The community of inquiry model in online teaching

hands raised in a classroom of adult learners

Online learning in higher education has evolved immensely over the past thirty years since it began and offers flexibility and accessibility to both traditional and non-traditional students. However, for online learning to be effective, best practices for teaching online must be implemented to keep students engaged and persistent in their learning. One such practice is the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model, which has gained prominence for its role in facilitating meaningful online learning experiences for students.

The community of inquiry model

three elements create the learning experience: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence

The Community of Inquiry theoretical framework was developed by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000), and is founded on three essential elements that overlap in their influence of helping students to form deep and meaningful learning experiences in the online classroom. These three elements are social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence, which Missouri Online recommends as a pillar of quality course design to support student interaction and engagement (Pillar 2 of the Quality Course Review form).

Social presence: Social presence refers to how learners perceive the presence of others in the online learning environment and their sense of connection through the course interactions. Social presence fosters communication, collaboration, and a sense of belonging among participants and is vital in online learning because it can enhance student engagement, motivation, and the overall learning experience.

Teaching presence: Instructors play a vital role in facilitating and supporting students in the online course. The teaching presence involves the instructor’s ability to be actively visible in the course and provide supportive and engaging learning opportunities for students (Zhang, et al., 2022). Teacher presence is critical to provide that connection between instructor and students, and communication is key for enhancing online learning.

Cognitive presence: This key element refers to the ability of learners to construct meaningful and sustained learning through discourse and higher order thinking skills of the material presented in the online environment. Knowledge is constructed through a collaborative environment that stimulates critical thinking and deep learning opportunities.

Ways to integrate the COI in the online classroom

Social Presence

The social presence in the classroom can be communicated in both synchronous and asynchronous environments. In synchronous environments, real time video conferencing can occur or online chat sessions. In asynchronous environments, weekly discussion forums serve as a way for instructors to communicate with students, and for students to interact with one another. Instructors increase their social presence by providing weekly course announcements, video uploads of micro lectures, timely and constructive feedback on assignments, regular communications, and setting clear guidelines and expectations for the course  (Pillars 1 and 2 of the Quality Course Review form).

silhouettes of various people's profiles

Establishing an introductory forum during the first week of the course will allow students to communicate with their peers and help them to get to know one another. The instructor should interact with the students in the forum by providing a positive reply to all of the student posts, welcoming them during the first week of the course. This interaction sets the tone in the course and fosters a positive and inclusive environment (Jones-Roberts, 2021). 

Teaching Presence

The instructor posts the student participation guidelines in the course. Grading criteria and assessment methods are also provided, which Missouri Online supports as a guideline under Pillar 1 in the quality review. This can include using rubrics, so students have a clear understanding of what is expected for each assignment. Personalized and constructive feedback on assignments provides individualized instruction that promotes  student growth.

Multimodule is more dynamic than Unimodule learning

Instructors should implement multimodal forms of communication to differentiate the instruction of materials to a wide variety of learners. In asynchronous courses, the instructor can upload video lectures to expand the concepts which improves the course quality and learning experience for students (Cilesiz, 2014). Designing and organizing activities that align with course objectives are also key (Pillar 3), and instructors should demonstrate proficiency with online tools and resources to further engage students and extend their learning.

Cognitive Presence
four phases of cognitive presence are: triggering event, exploration, integration, and resolution

The design of the courses themselves plays a significant role in impacting the cognitive presence of the learner. For example, discussion forums encourage critical thinking and reflection, and collaborative projects encourage students to work together to solve problems and exchange ideas. Reflective writing tasks encourage students to connect the content to wider issues, and extend their understanding of the topics explored (Karaoglan-Yilmaz, et al., 2023). Constructive feedback and implementing a variety of assessments are key so that students understand ways to improve and apply it to future assignments. 

Why the CoI Model is essential in online teaching

The CoI model places a strong emphasis on social presence, which plays a critical role in how students establish connections, collaborate, and support each other in the online classroom, and provides a more engaging learning experience for students (Pillar 2). Research shows that effective instruction must meet the learners’ social needs, or students’ learning goals will not be met (Kozan & Richardson, 2014). Teaching presence ensures that the course is well-organized, content is presented clearly, and discussions are guided effectively. Online instructors must be responsive to students' needs to foster a positive online learning environment.

The CoI model allows for a personalized approach to teaching, as it adapts to students' needs. Instructors can use the framework to tailor their strategies to individual learners while maintaining a sense of community. The CoI model is not just a theoretical framework. Research has consistently demonstrated its effectiveness in improving student learning outcomes and overall satisfaction in online courses.

Class size in online asynchronous courses is also important, since it may be more challenging for an instructor to implement all aspects of the Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison et al., 2000). The standard consensus across literature is 30 students per course, but some scholars believe that may be too high (Lowenthal et al., 2019, Taft et al., 2019). However, even in courses that have high enrollment, instructors can be socially present, which leads to better learning outcomes.


In the rapidly evolving landscape of online education, the Community of Inquiry model emerges as a beacon of effective online teaching practices. It addresses the core challenges of online learning by focusing on building community, ensuring effective instruction, and promoting critical thinking. As educators navigate the digital realm, the CoI model stands as a necessity, ensuring that students receive engaging and meaningful learning experiences virtually.

additional Resources


Cilesiz, S. (2015). Undergraduate students’ experiences with recorded lectures: towards a theory of acculturation. Higher Education (00181560), 69(3), 471–493.

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

Jones-Roberts, C. (2021). Increasing social presence online: Five strategies for instructors. Distance Learning, 18(4), 103–106.

Karaoglan-Yilmaz, F. G., Ustun, A. B., Zhang, K., & Yilmaz, R. (2023). Metacognitive awareness, reflective thinking, problem solving, and community of inquiry as predictors of academic self-efficacy in blended learning: A correlational study. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 24(1), 20–36.

Kozan, K., & Richardson, J. C. (2014). Interrelationships between and among social, teaching, and cognitive presence. The Internet and Higher Education, 21, 68–73.

Lowenthal, P. R., Nyland, R., Jung, E., Dunlap, J. C., & Kepka, J. (2019). Does class size matter? An exploration into faculty perceptions of teaching high-enrollment online courses. American Journal of Distance Education, 33(3), 152-168.

Taft, S. H., Kesten, K., & El-Banna, M. M. (2019). One size does not fit all: Toward an evidence based framework for determining online course enrollment sizes in higher education. Online Learning, 23(3), 188-233. doi:10.24059/olj.v23i3.1534

Zhang, Y., Tian, Y., Yao, L., Duan, C., Sun, X., & Niu, G. (2022). Teaching presence predicts cyberloafing during online learning: From the perspective of the community of inquiry framework and social learning theory. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(4), 1651-1666–1666.

Created on January 25, 2024