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Interview with Dr. D. Randy Garrison, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Calgary

About D. Randy Garrison, Ed.D.

Dr. D. Randy Garrison is a Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Calgary and an educational researcher who has published extensively on teaching and learning in adult, higher, and distance education. He has authored, co-authored, or edited 13 books and over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and academic papers. He has served as Dean of the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta, Director of Distance Education at the University of Calgary, and Director of the Teaching and Learning Centre at the University of Calgary.

Dr. Garrison holds a Doctor of Education degree from the University of British Columbia, as well as Master of Education and Bachelor of Education degrees from of the University of Calgary. In 2009, he received the Sloan-C Award for Most Outstanding Achievement in Online Learning by an Individual. His recent publications include, E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice, 3rd Edition (Routledge/Taylor & Francis; 2017), and Thinking Collaboratively: Learning in a Community of Inquiry (Routledge/Taylor & Francis; 2016).

Currently, Dr. Garrison is participating in a research project exploring shared metacognition preparation in a community of inquiry. He contributes regularly to The Community of Inquiry blog hosted by the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University. The second edition of An Introduction to Distance Education: Understanding Teaching and Learning in a New Era, a book he co-edited with Dr. Martha Cleveland-Innes, is being readied for publication by Routledge.

Interview Questions

[] When did you first begin looking at distance education and online learning as part of your work, what drew you to research in the field, and to what extent did your career dovetail with the emergence and growth of online programs at the University of Calgary and in higher education more generally?

[Dr. Garrison] My career in distance education began unexpectedly in 1983. I had just finished my doctorate in adult education and was offered a temporary position as acting director of distance education at the University of Calgary. I had a background in computer applications in education but didn’t know much about distance education. As it turned out, the professor I was substituting for did not return and I was selected for a tenure track professorial position as the director of distance education.

During that time, we were doing cutting edge work with audio teleconferencing. The interactive potential of audio teleconferencing, along with my background in adult education, predisposed me to critically analyze distance education with its focus at the time on independent study. It appeared to me that distance educators were myopically focused on access and, therefore, rationalizing the benefits of independent study. This set the stage for me to write my first book, Understanding Distance Education: A Framework for the Future (Routledge; 1989), which challenged the idealization of independent study.

In the 1990s, advances in communications technology virtually eliminated distance as a contextual constraint and collaboration became a viable reality in distance education. Discussion of collaborative approaches to distance education became more understandable and acceptable. As such, we started to experiment with computer conferencing, which eventually evolved into online learning.

Online learning has been both a disruptive and constructive influence on distance education. Collaboration made possible by online learning became an increasingly important concept and central to our work on the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework. Little did I know that this personal journey to understand the complexities of distance education would eventually lead to the development of the CoI theoretical framework. In turn, this framework became the foundation for Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles, and Guidelines (Jossey-Bass; 2008), a book I coauthored with Dr. Norman D. Vaughan. Simply put we see blended learning as thoughtfully integrating face-to-face and online learning. The proportion of each will depend on whether the possibilities of blending go beyond the capabilities of each separately.

[] What are the main principles of CoI theory and how have they been applied to the design, assessment, and improvement of online and blended courses and degree programs?

[Dr. Garrison] The CoI framework was created as a direct result of developing an online graduate degree program. The original goal was to provide a conceptual framework that would provide a heuristic understanding and a methodology for studying the potential and effectiveness of an online learning program (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). The CoI framework is conceptually grounded in theories of teaching and learning in higher education and philosophically consistent with the work of John Dewey. More specifically, it consists of three presences – social, cognitive, and teaching. Social presence speaks to a trusting and open environment. Cognitive presence reflects the inquiry process. The third element, teaching presence, provides the leadership that makes the community function. A CoI only works when all three are in dynamic balance. The presences have been shown to be very useful in informing the design, delivery, and assessment of collaborative-constructive online and blended learning.

Collaborative approaches can include synchronous and asynchronous discourse and inquiry. The possibilities are virtually limitless depending on academic purposes and technologies. This is why a framework such as the CoI is essential for instructional designers to consider when determining optimal approaches for online and blended courses. Distance education is no longer left to defend independent approaches to learning as evidenced by recent research on MOOCs (massive open online courses), a topic that is the subject of an editorial I contributed to The Community of Inquiry blog in December of 2018 – “MOOCs and the Community of Inquiry.”

[] Based on your research and experience, what are some of the more effective ways to design online courses from a CoI perspective and are there specific resources or guidelines you can recommend for educators and program administrators interested in cultivating a better understanding CoI theory and its applications in online learning?

[Dr. Garrison] As noted in the previous question, there are no simple recipes that can be deduced from the CoI framework. Moreover, I am not the best person to provide specific practical guidelines as I have spent the last couple of decades working on the theoretical coherence of the CoI framework. That said, we outlined various scenarios and principles that should provide practical guidelines and suggestions in Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles, and Guidelines, as well as in E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice. There are also an increasing number of studies that have explored the practical implications of applying the CoI framework. For this, the best I can do is refer you to The Community of Inquiry website.

[] On a similar note, what advice would you offer to students who value the convenience and flexibility that online learning provides but who want to get the most out of their online learning experience in terms of group learning and interaction with classmates and instructors?

While some courses are more challenging to offer online, I have not come across a course that could not be successfully delivered online. From the learner’s perspective, the best advice that I can offer is to commit to the collaborative process. That is, fully engage in the discourse and take responsibility for facilitating and directing the discourse (i.e., assume teaching presence). Teaching presence is about collaborative leadership. The ultimate goal is for the participants to collaboratively facilitate and direct the inquiry process. However, this must gradually evolve as participants are prepared to assume this responsibility. Therefore, the formal instructor must maintain a presence, especially at the outset. Inevitably when participants fully engage and assume appropriate control, they find the experience enjoyable and satisfying. In the long-term, perhaps the most valuable outcome is individuals that have assumed responsibility for their learning (i.e., learned to learn).

[] Are there recent developments or innovations in online course delivery and online program design that you find promising from a CoI perspective or in general?

I have not kept up with the latest technologies. However, I have never been one to jump on the bandwagon of the latest technological prediction or to prophesize about how a particular technology is going to radically change how we learn. I prefer to simply extrapolate from what works well at this point in time guided by a sound theoretical framework. The best practical advice I can give is: rely on sound theoretical underpinnings for purposeful and effective design.

In this regard, the CoI framework has proven to be popular and effective. Beyond this I would focus on flipped classrooms and blended approaches to learning. We have so much more that can be done to provide an exciting and quality educational experience that takes advantage of the collaborative possibilities of online learning. Within this context we can experiment with various technological innovations and enhancements. There has been some work with learning analytics in a CoI context, which I addressed in a 2018 editorial (“Learning Analytics and the CoI Framework”) and that could be used in concert with adaptive learning approaches to maximize the collaborative inquiry experience.