Validating a Measurement Tool of Presence in Online Communities of Inquiry

Karen P. Swan, Jennifer C. Richardson, Philip Ice, D. Randy Garrison, Martha Cleveland-Innes, J. Ben Arbaugh


This article examines work related to the development and validation of a measurement tool for the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework in online settings. The framework consists of three elements: social presence, teaching presence and cognitive presence, each of which is integral to the instrument. The 34 item instrument, and thus framework, was tested after being administered at four institutions in the Summer of 2007. The article also includes a discussion of implications for the future use of the CoI survey and the CoI framework itself.

Online learning models are increasingly present in higher education. In 2006, 3.5 million, or almost 20%, of US higher education students were taking at least one online course (Allen & Seaman, 2007). While researchers have been relatively successful in identifying the properties of successful online learning environments (Aragon, 2003; Cleveland-Innes, Garrison & Kinsel, 2007), a more in-depth analysis requires a theoretical framework that illuminates the complexities of online learning.

One model that has gained a good deal of attention is the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000). The CoI framework is a process model that provides a comprehensive theoretical model that can inform both research on online learning and the practice of online instruction. It assumes that effective online learning requires the development of a community (Rovai, 2002; Thompson & MacDonald, 2005; Shea, 2006) that supports meaningful inquiry and deep learning. Such development is not a trivial challenge in the online environment.

Figure 1: Community of Inquiry Framework

The CoI model views the online learning experience as a function of the relationship between three elements: social presence, teaching presence and cognitive presence (see Figure 1). Social presence refers to the degree to which learners feel socially and emotionally connected with others in an online environment; teaching presence is defined as the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the realization of personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes; and cognitive presence describes the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse. The sections which immediately follow describe each of these constructs in greater detail and summarize research findings concerning their importance in online courses.

However, two issues have challenged research utilizing the CoI framework. The first is the lack of common measures in studies investigating the individual presences, which makes generalizations across studies difficult. The second issue is that few studies explore all three presences and, more importantly, interactions among them. The later sections of this article describe efforts its authors are making to address these issues: namely, the development of a CoI survey instrument which measures all three presences using commonly agreed-upon indicators. The article concludes with a discussion of implications for the future use of the CoI survey and the CoI framework itself.

Social Presence

"Social presence", the degree to which participants in computer-mediated communication feel affectively connected one to another, is clearly the longest researched of the three presences in the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework. Indeed, social presence research predates the creation of the CoI model by two decades. It arose from a common concern among some Communications scholars that computer-mediated communication might prevent students from developing the sense of belonging with other students, instructors, programs of study and educational institutions which social learning theories (Vygotsky, 1978) and immediacy research (Weiner & Mehrabian, 1968) suggest support learning. Research by Gunawardena (1995) and Gunawardena and Zittle (1997) moved the definition of social presence from its original focus on the capacities of the media involved to one that focused more on individual perceptions, and so the concept of "social presence" evolved to "the degree to which a person is perceived as 'real' in mediated communication" (Gunawardena and Zittle, 1997, p 8).

Social Presence and Student's Learning. A number of studies followed which examined the perception of interpersonal connections with virtual others as an important factor in the success of online learning (Swan, 2002; Tu, 2000), specifically student's perceived or actual learning. Richardson & Swan (2003) examined students' perceived social presence and its relationship to their perceived learning and satisfaction with course instructors. They found all three variables highly correlated and a regression analysis showed that 42% of the variability in perceived learning was predicted by perceived social presence. Picciano (2002) investigated perceived social presence, interactivity, and learning among students enrolled in an online course and found strong correlations among these variables. While he initially found no correlations between these variables and actual performance on tests or written assignments he discovered that by dividing students into groups perceiving low, medium and high social presence there were significant differences; students in the high social presence group scored higher than the medium, and the medium group outscored the low social presence group.

Social Presence and the CoI Framework. It is this sense of "social presence" that Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) incorporated into the CoI model. Their research team (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison & Archer, 2001) looked for evidence of social presence in the transcripts of online discussion. They identified three categories of social presence indicators based on research on immediacy in face-to-face interactions (Weiner & Mehrabian, 1968) - affective responses, cohesive responses, and interactive responses - and developed coding protocols using these indicators. Rourke et al. (2001) established the indicators as reliable in a pilot content analysis of two online class discussions, and documented the use of such indicators to project social presence in text-based online communication.

Social Presence and Course Design. Noting the relationship between perceived presence and success in online courses, Tu (2000) linked the development of social presence in online courses to course design. Based on elements of social learning theory, he distinguished three dimensions of course designs which influenced the development of social presence - social context, online communication, and interactivity. Tu and McIsaac (2002) found some support for these dimensions of social presence in a factor analysis of student responses to an online survey concerned with computer-mediated communication tools. They argued that these dimensions should be taken into consideration in the design of online courses.

Similarly, Swan and Shih (2005) found some support for the impact of course design on perceptions of social presence in a study they did on development of four online classes. They found that course (design) alone of seven variables (including instructor, class, age, gender, online experience, and time spent in discussion) significantly affected perceived social presence. Their findings also show an overlap in perceptions of instructor and peer presence and indicate that the perceived presence of instructors may be a more influential factor in determining student satisfaction than the perceived presence of peers.

Teaching Presence

Garrison, et. al. (2000) contend that while interactions between participants are necessary in virtual learning environments, interactions themselves are not sufficient to ensure effective online learning. These types of interactions need to have clearly defined parameters and be focused toward a specific direction, hence the need for teaching presence. Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, and Archer (2001) originally conceptualized teaching presence as having three components: (1) instructional design and organization; (2) facilitating discourse (originally called "building understanding"); and (3) direct instruction. While recent empirical research may generate a debate regarding whether teaching presence has two (Shea, 2006; Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006) or three (Arbaugh & Hwang, 2006) components, the general conceptualization of teaching presence has been supported by other research (Coppola, Hiltz, & Rotter, 2002; LaPointe & Gunawardena, 2004; Stein, Wanstreet, Calvin, Overtoom, & Wheaton, 2005).

Instructional (Course) Design and Organization. Anderson, et. al. (2001) describe the design and organization aspect of teaching presence as the planning and design of the structure, process, interaction and evaluation aspects of the online course. Some of the activities comprising this category of teaching presence include re-creating Power Point presentations and lecture notes onto the course site, developing audio/video mini-lectures, providing personal insights into the course material, creating a desirable mix of and a schedule for individual and group activities, and providing guidelines on how to use the medium effectively. These are particularly important activities since clear and consistent course structure supporting engaged instructors and dynamic discussions have been found to be the most consistent predictors of successful online courses (Swan, 2002; 2003). Of the three components of teaching presence, this is the one most likely to be performed exclusively by the instructor.

Facilitating Discourse. Anderson, et. al (2001) conceptualize facilitating discourse as the means by which students are engaged in interacting about and building upon the information provided in the course instructional materials. This role includes sharing meaning, identifying areas of agreement and disagreement, and seeking to reach consensus and understanding. Therefore, facilitating discourse requires the instructor to review and comment upon student comments, raise questions and make observations to move discussions in a desired direction, keeping discussion moving efficiently, draw out inactive students, and limit the activity of dominating posters when they become detrimental to the learning of the group (Anderson et al., 2001; Brower, 2003; Coppola et al., 2002).

Direct Instruction. Anderson, et. al. (2001) contextualized direct instruction as the instructor provision of intellectual and scholarly leadership in part through the sharing of their subject matter knowledge with the students. They also contend that a subject matter expert and not merely a facilitator must play this role because of the need to diagnose comments for accurate understanding, injecting sources of information, and directing discussions in useful directions, scaffolding learner knowledge to raise it to a new level.

In addition to the sharing of knowledge by a content expert, direct instruction is concerned with indicators that assess the discourse and the efficacy of the educational process. Instructor responsibilities are to facilitate reflection and discourse by presenting content, using various means of assessment and feedback. Explanatory feedback is crucial. This type of communication must be perceived to have a high level of social presence/instructor immediacy (Arbaugh, 2001; Baker, 2004; Gorham, 1988; Richardson & Swan, 2003) to be effective. Instructors must have both content and pedagogical expertise to make links among contributed ideas, diagnose misperceptions, and inject knowledge from textbooks, articles, and web-based materials. The simultaneous roles of discussion facilitator and content expert within teaching presence goes beyond early contentions which online instructors needed merely to transition from a role of knowledge disseminator to interaction facilitator. Teaching presence contends that for online learning to be effective, instructors must play both roles (Arbaugh & Hwang, 2006).

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence may be the least researched and understood of the three presences, yet it is cognitive presence that goes to the heart of a community of inquiry. Cognitive presence has its genesis in the work of John Dewey and scientific inquiry (1933). For Dewey, inquiry was at the core of a worthwhile educational experience. The development of the cognitive presence construct by Garrison, et. al (2000) is grounded in the critical thinking literature and operationalized by the Practical Inquiry model (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000, 2001).

The Practical Inquiry Model. The Practical Inquiry model is defined by two axes. The vertical axis reflects the integration of thought and action. This also emphasizes the collaborative nature of cognitive presence and the need for community. The integration of discourse and reflection (i.e., public and private worlds) is a key feature of this model. Although we have identified these as two distinct processes, in practice this dimensions (i.e., discourse and reflection) are most often indistinguishable and instantaneous iterations. The horizontal axis represents the interface of the deliberation and action axis. The extremes of the horizontal axis are analysis and synthesis. These are the points of insight and understanding (Garrison, et. al, 2000).

Figure 2: Practical Inquiry Model

While the axes provide the necessary theoretical frame of this model, in practical terms the focus is on the phases of the inquiry process (triggering event, exploration, integration, and resolution). It is important to keep in mind that this is a process model that has been telescoped for the sake of parsimony. As a result, in practice, there will always be a degree of fuzziness at the cusps of the phases. However, this generally is only an issue when attempting to code transcripts for research purposes.

Phases of the Inquiry Process. The first phase is a triggering event or initiation of the inquiry through the formal presentation of a problem or a dilemma arising from a previous inquiry. Part of this process is to clearly define the problem or task. The second phase of practical inquiry is exploration. This is a crucial and time consuming process where students individually and collaboratively search for, and share, relevant material and ideas. The third phase, integration, is a reflective and convergent process where the focus is making connections and identifying potential solutions. The final phase of the inquiry process is resolution or the identification and testing of the most promising solution to the problem or dilemma (Garrison, et. al., 2001). In an educational context, this is often done vicariously. However, it is important that resolutions are defended rationally or through application.

One of the early challenges with this model was understanding why students did not progress to the integration and resolution phases (Garrison, et. al., 2001). Most of the discussion appeared at the exploration phase. More recently, there has emerged evidence that progression through the phases has more to do with teaching presence in the form of designing tasks that require clear outcomes and then facilitating and directing online discussion to move toward a resolution (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). If the goal and demand is for resolution, students will achieve this state. In addition, a recent unpublished study has found much higher frequencies of integration (Akyol & Garrison, 2008), suggesting that this may well be due to the nature of the task as well as to the maturity of the students.

Context of the Study

As previously noted, one of the challenges in utilizing the CoI framework has been the lack of common methodologies and measures. Though previous studies have addressed each of the presences and two have addressed the CoI as a whole (Garrison, Cleveland-Innes & Fung, 2004; Arbaugh, 2007), a common instrument has previously not been adopted throughout the online learning research community. In December of 2006, the authors and colleagues from two other institutions began work on creating such an instrument. Commonalities between items in previous instruments were reconciled and, where appropriate, new items created to fully capture each of the presences (Arbaugh, Cleveland-Innes, Diaz, Garrison, Ice, Richardson, Shea & Swan, 2008). The resultant, 34 item instrument was administered at four institutions in the Summer of 2007.

Participating institutions were located in the United States and Canada. Courses in which the surveys were administered were in the areas of Curriculum Theory, Distance Education, Educational Leadership, Interdisciplinary Studies, a Master's of Business Administration course on Business Literature, Teacher Education and Instructional Technology. Courses in which the survey was administered were at the Master and Doctoral levels. 287 students volunteered to complete the survey, yielding a response rate of 43%, with per course response rates ranging from 6% to 93%. Participant ages ranged from 20 to 57. Data relating to gender and ethnicity was not obtained.

Though programmatic variations were present, courses at each of the institutions were designed and delivered using the CoI as a conceptual and thematic basis. In some instances this structure was prevalent in formalized training programs, while in others awareness of the three presences informally guided best practice. From an instructional design perspective, such an approach translates into a recursive analysis of each of the three presences relative to desired course objectives to insure optimal opportunities for their inclusion in subsequent design, development and implementation; a process derivative of established goal oriented design processes (Davidson-Shivers & Rasmussen, 2006; Gagne, Wager, Golas & Keller, 2004; Morrison, Ross & Kemp, 2006).

In organizing instructional components, utilization of this process produced learning units in which overarching topics were addressed through multi-level questioning that provided for a triggering event vis-a-vis the cognitive presence framework. To supplement online components, print and physically distributable electronic media (e.g CD-ROM) were required for each course.

Using guidelines provided through effective application of the instructional design and organization component of teaching presence students were then engaged in threaded discussions. Participation in these discussions was given varying weight in determining students' final grade from course to course (with a range of 15% - 60% of the final grade accounted for by participation in threaded discussions), with a few courses in which threaded discussions were not a gradable component. In some instances, students also engaged in synchronous conferencing to supplement threaded discussions. Regardless of the weight given to participation in threaded discussions or supplemental activities, they were considered integral parts of each learning unit, subsequent artifact development and concurrent learning outcomes.

Though establishing meaningful threaded discussions has long been considered essential for cognitive scaffolding in online courses (Bender, 2003; Dixon, Kuhlhorst & Reiff, 2006; Pallof & Pratt, 1999; Salmon, 2002), application of the CoI expands the role of discussion forums to include the establishment of social presence through student-student interactions that foster open communication, subsequent group cohesion and what Green (1971) terms collaborative knowledge construction. As an example, a large majority of the discussion prompts in education courses followed a group-constructivist socio-epistemological orientation, thus producing an environment in which it was expected that responses would be open-ended in nature and allow for relatively risk-free collaborative processes to occur (Arbaugh & Benbunan-Fich, 2006; Phillips, Wells, Ice, Curtis & Kennedy, 2007). In the courses studied, this allowed students to move fluidly to the exploration, integration and resolution phases of cognitive presence. Where a group-objectivist orientation was applied to discussions, the same degree of latitude deemed acceptable for initial responses, however, more focused outcomes were expected to emerge later in the later stages of the discussion threads.

While cognitive presence is initiated in this framework via the posing of overarching questions (the triggering event) subsequent events related to the social and cognitive presences schema's are largely dependent upon adequate projection of teaching presence. Specifically, the ability to effectively facilitate discourse and provide direct instruction appears to be crucial in moving cognitive presence beyond the exploration phase (Garrison, 2007). As an example, in the exploration process it is common for students to have misconceptions or encounter areas in which they disagree with their peers. In these instances the instructor's expert input is required to help guide students toward understanding and resolve disagreements through guided exploration.

From a theoretical perspective, such actions are required to insure that the curriculum is one of richness, rigor and conversation based iteration (Doll, Fleener, Trueit & St. Julien, 2005). In the face-to-face classroom, similar processes have been highly successful through careful crafting of collaborative learning environments (Johnson & Johnson, 1998; Slavin, 1994) in which student and teacher roles are quite similar to those theorized in the CoI. However, the increased reflectivity inherent in asynchronous threaded discussions allows learners to engage the content and their peers at substantively higher cognitive level (Coppola, Hiltz & Rotter, 2004; Swan, Shea, Fredericksen, Pickett, Pelz & Maher, 2000).

Instructors for courses surveyed in this study tried to create favorable conditions for the emergence of optimal discussion based experiences in which the three presences could naturally overlap. This is consistent with the requirements underpinning an online community of inquiry. This process was not formulaic or prescriptive in nature; rather, from an instructors' perspective, it can be considered artful application of grounded theory. The presentation of data that follows provides the findings of a factor analysis in which the tripartite theoretical construct of the CoI framework was confirmed. A narrative account of the methodology employed is also provided.

Method and Results

Ordinal responses were scored using the scale (0=Strongly Disagree) to (4=Strongly Agree). Mean responses for the 34 items ranged from 2.90 to 3.63, with a standard deviation range of 0.66 to 1.04. Collectively, Teaching Presence items yielded a mean score of 3.34 (s.d. = 0.61). Social Presence items collectively yielded a mean score of 3.18 (s.d. = 0.65), and Cognitive Presence items yielded a mean score of 3.31 (s.d. = 0.60).

Based on the assumptions of the theoretical model and previous exploratory work, the three presences were considered to be distinct but overlapping. As such, confirmatory factor analysis, using principal component analysis with obliminal rotation was utilized. A default value ?=0, was specified in SPSS 15 for Direct Obliminal rotation, to limit reasonably the level of correlation among the factors.

The sample size (n=287) for this study is reasonably adequate depending on the rule of thumb utilized. The study meets Kass & Tinley's (1979) recommendation for 5 to 10 participants per item and Comrey & Lee's (1992) sample size measure which describes 200 as Fair and 300 as Good. The Keyser-Meyer-Olkin (KMO) measure of sampling adequacy is 0.96, suggesting factor analysis should yield distinct and reliable factors given the data utilized.

Inspection of the scree plot supported the three factor construct predicted by the theoretical basis of CoI and previous exploratory research. Specifically, the marked decrease in magnitude of the factors did not support a framework consisting of more than the anticipated number of factors.

Table 1 illustrates the 34 CoI items factor loadings, with the three factors highlighted for interpretability. These results reflect the Pattern Matrix generated by the previously described principal component analysis. In support of this analysis, loadings for the Structure Matrix differed slightly, however both output matrices support the 3 factor model. Consistent with the design of the instrument, items 1-13 (Teaching Presence) loaded most heavily on Factor 1. Items 14-22 (Social Presence) loaded most heavily on Factor 2. Finally, items 23-34 (Cognitive Presence) loaded most heavily on Factor 3. Cronbach's Alpha yielded internal consistencies equal to 0.94 for Teaching Presence, 0.91 for Social Presence, and 0.95 for Cognitive Presence.

Table 1. Community of Inquiry Instrument and Factor Loadings


Factor analysis demonstrates the clustering of sub-elements within the model, verifying the theoretical structure proposed by Garrison, et. al (2000). The objective of this research was to explicate all three presences and to test the validity and reliability of a measurement tool for the community of inquiry framework. Creating reliable instruments is a critical step in the enhancement of research around this model; without reliability, research results using various measurement tools are not replicable, and replication is the foundation of scientific method. Reliability is estimated for this instrument through internal consistency of correlation among the variables. Cronbach's Alpha measures how well a set of variables (survey items in this case) measures a single unidimensional construct. In this data set, Cronbach's Alpha yielded numbers indicative of high inter-correlations leading to internal consistencies: 0.94 for Teaching Presence, 0.91 for Social Presence, and 0.95 for Cognitive Presence. The instrument used in this study provides a reliable measure for the existence of a community of inquiry in online learning environments.

In addition to confirming the theory presented in the CoI framework, these items provide insights into the necessary practice-based requirements of each presence. As outlined earlier, sub-concepts within each presence concretize the activity that initiate the existence of presence for instructors and students. Students experience social presence to the extent that they participate in open communication, feel a sense of group cohesion and exhibit affective expressions. Items deemed to operationalize open communication are, for example, as follows:

    I felt comfortable conversing through the online medium.
    I felt comfortable participating in the course discussions.
    I felt comfortable interacting with other course participants.
It becomes the requirement, then, of instructional designers and online instructors to foster opportunities for students to feel comfortable conversing, participating and interacting online. Social presence acts as an intervening variable, a necessary but not sufficient condition of a satisfying and effective online experience.

This effective online experience is guided in the same way by cognitive presence. Developing ways to move students toward higher levels of cognitive processing are a latent but central objective in many higher education courses. Recent studies are contributing to our understanding of instructional design strategies to foster higher order thinking (Kanuka, Rourke & Laflamme, 2007; Schrire, 2006). Results of this study verify that cognitive presence is composed of elements across the spectrum of inquiry: triggering events, exploration, integration and resolution.

Teaching presence in the form of instructor actions plays a critical role in bringing the CoI education experience together for the students (Aragon, 2003; Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005; Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007; Meyer, 2004). Validation of the items describing design and organization, direct instruction and facilitation occurred in the analysis of a three factor solution. However, other analyses suggest additional components may be at work in teaching presence. In addition, the role for students in teaching presence needs further exploration (Stein, Wanstreet, Glazer, Engle, Harris, Johnston, Simons & Trinko, 2007).


Results of this factor analysis provide evidence that, as currently defined and operationalized, an online community of inquiry emerges out of social, cognitive and teaching presence. Student responses to statements about his or her online experience clustered around items as defined by the theory. This effort resulted in a measurement tool of agreed upon and statistically validated items that operationalizes the concepts in the CoI model. This measurement tool may be used for continued explication of concepts in the model. It may also be used for practical purposes, to guide design elements ahead of time, or to evaluate the existence of an online community of inquiry once implemented.

Of course, meaningful research begets more questions. For example, most studies of social presence have noted the highly democratic nature of online discussion (Harasim, 1990) and accordingly conceptualized social presence as a single construct with an emphasis on perceptions of the presence of peers. As noted above, there is some indication that instructor presence may be equally important (Swan & Shih, 2005), yet occasionally overlapping with peer presence. While the social presence of instructors has been considered in explorations of "teaching presence" (Anderson, et. al., 2000; Shea, Pickett & Pelz, 2003), it has not been isolated therein. In addition, while most studies of social presence implicitly locate its development in online discussion, survey questions have not explicitly addressed it in that context. Similarly, the question of whether social presence is really a necessary precursor of cognitive presence also needs to be examined. Most researchers in this area agree that it is, with the caveat that social presence must be directed toward learning outcomes (Garrison, 2007). This has led to a revision of the original social presence categories and indicators to reflect academic purposes (Garrison, Cleveland-Innes & Fung, 2004).

In addition to further research on social presence and other aspects of the model, expansion and application issues abound. The possibility of an expanded role for emotional presence, beyond the influence found in social presence is under review (Cleveland-Innes & Campbell, 2006). Consideration of socially rich technologies and the CoI, learner characteristics and perceptions of social presence and investigation of the CoI framework and the "Net Generation" are additional research topics currently underway (Arbaugh, Cleveland-Innes, Diaz, Garrison, Ice, Richardson, Shea & Swan, 2007).


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Author is a Professor of Strategy and Project Management at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. He received his Ph.D. in Business Strategy from the Ohio State University. Ben is the Editor-Select for Academy of Management Learning & Education and a past chair of the Management Education and Development Division of the Academy of Management. Ben's online teaching research has won best article awards from the Journal of Management Education and the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education. His other research interests are in graduate management education, international entrepreneurship, and the intersection between spirituality and strategic management research.

Author is a faculty member in the Center for Distance Education at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada. She teaches Research Methods and Leadership in the graduate programs of this department. Martha has received awards for her work on the student experience in online environments and held a major research grant through the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Her work is well published in academic journals in North America and Europe. Current research interests are in the area of leadership in open and distance higher education, disciplinary differences in online higher education and emotional presence in online communities of inquiry.

Author is the Director of the Teaching & Learning Centre and a Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary. Dr. Garrison has published extensively on teaching and learning in higher, adult and distance education contexts. His most recent books are: "E-Learning in the 21st Century" (2003) and "Blended Learning in Higher Education" (2008).

Author is a clinical Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Phil's research is focused on two overlapping areas. The first is the Community of Inquiry Framework, with an emphasis on factors influencing the emergence of Cognitive Presence. The second area of interest is the integration of new and emerging technologies into online learning environments. With respect to this later area, Phil's research focuses on how socially rich technologies impact Teaching and Cognitive Presence.

Author is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Purdue University. Jennifer's research focuses on distance education, in particular online learning environments. Specific areas of research include measuring learning in online environments and the impacts of social presence and interactions on students' perceptions and learning.

Author is Research Professor in the Research Center for Educational Technology at Kent State University. Dr. Swan's research has been focused mainly in the general area of media and learning on which she has published and presented nationally and internationally. Her current research focuses on online learning, ubiquitous computing and data literacy. Dr. Swan has authored several hypermedia programs and co-authored two books on media and education. She is a member of the Advisory Board for the Sloan Consortium on Asynchronous Learning Networks, the Special Issues Editor for the Journal of Educational Computing Research, and Editor of the Journal of the Research Center for Educational Technology.