So how do you design effective learning experiences for the online environment? Next, a theoretical framework is presented to answer this question.

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) theoretical framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001) is perhaps the best-known and most researched approach to designing learning experiences for the online environment.  It represents a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements - social, cognitive and teaching presence (depicted in the figure below).

Reference: Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Click the figure to explore an interactive version. (Requires Flash)

Community of Inquiry infographic

How to Make it Happen

Research from the Community of Inquiry Model found that the instructor’s presence and engagement with online learners is the most significant variable in teaching and learning effectiveness and satisfaction. What is presence? The simplest description is being present in the course site to direct, guide, listen to, and share experiences, expertise, and personal insights with learners. This is the essence of the three presences of the Community of Inquiry framework. Following is a brief summary of these presences along with suggested tips and strategies.

Social Presence

Social presence is “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (Garrison, 2009). Learners want to get to know their instructors as people in addition to their roles as mentors and content experts. Online students require the social presence of the instructor and other students to feel part of the online learning community, reduce feeling isolated, and build trust and community.

Tips for developing social presence:

A strong social presence builds a climate of trust and environment of comfort and safe risk-taking. This foundation makes the learners ready for your teaching presence and cognitive presence.

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence is the “design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes” (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001). Simply explained, teaching presence includes designing and developing the course and guiding and supporting the learners during the course delivery.  

Tips for developing teaching presence:

Teaching presence is manifested in everything the instructor does to guide, support, and shape the learners’ experiences.

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence is “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse” (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001). Active and engaging learning activities are required for the course to be effective. The primary focus of cognitive presence is to develop a higher-order thinking process (i.e. critical thinking or practical inquiry) that integrates existing learning with new learning through reflection, discussion, and feedback.

Tips for developing cognitive presence:

Cognitive presence includes activities developed and actions taken to encourage students to explore their ideas, thoughts, and beliefs to meaningfully connect with the content and facilitate learning.


Research into Communities of Inquiry
A website set up by Athabasca University to share theory, methodology, and research papers for the community of inquiry project.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7-23.

Tips adapted from A Garden of Three Presences — Social  Presence, Teaching Presence and Cognitive Presence.