Community of Inquiry Model

I never thought I would be the kind of person who liked a framework or theory. In fact, as much as I’ve tried to incorporate theory into my work, in general, I’ve found that it’s used at the beginning of a new project (or at least stated in initial project documents), and then forgotten about once the project is underway.

But then I read about the Community of Inquiry model, and now I’m admittedly a little bit obsessed.

The Community of Inquiry model

Venn diagram depicting the Community of Inquiry model
The Community of Inquiry model (adapted from a graphic by the Model eLearning team at Spring Arbour University)

The Community of Inquiry model is a popular conceptual framework in online education that identifies three main important factors in a quality online learning experience: teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. While the model is most commonly used in the design of higher education courses, with a few tweaks and adaptations, it can easily be applied to an online, self-paced, asynchronous online orientation program. I love this model because it helps you think holistically about the development of the program and all of the choices that must be made. Often, we focus on the content of the program, and prioritize that over everything else. Thinking about your program through the lens of the community of inquiry model forces you to think not only about content, but also about learning activities, structure and navigation, social interaction and community building, and more. And these are all things that can impact the quality of your program.

Let’s dive into the model and see how it can help you.  

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence is “the design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing… learning outcomes” (Joo et al., 2011, p. 1655). Essentially, this presence encompasses the role of the instructor in designing and managing the course. In an in-person environment, teaching presence is somewhat obvious; the instructor is quite literally there, is present, in front of you much of the time, and you are able to directly witness the impact that they and their choices are having on the learning environment. In an online program, especially in an asynchronous, self-paced course, teaching presence can be a bit more subtle, but is equally important. The instructor themselves may not be visible, but they are present in every decision made related to designing and managing the course.

In an online orientation program, teaching presence is essentially the invisible hand guiding students through the course, and includes components such as the design and organization of the course platform, the creation of learning activities, and communication with learners. To ensure a learner can successfully navigate a course and remain focused on the learning content, it is important that time and attention are dedicated to concepts including usability, user-interface design, help and support, and visual design/aesthetics.

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence is the “exploration, construction, resolution and confirmation of understanding” (Joo et al., 2011, p. 1655). Essentially, cognitive presence is the intellectual and mental effort and processes required for learning. In an in-person course, or even a synchronous course, cognitive presence may be created through collaborative activities or group discussions and reflections. In an online orientation program, cognitive presence is largely created through the design and delivery of content and learning activities.

There are many different types of activities that can be used in an online orientation program, and each will elicit a different level of cognitive presence from the learner. Activities which simply require a learner to read text will likely not elicit high cognitive presence, as the learner has no incentive to read closely, or will likely not be using strategies that will help them retain the content of the text. Activities that require a learner to interact with the content, whether it be playing a Jeopardy-style game, answering questions related to a scenario, or reflecting on content and applying it to their own life will likely elicit a higher cognitive presence. 

Social Presence

Social presence is “the ability of participants to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real people'” (Garrison et al., 1999, p. 32). Social presence allows learners to feel comfortable being themselves and share their thoughts, feelings and experiences with their peers, and shifts online learning away from being a simply process of downloading information towards an experience that creates a real feeling of community.

In many online courses, social presence might be created through a learner’s interactions with their peers, and the community standards that guide those interactions. In a self-paced course, however, creating social presence in this way might be difficult. If all learners aren’t participating in the course at the same time, it’s impossible for them to interact with each other. With online orientation programs, the goal may need to shift from creating a community within the course, toward welcoming students to a community within the institution. Instead of putting the focus on structuring a course so that learners  are comfortable being themselves, the focus should be on introducing the institution in a way that allows learners to feel as though they are a part of the larger community, and see a place for themselves, their true self, in that community.

Applying the CoI model

A few questions to think about:

  • Is the path through the course obvious? Does it feel like there is an invisible hand guiding you, or does it feel like a struggle to figure out what’s next?
  • Are instructions for how to complete the course and all activities clear and easy to follow?
  • Is help and support available? Do students know how to access that help, and will they get a prompt response?
  • Do the activities in the course require a student to think, apply, make connections, and reflect?
  • Are students required to actively participate in order to complete activities, or passively consume content?
  • Does the course as a whole demonstrate the institution’s values?
  • Are there opportunities for the student to see themselves at the institution throughout the course?

References and resources

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87–105.

Joo, Y. J., Lim, K. Y., & Kim, E. K. (2011). Online university students’ satisfaction and persistence: Examining perceived level of presence, usefulness and ease of use as predictors in a structural model. Computers & Education, 57(2), 1654–1664.


Featured image adapted from a graphic by the Model eLearning team at Spring Arbour University

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *