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Inquiring Minds Want to Know…About Social, Cognitive, and Teacher Presence Online

Kari Henry Hulett, Northeastern State University

Maria Gray, Northeastern State University

Key Statement: Faculty can intentionally design courses using the Community of Inquiry Framework to achieve greater student engagement and learning outcomes.

Keywords: Community of Inquiry, Online, Strategies


In addition to providing some much-deserved rest, the summer months are also a time when many faculty reflect on their courses and consider what changes they might make to increase student success and engagement, particularly faculty who work in online environments. In online teaching, one of the most significant things you can do for student success is to design your courses intentionally (Bernard et al., 2014). One area of intentional course design that has a significant impact on student outcomes is community building. Garrison et al. (2000) created the Community of Inquiry Framework to use when designing online courses; this model can assist faculty in creating courses that support the development of deep and meaningful online learning experiences by establishing a community of learners. For the framework to be truly effective, faculty need practical strategies for implementation (Fiock, 2020; Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). In this article, we will define each of the elements of the Community of Inquiry Framework and outline some suggestions for how faculty can intentionally build online courses using strategies to strengthen the learning community.

Image by Unsplash.

Community of Inquiry for Transformative Learning

Community building fosters stronger student engagement and leads to transformative learning by creating opportunities for learners to challenge their current knowledge, beliefs, and perspectives, thus leading to transformative learning (Cranton, 2006). To guide and build community in the online classroom, Garrison et al. (2000) provide the Community of Inquiry Framework, a model with three overlapping elements for course design and delivery - Social Presence, Cognitive Presence, and Teaching Presence.

Each of these three presences can be used to strengthen student engagement and learning (Figure 1). Engagement with others is a critical part of learning as a “social process, and discourse becomes central to making meaning” (Mezirow, 1997, p. 10). Social presence refers to the ability of teachers and learners to establish themselves as individuals within the context of the course and to connect to others. Cognitive presence refers to the ability of learners to construct meaning through the instructional materials and activities in the course. The third element, teaching presence, encompasses both the process of delivery and the design of the course (Garrison et al., 2000). Teaching presence is arguably the foundation of success for online courses as it is the building block on which all other elements are formed.

Figure 1. Strategies for Online Course Design Using the Community of Inquiry Framework (Garrison et al., 2000).

Image copyright Henry Hulett and Gray, 2023.

Social Presence

Designing intentionally to promote social presence within a course is the first step to building a strong Community of Inquiry. When we design for social presence, we are assisting learners by creating a safe, supportive environment for engaging in critical inquiry with their faculty and peers. Strategies to promote social presence can have positive impacts on both student engagement and satisfaction with a course (Lowenthal & Dunlap, 2018). To build social presence, faculty should focus on open communication, group cohesion, and affective expression (Garrison et al., 2000). Each of these strategies will help learners build individual relevance within the course while also connecting with others. To build social presence:

  • Assign students to introduce themselves to the class - encourage pictures or video

  • Use video discussion tools such as Flip or Google Hangouts

  • Use web-based bulletin boards such as Padlet or Google Jamboard to support group brainstorming activities

  • Use Wiki tools as spaces for collaborative research

  • Embed opportunities for peer feedback

  • Use small groups to encourage inclusion

We know building a social presence can be bound by participant size. Though it’s ideal to use small groups, for example, sometimes one group is sufficient in a small class.

Cognitive Presence

The second step to intentional course design for community building focuses on cognitive presence. Faculty support strong cognitive presence by engaging learners’ brains, promoting the exploration of new ideas, and making connections. Providing learners with autonomy, ownership, and support creates an environment for cognitive learning. Giving learners opportunities for learning that tap into intrinsic motivation will lead to greater engagement, better performance, and positive learning outcomes (Deci & Ryan, 1985). To build cognitive presence:

  • Incorporate problem-based learning activities

  • Assign collaborative inquiry activities

  • Build personal reflection into your course structure

  • Design questions to drive reflection and critical thinking

As teachers, encouraging cognitive presence takes time to frontload activities that encourage critical thinking. Including too many cognitive activities at once may create “overload,” so we suggest experimenting with various activities based on each class.

Teacher Presence

The key to intentional course design lies in the establishment of teacher presence. Teacher presence begins with the process of designing the course and continues through the development of materials, and assessment of student learning. True teacher presence continues past the semester, when the teacher reflects on the course and identifies areas that might be strengthened. In this sense, teacher presence equals teacher engagement. To build teacher presence, focus on designing, organizing, and facilitating a course that leads to high achievement. When faculty expect more from learners, they communicate high standards. To communicate high standards, consider ways to encourage creativity, adaptive behavior, and growth mindset in learners. Growth mindset leads to greater effort and persistence in learners which helps them reach higher levels of achievement (Dweck & Molden, 2017). To build teaching presence:

  • Welcome students to class (video, email, announcement)

  • Establish clear expectations for interaction, netiquette, and professional behavior

  • Provide direct instruction on interaction in asynchronous and synchronous situations within the classroom

  • Establish simple methods that learners can use to ask for help

  • Participate in learning opportunities such as discussions or group collaborations by popping in

  • Consider offering feedback with audio or video instead of text

  • Provide a weekly announcement video

Course design is essential to the success of a class, and though there are many ways to encourage teacher presence, we found that mindful and intentional course design eliminates feeling overwhelmed with too many teacher expectations.


By building a Community of Inquiry through intentional course design, faculty can foster stronger student engagement, promote transformative learning, and support positive learning outcomes. Through intentional course design and the implementation of practical strategies for learning, the framework can become a valuable resource for faculty.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some specific strategies you could use to build social presence in your online courses? How do you think these strategies would impact student engagement and satisfaction with the course? What challenges might you face?

  2. In what ways do you think building cognitive presence in an online course could lead to transformative learning? What are some specific strategies you could use to increase cognitive presence in your own courses?

  3. What steps can instructors take to establish a strong teaching presence in their online courses? What specific strategies might you use to welcome students to your course, establish clear expectations, and provide feedback that supports student learning?


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