Impacts of Identity Development on Learning in a Community of Inquiry

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

As educational institutions begin to explore online and blended learning delivery models in some earnest, mostly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it behooves us to explore the impact of those environments on the learner.  One area of interest to me is the nature of how the learner’s identity as an individual and professional is developed through engagement with their peers in an Online Learning Environment (OLE) and how that impacts learning. The paper that follows looks to explore that subject through the lens of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework. Topics to be covered include a brief description of CoI, the development of learner identity in a CoI, the impact of identity and community on learning, negative implications of community building, CoI facilitation, and an analysis of the suitability of Discord for such facilitation.

The CoI framework was introduced in 2000 by D. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer and “assumes that learning occurs within the Community through the interaction of three core elements… cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence” (p. 88).  These three presences work in unison and overlap with a goal of achieving deep and meaningful learning.  Cognitive presence was described by Garrison et al. as “the extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication” (p. 89).  This definition indicates the critical importance of discourse in this framework and how community exploration develops understanding.  Social presence is defined as “the ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as “real people”” (p. 89).  As we will explore later in this paper, learners have an element of control over how those other participants perceive them as individuals and how that perception can both positively and negatively impact learning.  Finally, as described by Fiock (2020), teaching presence reflects the educator’s responsibility for instructional design, facilitating discourse, and providing direct instruction.  This puts the educator in a position to have influence over the nature of the environment in which discourse occurs, the nature of the discourse, and the topic of discussion.  The remainder of this paper will explore the way in which identity in a CoI is developed, how that impacts learning, and the educator’s responsibility in that process.

Learners will develop an identity in a CoI through the interpretation of their actions and communications by their fellow community members.  Through a learner’s interaction with their peers, the chosen words, attitude, and presentation help build a concept of that person in the minds of those who interpret those behaviours (Shaffer, 2021).  Considering that idea, Kimmons and Veletsianos (2014) coined the term Acceptable Identity Fragment (AIF) to describe the portion of an individual’s identity they choose to present in a given context in an OLE.   This AIF is not a full representation of the individual, but simply the fragment of themselves they choose to share through social presence in a CoI that suits the current context.  Having said that, as Lowenthal and Dennen (2017) observed, while the learner may choose how to present themselves, they do not have complete control over how that presentation is interpreted by community members.  As a result, the identity developed in the minds of community members may not be an accurate representation of the identity the original learner has created for themselves.  This can lead to an incongruence, and in a kind of feedback loop, the learner in turn, may shift their own understanding of their identity through the responses from those people in the community who the learner perceives as having power and authority (Yeung & Martin, 2003).  With that in mind, it is fair to conclude that the identities of most, if not all members of the community, are impacted by the involvement in the discourse associated with a CoI.  It is in this environment that learners in a higher education context begin to shift their identities towards their chosen profession.  For example, Lowenthal and Dennen (2017) went on to observe that “students in an organic chemistry class may be starting to form their identities as research scientists, or physicians” (p. 138).  Equally likely, the student may begin to distance themselves from the discipline and choose a different route.  Either way, it can be argued that this identity development will have an impact on the participant’s learning outcomes.

One of the ways in which identity impacts learning outcomes is through the development of a common identity as a member of the CoI. Learners who consider themselves a member of a CoI build a level of trust and think more positively about their fellow ingroup members than they would otherwise.  Daniel and Schwier (2011) argued that people who share a common identity as community members are likely to “develop norms or protocols to sustain that level of trust” (p. 46).  Additionally, Gaertner and Dovidio (2007) asserted that individuals are more likely to attribute positive characteristics to the personality of ingroup members than they would to those outside the group.  That trust then, has an opportunity to lead to a more cooperative environment where members are more inclined to challenge one another’s ideas as opposed to simply being polite.  In an OLE that lacks trust, participants in a discourse are more conscious of posting content that may offend peers, leading to “some banal conversation” (Stodel et al., 2006, p. 8).  That challenging of ideas can lead to a greater cognitive presence, in that the participant is exposed to varying perspectives which can help them reframe their understanding of a particular topic.  Swan and Shih (2005) observed that students who were exposed to those varying perspectives had a tendency to be more open to different ideas, which helped them better develop their own perspective.  Therefore, it can be argued that being a contributing member to a discourse in a CoI where members share a common identity is beneficial to learning.  But what are the negative outcomes to building such a community?

On the other side of the argument, a lack of alignment between the learner’s identity and the norm of the community can result in a reduction in social presence, diminishing their capacity to participate in effective discourse, which in turn negatively impacts cognitive presence.  As Hodgson and Reynolds (2005) illustrated, the forces that bring a community together to strengthen the group “usually entails subjugation to its core values and norms of behaviour, and to deviate from these in resisting assimilation is to run the risk of becoming marginalized in order that the integrity of the community is preserved” (p. 16).  I have observed this both in my own practice as an educator and in my experience as a student.  In either case, those who struggle to connect with the majority of the community or make a comment which is misinterpreted, or otherwise received poorly by the majority, are likely to communicate less frequently in the future.  The negative impact of such marginalization, posited by Phirangee and Malec (2017), is the reduction of that learner’s ability to participate in the discourse and “benefit from… shared meanings and understandings” (p. 163), reducing the value of the course for that individual.  In an effort to avoid the likelihood of this marginalization, educators should encourage learners to recategorize their ingroup constructs to include all members of a CoI.  In what Gaertner and Dividio (2007) called the Common Ingroup Identity Model, group members are encouraged to consider what traits members share, rather than what separates them, with a goal of seeking a commonality amongst all participants.  An example in the context of an OLE could be a group of students coming together in a CoI from a variety of cultural backgrounds, increasing the likelihood of different perspectives on course content.  The educator, in this example, might encourage learners to rethink their concept of group membership in such a way that includes all members, rather than excluding a minority, represented as a hierarchy in Figure 1.  An opportunity, in higher education, might be to consider their common developing group identity as professionals in training; something they likely all share.  Gaertner and Dovidio (2007) asserted that this recategorization into a superordinate group could shift the attitudes toward previous outgroup members “to become more positive through processes involving pro-ingroup bias” (p. 115).  They went on to suggest that it is possible for individuals to maintain their co-existing subgroups and retain their individuality and unique perspectives while recognizing their membership to the superordinate group.  The goal here would be to increase the likelihood of all learners recognizing the validity of their own membership in the CoI and that of their peers, with a hope of increasing the quality of the discourse for everyone.  The next step then, is to discuss the method in which the educator can design a course in order to facilitate this community development.

Figure 1

Hierarchy of an Individual’s Groups

Note. As we ascend this inverted pyramid, the size of an individual’s group increases to include more people.  While the individual may consider commonalities between members of those in superordinate groups, the individual’s membership of the subgroups is not changed, thereby maintaining their unique perspective and experience.

*Labels for stages in this figure are chosen to illustrate the point but could be different based on the individual in question.

Teaching presence can influence the development of a CoI through the introduction of a Social Networking Site (SNS), in an effort to foster both casual and academic discourse.  One of the core tenets of teaching presence in a CoI is the educator’s responsibility for designing the learning environment to facilitate discourse (Garrison et al., 2000).  Of the many tools suggested by Johnson and Altowairiki (2017) to prepare for facilitation, two that pertain to this discussion are the selection of appropriate technology and the development of a climate for social interaction.  With the first of these in mind, technology introduced into instructional design should be done with a sense of intentionality, being conscious of what affordances and complications it brings to the learning environment.  Morris (2018) suggested approaching the selection of technology with a beginner’s mind and that “the most critical stance we can take as educators is to assume we know nothing and become profoundly observational” (“A Call for Critical Instructional Design” section, para. 12).  Additionally, Clarke (1994) argued that while media does not directly impact teaching methods, it does impact the efficiency, accessibility, and cost of those methods.  So, we should not quickly choose the most popular tool, nor the least expensive, but rather evaluate each on the instructional value they bring to the OLE; including, in this context, how it facilitates discourse and affords learners the opportunity to present an AIF.  In terms of the second of Johnson and Altowairiki’s suggestions, development of a climate for social interaction, the educator should look to foster an environment to facilitate both casual and academic discourse amongst learners.  Kanstantinou and Epps (2017) observed that “casual interactions… can significantly enhance the student experience and help them meet learning objectives” (p. 133).  Therefore, in the selection of a SNS, considerations should include how it allows both learners and the educator opportunities to communicate emotions and humour in an effort to increase social interaction (Boyce, 2021).  As a SNS that meets all these needs, Discord appears to be a strong choice.

Discord is well suited for community and learner identity development, but also has some drawbacks that should be considered before implementation.  To begin, since Discord was developed for the purpose of casual interaction and community building in the video game world, its design and tools make it well suited to do the same for education (Skains, 2021).  The primary advantage Discord maintains over other SNS is the affordance for learners to maintain various AIFs and control how, when, and if CoI members interact with them.  One of the problems associated with sites such as Facebook for this purpose, is that only a single account per user is permitted and “is a community where people use their authentic identities” (Facebook, 2021).  This policy introduces the possibility of what Dennen and Burner (2017) referred to as context collapse.  In their own words, Dennen and Burner explained that “context collapse occurs when multiple social settings come together in the same online space” (p. 175).  In an educational setting, this might occur when a learner is participating in academic discourse on a platform such as Facebook when, intentionally or otherwise, their fellow CoI members are exposed to more personal content on the platform.  Dennen and Burner went on to argue that while this collapse can have positive impacts, such as the building of social capital in the community, it can also “cause discomfort and lead to identity-narrowing behaviours” (p. 176).  Similarly, Kimmons and Veletsianos (2014) observed that some students prefer to keep certain qualities of their identity to themselves, lest they be misinterpreted by the learning community.  The benefit of Discord is that it allows for multiple user accounts and the ability for learners to create independent AIFs for each community in which they participate, leaving the control over identity presentation in the learner’s hands.  On the negative side, much like other independently owned social networks, Discord’s (2020) approach to data privacy allows them very few restrictions, so educators should ensure learners are informed of the nature of this policy so they can make informed consent.  As a result, it is inadvisable that the usage of such a platform be made mandatory for course participation and alternatives should be made available for those learners who opt out.

In summary, it appears as though participation in a CoI, facilitated through an OLE has an impact on the identity development of learners.  That development in turn has an impact on the learning outcomes of community members, in so much as learner identity influences social presence, which has a direct influence on cognitive presence.  The educator, who is responsible for the design of the learning environment, the selection of technology, and the facilitation of discourse has a direct influence over the circumstances in which the learner develops their identity.  Additionally, the choice of technology should not be made based simply on the popularity of the platform, but what value it brings to the learning environment and how its structure impacts learner experience and development.  As educational institutions consider continuing with online and blended learning models where appropriate, following the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be wise to consider how to design instruction with the learner’s identity development in mind.


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2 thoughts on “Impacts of Identity Development on Learning in a Community of Inquiry”

  1. Hi Christopher. This is an extremely informative and insightful post. Identity development is a very important aspect of learning experiences in digital environments (and mixed in-person and virtual environments so common now because of COVID-19). My context is post-secondary graduate learners and the building of scholarly identity is a key programmatic outcome. With optional discussion choices such as Discord, there are definitely things I cannot see or guide, which is as it should be. Well-structured communities of inquiry among students need some privacy and this is both a benefit and a drawback in terms of guided identity from an instructor. I believe it’s a great benefit to make these types of conversations about CoI more transparent in course design (not just in the background) so that learners can gauge for themselves the value of identify building, the safety they require, and the contributions they feel they can make to the confident identity construction of others. I really enjoyed reading this.

    1. I’m super flattered you took the time to reply, Jenni! I agree that the educator shouldn’t necessarily be part of all student community discussions, but that reinforces the necessity for agreed upon behavioural guidelines that the students can buy into. I also agree with your point about being explicit about the importance and benefits of building a CoI during the facilitation of a course, or preferably, a program… especially with the students themselves. The more they understand why they’re doing it, I think, the more likely they are to effectively participate and reap the benefits.

      Thank you again, Jenni, for reading this and for your kind words.

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