Community of Inquiry Framework – what more to research?

Reflection on: Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues, and future directions, Garrison, R.D., & Arbaugh, J.B., The Internet and Higher Education 10 (2007) 157-172


This paper provides a summary to date (well, up to 2007) of the research made about the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000) and potential future directions for research. CoI is built upon constructivist approaches to learning inspired by the likes of epistemologist Piaget who saw learning as an active process, sharing perspectives and constructing meaning through collaborative exchange. Indeed, “Higher education has consistently viewed community as essential to support collaborative learning and discourse associated with higher levels of learning.” (p158). As such I am interested in exploring  the role of community in online learning at post-graduate level.

Social Presence

According to this paper, social presence has been researched most extensively out of the 3 CoI elements (the others being Cognitive and Teacher Presence) whose results suggest that social presence strongly effects learner satisfaction and learning outcomes. As we know social presence evolves steadily over time and needs to be present if learning outcomes are to be achieved. But what does that look like exactly? Well, Brown’s (2001) process of building online community highlights 3 important stages:

  •  make online acquaintances
  • exchange thoughtful ideas to feel part of the community
  • “after long-term and/or intense association with others involving personal communication” camaraderie is achieved.

Here we can see social presence acting as a ‘base layer’ or foundation where it is only after relationships are established that the focus of the community may shift to academic activities: “The purpose of social presence in an educational context is to create the conditions for inquiry and quality interaction (reflective and threaded discussions) to achieve worthwhile educational purposes” (p161).

Cognitive Presence

The review of cognitive presence brings up some interesting points about course design: “It appears that critical thinking skills might be enhanced via a variety of online course formats.” And talks about the value of group composition, which I take to mean that having a group of individuals with mixed backgrounds is more positive and stimulating than one with similar types of people. In fact, being able to move through the stages of inquiry, from establishing social links with the group, to active learning with and from the group, is said to be related to the task design and instructions given. This I see as the responsibility of the tutor where “well designed tasks are important to see evidence of resolution in a community of inquiry” (p162). Thus, a way to interpret if learning acquisition has occurred is to ensure that learners are metacogntively aware of those very stages of inquiry. In sum, cognitive presence is possible through clear task design, clear questions and a rubric to self-assessment, showing learners know what they are supposed to be learning and why; essentially by being made explicitly aware of the learning process.

Teaching presence

Teaching presence is the most recently conceptualised element of the CoI framework which focuses on instructional design, facilitation and instruction.

Instructional design and organisation is performed exclusively by the tutor prior to the start of the course – the planning and design of the structure, process, interaction and evaluation aspects of the online course.

Facilitating discourse – the means by which students are engaged in interacting with and building upon the information provided in the course instructional materials. “This role is associated with sharing meaning, identifying areas of agreement and disagreement, and seeing to reach consensus and understanding” (p164).

Direct instruction – to give relevant examples, personal comments, feedback and corrections as a content expert and facilitator of discussion. “Instructors must have both content and pedagogical expertise to make links among contributed ideas, diagnose misconceptions, and inject knowledge from textbooks, articles and web-based materials” (p164).

Issues and directions for future research

Previous research has been qualitative and descriptive, not quantitative, predictive and inferential. So there is a call for quantitative transcript analysis using coding protocols in future research projects.

We need to better understand the interdependence of the three elements, as well as understanding the relationship between the framework’s dimensions. For example, little research has been done with regards social presence in relation to the other two elements. But I think inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional samples is beyond the scope of my upcoming small-scale investigation.

What I could do research-wise

  1. Teaching presence is latest element to be researched, so more could be done there.
  2. In terms of the relationships between the elements, Redmond and Lock (2006) propose dividing the framework into seven sequential actions, starting with social presence, then teaching, then cognitive. Cognitive interacts with social to produce knowledge in action. So I could test the accuracy of this conceptualisation.
  3. The framework’s feasibility in online learning for different disciplines is limited. Therefore, examining the extent to which the elements moderate each others’ relationship to learning outcomes could be a worthwhile project. Apart from these variables, we can also consider the course or subject matter, the software used to deliver the course, and the characteristics of learners and/or instructors (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007).
  4. The paper ends by discussing what would be useful: practical guidelines and strategies on how to create the presences in an online environment. Indeed, this was the first thing that occurred to me when I started reading about this subject – the explicit activities that would encourage the establishment of the different elements. And I look to explore a specific activity – interacting in virtual world Smallworlds – in my next post.


Brown, R.E. (2001). The process of community-building in distance learning classes. The Internet and Higher Education, 5(2), 18-35.

Garrison, R.D., & Armagh, J.B. (2007). Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues, and future directions. The Internet and Higher Education 10, 157-172.

Redmond, P., & Lock, J.V. (2006). A flexible framework for online collaborative learning. The Internet and Higher Education, 9, 267-276.

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