, and my experience was not as rich as a result. The dialogue would have helped me to articulate my beliefs, to test my understanding, to shape my worldview. I would have been better able to integrate my understanding of the content into my schema. However, I was afraid of being wrong, of offending, of not knowing how to interact in this way.
Learning has always been an intensely personal experience for me. What did I know? Was I able to articulate my understanding? And yet, this group project experience pushed me beyond mere familiarity with a subject. This experience challenged my notion and experience of learning. What does it mean to learn? Does learning mean just knowing facts? Or does it mean more? Could it be that my investigation of critical thinking points to the issue that learning always means being able to examine thoughts, concepts, arguments and discover the logic within? That critical thinking, combined with critical reflection, coupled with dialogue and discourse with others and instructors are the earmarks of learning?
Could it be that the nature of participation and interaction in learning goes beyond involving students in the choice of assignments or ways to indicate their learning? Beyond gamification? Beyond the use of manipulatives or inclusion of engaging learning strategies? Could it be that participation and interaction at its core is reflective of learning as an active process? A process where learners are actively encountering content, examining that content in light of previously learned materials, discussing that content internally and with others, and expressing that learning in public ways. In a sense, this is modeling the cognitive presence practical inquiry model: triggering event, exploration, integration, resolution. This cycle continues with interaction from peers and teachers. The goal is knowledge/learning/growth.