Community of Inquiry in Online Courses – Monika Soczewinski

Photo by Dan Barbus; retrieved from Creative Commons; license agreement
Photo by Dan Barbus; retrieved from Creative Commons; license agreement

Online courses and programs, and courses with a significant online component, continue to be a popular option for students due to their flexibility and convenience. However, as many students and instructors taking part in an online, or mostly online, course would agree, there can be unique challenges as well. One of these challenges is the sense of isolation students can experience while online. A student might feel disconnected from the class and instructor, and simply read assigned readings and submit assignments, all without engaging in any significant contact with others in the course or engaging in deeper learning. As someone who is currently enrolled in an online graduate program, I can attest that feeling isolated can happen in online or mostly online courses, but it certainly does not need to.

Mostly I have been lucky in my program and had wonderful instructors who worked hard at making the courses engaging and rich in collaboration. One course design in particular comes to mind, which helped make that course one of my most valuable learning experiences. The instructor in this course used the Community of Inquiry (COI) model to structure our course. This model was developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer at the University of Alberta. A course designed using this model strives to establish three important elements – cognitive presence, teaching presence and social presence.  The purpose of these three components is to create a shared learning experience for the students, which is reflective, collaborative and meaningful.

Cognitive presence has to do with students developing critical thinking skills in the subject area, and gaining a meaningful understanding of the topic. This part of the COI model can be fostered by asking students to engage in regular reflections and through guided discussions with their peers (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001). In other words it has to do with helping students create meaning of the material they are learning, and can be accomplished with the support of the next two components.

Teaching presence includes how the learning experience is designed and organized, how it is facilitated, and also includes the leadership component of moving the course forward in the right direction (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001). An important aspect of teaching presence is that it is not something that only the instructor is responsible for; instead the students increasingly share in this responsibility as the course progresses. It might be difficult to visualize how students can take part in teaching presence, because those components are traditionally solely the responsibility of the instructor. To give you an example from my own course, our instructor gave small groups of students the opportunity to lead the class discussion for a week on a given topic. This included designing the key questions to lead the discussion, making sure the discussion progressed smoothly, and preparing a summary of the conclusions the group reached.

Social presence is a component that might seem tricky to achieve, even in a fully in-class course, but is well worth the effort to strive for. It involves the creating of an environment that allows students to “be themselves” and therefore better identify with each other and the material. By providing an online setting that encourages the sharing of thoughts, reflections and experiences, students can build relationships and engage in discussions for a deeper learning experience (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). In my own course, the instructor first guided us by his own example. In the discussion boards he asked open ended questions, promptly responded to student comments, shared his own experiences and encouraged us to share our thoughts. More than that he made the atmosphere comfortable by being warm and personable with little gestures such us using our names, and even using emoticons when giving praise. Students quickly started to feel comfortable and realized that their thoughts and ideas were valued. Soon we all picked up on the example of the instructor and allowed ourselves to make reflective comments, give each other feedback and share ideas.

Using this framework, a course takes on a more active learning approach, rather than the more traditional lecturer-centered approach. Through active learning students can collaborate and integrate their learning and experiences to create a new shared knowledge (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001). Each of the three components of the COI model are important on their own, but it is when combined that the model really makes an impact on the learning experience. When trying to incorporate some of the tactics of the COI framework the key thing to keep in mind is that this is a technique that takes planning, dedication and a time-commitment – both from the students and the instructor.

If your interest in the COI framework is piqued, you may want to visit the Community of Inquiry website, which includes publications about the model and even discussion boards where researchers and practitioners can engage in a community of inquiry on the topic.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 17-23.

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