Promoting Online Discussion: The Community of Inquiry Framework

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Online learning continues to grow in higher education, and will likely be at least a part of each faculty member’s teaching portfolio. Online learning techniques have been the subject of research for decades, and one very useful framework that has emerged from that research is the Community of Inquiry model.

Community of Inquiry Framework

A community of inquiry is a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful discussion, activities, and reflection around a topic in order to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding. This is often the sort of environment we want to create in our classes, whether online or classroom-based. The framework was developed by Dr. Randy Garrison and Dr. Norm Vaughan, and has been adopted by many online learning programs as a basis for thinking about what is needed to create an engaging online experience.

The community of inquiry framework identifies and explains three facets of engagement, or types of “presence” that converge for an effective educational experience.

Community Inquiry Framework
Social presence
is the evidence of trust, open communication, engagement, and community-building among the students and between students and faculty.

Teaching presence
is embodied by the elements of design, facilitation, and direct instruction that promote learning. Teaching behaviors may be exhibited by students as well as instructors.

Cognitive presence
is the evidence of meaning-making and learning by students that is often perceived through rich discussion, higher order thinking, reflection, and formative assessment.

As designers and facilitators, we can promote these kinds of presence in our Blackboard sites. Through creating specific activities, actively engaging with students online, and deliberately building an open and collaborative culture in our online spaces, we can have a dramatic impact in students comfort and learning. We should be actively monitoring the online discussions to ensure students are effectively working through the learning process.

Facilitating Cognitive Presence

Discussion Board Advice

Discussion boards are an often used space for online learning, and other collaborative online activities also require text-based interactions among students. Based on the community of inquiry framework and other resources on effective online learning, here are some tips to make your discussion boards lively learning spaces.

To promote engagement:
Student Group
Give students a choice of questions
•    Ask complex questions, and/or questions with no right answer
•    Assign different kinds of contributions (summary, counterpoint, example, new material, compare & contrast)
•    Assign students to “lead” (post question(s), summarize board, comment extensively)
•    Set consistent due dates and expectations
•    Require more comments
To encourage comments and active discussion:
•    Have students ask questions at the end of their posts.
•    Assign learning partners  / commenters (comment on each others’ posts)
•    Model contributions (as a co-learner)
•    Provide feedback on comments in grade book
To limit volume of posts:
•    Assign subset of students to post discussion-starters
•    Split group into multiple boards (recommend 7 people minimum; keep open to all)
•    Model appropriate scope of posts and comments
•    Reduce required number of comments
To ensure learning points are made:
•    Actively contribute: ask questions, clarify points, and add commentary to enrich discussion
•    Podcast or post summary comments when discussion closes
•    Use student contributions and comments as jumping-off points to underscore key ideas

Additional Resources

You can learn much more about the Community framework from these resources:

The Community of Inquiry web site

Community of Inquiry: Transforming the Hybrid Learning Environment - a series of posts by Debra Beck on The Evolution.
See also the follow-up posts on social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence.

Humanizing Online Learning Videos:
These hangouts were recorded as part of a December 2015 MOOC on engaging effectively online. They are about 30 minutes each.


Teaching in Blended Learning Environments (2014).
Norman D. Vaughan, Martha Cleveland-Innes, and D. Randy Garrison (AU Press)

Building Online Learning Communities (2007)
Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt (Jossey Bass)

Online is different, in the sense that bringing people fully into an experience requires some explicit scaffolding that face-to-face tends not to. And yet online is no different at all, in the sense that it is teaching and learning for all the same reasons as any other teaching and learning experience, and we need to approach it with our whole selves, not just as mediators of technology.
Bonnie Stewart