Is there a false dichotomy between “social presence” and self-paced learning?

The past week has been quite a productive one for me, in terms of developing my understanding of online and blended writing instruction. Virtually attending the 2016 OLC Accelerate Conference (Thanks, GMU!) right after our last brainstorming session raised some great questions for me. Our collective interests, mentioned by Billy below, led me to view recorded sessions on project-based learning, and social presence. This blog post will focus mostly on social presence and what seems to be its theoretical inverse, self-paced learning. I wanted to see if there was any current research that re-affirmed earlier research trends demonstrating the important role of collaborative learning processes, both generally, as well as in online, writing, and online / blended writing settings. This conference, as well as the time I’ve had to do some follow-up research, due to a minor lull in my current Composition class’ schedule, have really helped me to contextualize the field for myself. I think.

I was hoping also to find some sessions on self-paced learning, which, from a student-centered responsive pedagogy, seems to make a lot of intuitive sense. However, there were only a couple conference sessions on self-paced learning, but they weren’t streaming or recorded. Through my follow-up research, though, I did learn a new word for “self-paced learning”! As defined in a seminal 2000 article, Hase and Kenyon (as quoted on the Heutagogy Community of Practice), “[h]eutagogy is the study of self-determined learning.”

I felt a bit like a noob, when the term “Community of Inquiry” kept getting tossed around.

I’m actually a big fan of “inquiry-based learning” and assumed that the two were one and the same. However, an expert panel on “social presence”—a huge topic that our cohort has discussed—pointed me to Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s 1999 conceptualization of the Community of Inquiry, whose figure appears beside this paragraph. I hadn’t realized that the concept of “social presence” that we had been tossing around, at least on my end, has a lot more specific of a theoretical background.


One member of the OLC panel, Multiple Perspectives On Social Presence In Online Learning: A Book Panel, defined social presence in an online setting in terms that seem to resonate with our thinking: “being able to perceive others as real, and project yourself as real.” If we decide that this is a goal of our course, I wonder if we could create a framework by which to grade our students on their interactions with each other that would ask them to take each others’ ideas seriously. At the same time, I think it’s probably also our responsibility to create an environment, and a design a course to put students in a wide range of rhetorical situations that require them to take each other seriously, simply to complete the task. It’s also probably our responsibility to find ways, like video lectures, to use technology to project ourselves and our own presence as “real” and human for our students.

I think that a responsive course design that modifies lessons based on formative assessments, whether formal or informal, is one way to do this. The kinds of examples that Brian mentions, like stopping for quick grammar lessons, are one way to do this in a face to face classroom. I think that, as course designers, we’re in a little bit of a tight spot, because we’re designing a course meant to be taught by anyone assigned to teach it. But, if we intentionally leave a module, or half a module blank, with the knowledge that, as instructors, we’ll know what to do with that learning time once we have more assessment of our students’ abilities, we can’t guarantee that other instructors will understand our pedagogical intentions.


I spent some time digesting some of the research around Communities of Inquiry, and more recent scholarship and research studying the efficacy of the heuristic, and proposing modifications that have been adopted to various extents. My awareness of this corner of the field was also expanded by OLC sessions like, Online Discussion: When Enough is Enough and Conceptualizing Learner Engagement in Blended Contexts. The first panel by Ashford University found tentative results that showed decreasing discussion opportunities had negative consequences for students’ learning and persistence, while the second was a study by Brigham Young University scholars that built a new theoretical framework for analyzing engagement indicators, and used it to find that engagement indicators correlate to student success differently in online and face to face settings.

I still wanted to know what self-paced learning might look like in an online writing course. It seems as though most of the research in this direction is focused around MOOCs. The one implementation study that did offer university-enrolled students a formal institutional reward for completing a self-paced writing course focuses on SPOT, or Self-Paced Online Tutorials at Fresno State University. SPOTs at Fresno State are designed to be open, like MOOCs, as an opportunity for students, at any level, to improve their writing with guidance from a faculty member. They begin with the student completing a writing inventory, and, in partnership with their faculty tutor, develop two writing goals for the SPOT. The course as described sounds rigorous to me, and follow-up surveys found that students felt similarly. However, no university credit is offered for completion, only a check-mark stating that the student has completed their university writing requirement.

I’m pretty enamored with the idea of self-pacing right now, and I’ve been toying with some ideas about how to pull it off in a way that would meet both student and institutional needs. The SPOT is an intriguing option, but, still, after my research, I’m left with a couple questions: Why does it seem like all the research on self-paced online writing instruction revolves around the non-credit framework of MOOCs, and Deleuzian theories of rhizomatic education? If there’s instructor involvement, and the student demonstrates that they have achieved the goals of the course, is there a reason that universities appear to be unwilling to give them course credit for their work and demonstration of achievement? What could we do to design a student-centered learning experience with university needs to make money, scholarly needs to protect the knowledge of the field, and faculty needs for a live-able and manageable work arrangement?

I think most of us learn best by experience, and that especially goes for the metacognition of our learning tendencies. In an ideal, student-centered world, students would be able to self-select what type of pedagogy best suited their learning—a self-paced online tutorial, or a course that required a more collaborative learner presence, whether it be online-only, blended, or face to face. If students fail their first time, they would lose the privilege of choosing and be required to take the other course, under the presumption that perhaps they don’t understand their learning as well as they thought (a phenomenon that I’ve experienced both as subject and as observer of others). Perhaps they’d be required, also, to complete a reflection on their learning experiences in the course and their tendencies as a learner. At our institution, where “Composition 101” is often “First Year Composition,” I feel like this opportunity could go a long way towards contributing to students’ ability “to college,” to paraphrase Brian.

This post may have been a bit rambling, but I feel like I’ve just learned a whole heckuva lot about Communities of Inquiry, social presence, in particular, and self-paced learning, or heutagogy. I find the tension between these two apparent opposites to be exciting and, hopefully, a source of creative (re)solutions.

About Ben Brezner

I write poetry and fiction. I live in Arlington, VA, with my wife and two cats. I put my pants on just like everyone else, by imagining myself wearing them, twitching my nose and blinking hard.
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