Community of Inquiry

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) model (Garrison et al., 2000) is the prevailing model in research involving teaching presence. At its core, CoI is built on constructivist principles rooted in the educational theories of Dewey, Vygotsky, and others.

Garrison et al. (2000) describe the Community of Inquiry as a “conceptual framework that identifies the elements that are crucial prerequisites for a successful higher education experience” (p. 87).  Shea and Bidjerano elaborate that CoI “focuses on the development of an online learning community with an emphasis on the processes of instructional conversations that are likely to lead to epistemic engagement” (p. 544).

Key to the model is the existence of three presences; Teaching Presence, Social Presence and Cognitive Presence. When these three presences are visible in the community, a meaningful online educational experience for learners occurs.

Teaching Presence

Teaching Presence refers to the design and provision of cognitive and social activities that support students in achieving the desired learning outcomes. Garrison et all (2000) describe two primary functions of teaching presence: design and facilitation. Design includes the structure, content, and organization of the course while facilitation is setting the climate for learning through communication prompts, feedback, and guidance (Garrison et al., 2000).

While teaching presence is often provided by the teacher or instructor, it does not need to be. Garrison et al. (2000) note that teaching presence can be created by the learners in the community and is not necessarily the sole responsibility of the instructor. However, it is often the instructor who does provide the teaching presence within the community

Teaching online requires additional skills as the role of instructor and classroom manager is expanded into more of a facilitator of communication (Clarke & Bartholomew, 2013; Garrison et al., 2000, 2001; Shea, Li, Swan & Pickett, 2005). Within that role, Shea et al. (2005) found that directed facilitation of discourse likely made students feel higher levels of the learning community.  Directed facilitation includes whether students feel the instructor is drawing in participants, creating an accepting climate for learning, keeping students on track, diagnosing misperceptions, and finding consensus in areas of disagreement.

Effective design and organization also contribute to a sense of community through communication of time parameters, due dates and deadlines along with clear course goals, course topics, and instructions for participation in the course.

Instructor presence is especially critical for those who are first time online learners as they need guidance and direction (Burkle & Cleveland-Innes, 2013); instructors may ease the students in via pre-course surveys or introductory discussion boards.

Instructor presence can be demonstrated in a variety of ways (see Table 1), through written, audio, and video communications, as well as synchronous sessions or chats. While Garrison et al. (2000) express that in the asynchronous environment, text communications with the instructor and fellow students provide an advantage by allowing time for reflection, which can encourage “discipline and rigor” (p. 90) in the community, Lamb & Callison (2005) note that misinterpretation of written words in Internet communications can be problematic.  As an example, “Humor is helpful, but there is sometimes a fine line between humor and criticism” (Lamb & Callison, 2005, p. 31).  Additionally, the lag in response time and lack of visual contact in an asynchronous environment can cause anxiety for students (Irwin & Berge, 2006; McDonald, 2002).  Ice et al. (2007) demonstrate that the use of audio feedback could result in student perceptions of instructor caring and involvement, as well as providing tone and inflection to express nuance. Russell (2006) voices concern for loss of empathy due to time and physical distance between students. Regardless of where they are geographically, students yearn for caring, present instructors who project the human touch into their courses (Pacansky-Brock, 2014).

Social Presence

Social presence is generally considered to be the ability of the individual to project themselves as a ‘real person’ in the online environment.

Social presence, which focuses on the building of student and teacher relationships, has been found to be an important aspect of online teaching.  When online educators model and promote good social presence this has a positive impact on student engagement in the online course (Corfman & Beck, 2019). Getting social presence right from the beginning of the online course is important. Feng et al (2017) found that effective scaffolds for social presence at the beginning of the course ensured students social presence was maintained throughout the course (Feng et al., 2017).

Remembering Dewey’s (1929), Vygotsky’s (1978) and Moore’s (1993) shared perspective of the social nature of education, it seems that social presence is especially vital to online education where there is marked distance between instructors and students.  Social presence is described as the student’s ability to project their personality into the community (Garrison et al., 2000; Irwin & Berge, 2006). Students experience emotional engagement through social presence (Nafukho, 2014), and Sull (2014) believes it is a fusion of engagement, motivation, and rapport between the students and the instructor. 

Garrison (2007) identifies three aspects of social presence as effective instruction, open communication, and group connectedness, which can be affected by collaborative and individual activities.

Picciano (2002) cautions that interaction and social presence are not synonymous.  For instance, a student may interact within a discussion board and not necessarily be connected to the course community.  

A strong community is imperative in higher education learning and helps reduce feelings of isolation in online learning. Characteristics of a learning community include students’ sense of trust, belonging and mutual interdependence, and shared educational goals through interaction with other course participants (Rovai, 2002). Students establish their own social presence through sharing of personal experiences related to the course subject matter within a section or an entire course (Kilgore & Lowenthal, 2015). Peer review can be an effective tool for collaboration as well (Ekmekci, 2013).

When online instructors take advantage of collaboration tools, social learning is promoted both in coursework and outside communication (Palloff & Pratt, 2003). Collaboration can enhance relationships through sharing of resources, encouragement and advice, and can also foster respect between students (Kilgore & Lowenthal, 2015; Irwin & Berge, 2006; Palloff & Pratt, 2003).

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive Presence is established when participants in a community of inquiry successfully construct meaning through continued communication.

Garrison et al. (2000) explain that cognitive presence “can best be understood in the context of a general model of critical thinking” (p. 98), and that “what to think…is domain-specific and context-dependent” (p.98). Irwin and Berge (2006) suggest examining cognitive presence with situated learning theory, which is based in “social development theory and constructivism” (p. 3), and takes into account the context of the learning environment as a significant influencer on the learner. In the CoI model, cognitive presence is integral: “the extent to which cognitive presence is created and sustained in a community of inquiry is partly dependent on how communication is restricted or encouraged” (Garrison et al., 2000, p.93). Cognitive presence is also evident when students purposefully and collaboratively construct knowledge (Garrison, et al., 2001), resulting in deep meaning, retained knowledge, and critical thinking (Nagel & Kotzé, 2010).

One of the advantages for the instructor in an online environment is that there is a “concrete interactive trail” (Lamb & Callison, 2005, p. 30), leaving the instructor with a tool for analyzing the paths of cognitive presence throughout the course and among students. Several studies showed that students with high social presence also had increased perceptions of quality learning as well as satisfaction with their instructors (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Picciano, 2002; Richardson & Swan, 2003).  Picciano’s (2002) study included both examinations and written assignments; correlations were highest in the written assessment while the exam was considered asocial and therefore not equated with social presence. However, student satisfaction was high with both individual and group activities.

Garrison et al. (2000) consider cognitive presence a “vital element in critical thinking a process and outcome that is frequently presented as the ostensible goal of all higher education” (p. 89).  In CoI, critical thinking is a process based on Dewey’s (1933) model of practical inquiry and the “means to create cognitive presence” (Garrison, et al., 2001, p. 11).  Dewey’s (1933) model was centered on students’ experiences, including three situations: pre-reflection, reflection, and post-reflection (resolution).  Garrison et al. (2000) designed their model (see Figure 2) to represent the stages of practical inquiry.  The vertical axis signifies reflection on practice, while the horizontal axis is the assimilation of information and construction of knowledge.  The quadrants are cognitive presence indicators, illustrating the sequence of critical thinking:

  1. Triggering event – A question or problem;
  2. Exploration – The search for information to answer the question or solve the problem;
  3. Integration – Making sense of the knowledge found; and
  4. Resolution – Applying the idea for confirmation.

Garrison et al. (2001) later refined the model and considered integration as a pivotal part of the inquiry process. They noted that it can be difficult to recognize, and must “be inferred from communication within the community of inquiry” (p. 10). In this phase, “teaching presence is essential in moving the process to more-advanced stages of critical thinking and cognitive development” (p. 10), because without it, students may remain comfortable in the exploration phase, and not move into integration or resolution.

Chapter Attribution

This chapter is a remix and adaptation of the following two chapters.

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