Roundup on Research: Community of Inquiry

Last Updated: January 15, 2024
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The Roundup on Research series is intended for faculty and staff who are interested in learning more about the theories, frameworks, and research in online and technology-enhanced teaching and learning.

One of the first questions many educators ask when getting started teaching online is “How do you recreate the experience of a face-to-face classroom in an online environment?” While there are many facets to that question, many instructors refer to the sense of community and connection as a gap that they struggle to overcome. However, much research has been done on the impact and development of learning communities in the online classroom. In this article, we will discuss the influential framework Community of Inquiry (CoI), how it can be used to inform your own teaching, as well as how it has been used to frame online learning research in the research.

Community of Inquiry model (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000)

One of the most used frameworks applied to the understanding of online learning environments is the community of inquiry (CoI) model (Garrison, et. al, 2000). Originally developed by observing asynchronous text-based learning environments, CoI suggests that there are three core interdependent elements to a learning experience: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. The intersection of the three presences results in what is categorized as “deep learning.” Rooted in the belief that learners construct meaning within social contexts (social constructivism), Community of Inquiry makes meaning of how learners interact online to create knowledge.

Three presences: cognitive, teaching, and social

Cognitive presence is the capacity for meaningful construction of learning. Cognitive presence is often what instructors might think of the active learning portion of a class. Indications of cognitive presence include asking questions, engaging in reflection on a topic, and scaffolding engagement with a topic. Cognitive presence can be supported by an instructor asking probing questions, modeling reflection, and encouraging active participation from learners. As the community grows together, other learners may (and should) also participate in the facilitation of cognitive presence.

Teaching presence is the design, structure, and guidance that directs the learning experience. Instructional design is one of the earliest ways to demonstrate teaching presence (course materials, assessments, activities). However, it is also important to consider how the instructor demonstrates active teaching presence throughout the time of the course. This can take the form of weekly introductory emails, specifying expectations for zoom sessions, or providing assistance to a student struggling with a topic. Teaching presence is not isolated to the instructor alone, rather, can also be exhibited by students by providing structure and guidance to fellow students.

Social presence is the ability for participants in the community to represent themselves as whole people complete with emotions and personality. It is easy to focus on the design of a course thinking about the content that needs to be taught or the learning objectives to be met. In a face-to-face classroom, much of the social presence happens spontaneously through a shared location. In an online setting, we design our courses and spaces to encourage the development of social presence. This could involve including an introduction area for students where the instructor shares (and encourages students to share) some pieces of personal information, infusing weekly posts or announcements with personality as well as giving students space to express their own personalities.

CoI in the literature

As one of the prevailing frameworks in current online teaching and learning, the Community of Inquiry model has been in the academic spotlight frequently over the past several years. In a recent search, CoI has been cited in over 1000 articles during the last three years alone. As classrooms transitioned to emergency remote and/or online teaching during the pandemic, CoI has been used to explain students’ motivation in courses (Turk et al., 2022), how to understand the bridge between informal and formal learning (Chatterjee & Parra, 2022), and leveraging learning analytics for student feedback (Yılmaz, 2020). It is also hypothesized that different types of disciplines may have different need profiles for presences, for example, some disciplines may have greater social presence needs vs. teaching presence needs (Arbaugh, 2013).

Most critically, social presence has been associated with student satisfaction in online learning. While teaching and cognitive presence are positively correlated with students’ perceptions of learning (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Turk et al., 2022), social presence was highlighted as faculty transitioned to emergency remote teaching during the pandemic. Studies of social presence have cited timeliness of feedback and coaching (Conklin & Dikkers, 2021), frequency of communication and feedback (D’alessio et al., 2019), and the opportunity for social interactions regardless of whether those opportunities were acted upon (Weidlich & Bastiaens, 2019) as ways to build social presence. The benefits of Increased social presence suggest decreased issues with academic integrity (Eshet et al., 2021), increased student performance (D’alessio et al., 2019), and increased higher-order thinking (Stein et al., 2013).

Critiques of CoI

While being one of the most popular frameworks leveraged in online teaching and learning right now, CoI is not without critique. First, it assumes that learning is inherently social. If your teaching philosophy does not align with the underlying beliefs of social-based learning (like constructivism), this may not be the best framework.

In Xin’s (2012) critique she notes the challenges of parsing out what is a “social presence” interaction (since CoI assumes all learning is social) from the other types of presences. How are cognitive presence and teaching presence different if they are also inherently social? In addition, because CoI is rooted in the written communication between community members, is there a difference between what happens in written, asynchronous communication versus what may take place more spontaneously with spoken, synchronous communication? Others have suggested that CoI does not take into account interpersonal contributions to learning. Learners may also need to take responsibility for their learning, and they may not always be invested in a learning community  (Shea et al., 2014; Wertz, 2022).

Finally, CoI was developed during a time when synchronous communication (like videoconferencing) was at a premium. The research has not yet determined whether CoI applies equally as well when a portion of communication is taking place synchronously.

How to incorporate CoI into your online design

One of the reasons Community of Inquiry is so popular is because it can be used proactively as a framework for creating a more engaging learning environment. Facilitating an online course can feel like teaching to a black box. CoI provides a way to be proactive in development to make teaching online more effective. The best way to leverage CoI is to think about the three types of presences and how you are planning to address them each week.

Since CoI is rooted in active communication, one of the best things to do is to create a communication/engagement plan.

Ideas for increasing teaching presence:

  • Write weekly introductions and weekly summaries. Consider including points that you may have found particularly interesting and/or general comments on discussions within class.
  • Use the Announcements feature to post timely updates.
  • Return emails and assignments within a set expectation. For example, “I will return short assignments within 3 days. Our longer papers will be returned within 7 days”
  • Create a survey for students to get feedback on organization/communication. Make adjustments based on feedback, and then communicate those changes back to students. Students need to know that you have made changes based on their feedback.

Ideas for increasing cognitive presence

  • In videoconferencing (like Zoom), create handouts or guided notes so students can be active during lecture.
  • Tools like Persuall can engage students asynchronously with communications on readings.
  • Use case studies, application, and reflection assignments to encourage students to consider content topics and make meaningful connections
  • In videoconferencing (like Zoom), create handouts or guided notes so students can be active during lecture.
  • Tools like Persuall can engage students asynchronously with communications on readings.
  • Use case studies, application, and reflection assignments to encourage students to consider content topics and make meaningful connections

Ideas for increasing social presence

  • Social presence is facilitated by the instructor. Demonstrate commitment to connection with students. Create a communication plan. Students frequently cite feedback from instructors as a critical aspect of feeling connected in a class. Give students expectations for timliness of feedback and provide enough detail to build an academic relationship.
  • Create space for social interactions during Zoom sessions. Take the first 3 minutes for small talk, have a question of the day, or use a poll to encourage students to share about themselves if they feel comfortable.
  • Use a discussion board for informal conversations. Consider a theme – favorite meme, favorite place to travel, food that reminds you of home. Make sure that as the instructor, you participate as well.

If you are interested in learning more about Community of Inquiry, visit the CoI website.


Arbaugh, J. B. (2013). Does academic discipline moderate CoI-course outcomes relationships in online MBA courses? The Internet and Higher Education, 17, 16–28.

Chatterjee, S., & Parra, J. (2022). Undergraduate Students Engagement in Formal and Informal Learning: Applying the Community of Inquiry Framework. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 50(3), 327–355.

Conklin, S., & Dikkers, A. G. (2021). Instructor Social Presence and Connectedness in a Quick Shift from Face-to-Face to Online Instruction. Online Learning, 25(1).

D’alessio, M. A., Lundquist, L. L., Schwartz, J. J., Pedone, V., Pavia, J., & Fleck, J. (2019). Social presence enhances student performance in an online geology course but depends on instructor facilitation. Journal of Geoscience Education, 67(3), 222–236.

Eshet, Y., Steinberger, P., & Grinautsky, K. (2021). Relationship between statistics anxiety and academic dishonesty: A comparison between learning environments in social sciences. Sustainability (Switzerland)13(3), 1–18.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education2(2), 87–105.

Shea, P., Hayes, S., Uzuner-Smith, S., Gozza-Cohen, M., Vickers, J., & Bidjerano, T. (2014). Reconceptualizing the community of inquiry framework: An exploratory analysis. The Internet and Higher Education, 23, 9–17.

Stein, D. S., Wanstreet, C. E., Slagle, P., Trinko, L. A., & Lutz, M. (2013). From “hello” to higher-order thinking: The effect of coaching and feedback on online chats. Internet and Higher Education, 16(2013), 78–84.

Turk, M., Heddy, B. C., & Danielson, R. W. (2022). Teaching and social presences supporting basic needs satisfaction in online learning environments: How can presences and basic needs happily meet online? Computers & Education, 180, 104432.

Wertz, R. E. H. (2022). Learning presence within the Community of Inquiry framework: An alternative measurement survey for a four-factor model. The Internet and Higher Education, 52, 100832.

Weidlich, J., & Bastiaens, T. J. (2019). Designing sociable online learning environments and enhancing social presence: An affordance enrichment approach. Computers and Education, 142, 103622.

Xin, C. (2012). A Critique of the Community of Inquiry Framework. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education / Revue Internationale Du e-Learning et La Formation à Distance, 26(1), Article 1.

Yılmaz, R. (2020). Enhancing community of inquiry and reflective thinking skills of undergraduates through using learning analytics-based process feedback. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 36(6), 909–921.

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