D. Randy Garrison
April 3, 2017

Our goal with this Blog is to raise ideas and attempt to resolve issues associated with thinking and learning collaboratively in a purposeful community of inquiry.

I would like to initiate this Blog with a discussion on the topic of confirmation bias. This topic was the focus of a recent article that speaks to the core strength and reason for a community of inquiry approach. To this point, the article by Beran et al. (2015) explores the pressure to conform to the group in a way that is a "barrier to effective communication and learning" (p. 63).

The core message of this longitudinal study for me is that there is risk for conformity in collaborative online learning due to attachment and identification within the group. This is obviously relevant in the current environment of fake news and where individuals are increasingly trapped in their selected bubble. I explored this issue of conformity in some depth in a recent book titled Thinking Collaboratively (Garrison, 2016) that focused on the cognitive dimensions of thinking and learning in a community of inquiry. The central theme of this book was the idea of confirmation bias that addresses the human tendency to confirm previously held ideas and a resistance to consider alternative perspectives. I argued that paradoxically, thinking is not an individual private experience. Thinking and learning without critical feedback and diagnosis of misconceptions is to simply confirm existing beliefs. The constructive alternative is to recognize our fallibility when it comes to understanding complex subjects and situations. The most effective solution to the cognitive straightjacket of confirmation bias is to think and learn collaboratively.

Collaboration is an inherent human characteristic and central to human intelligence and evolution. While the human instinct is to collaborate, we as educators must be conscious of the pressure to conform and engage in group think; to avoid what my colleague Walter Archer termed "pathological politeness." In this regard, recent attention has been focused on the risks of accessing information from social media which risks reinforcing existing viewpoints. This has been referred to as a "collective social bubble" where like-minded individuals are insulated from contrary opinions and diversity of thought. They become trapped in their ideological bubble and become isolated in a tribalistic echo chamber.

In this age of connectivity we very much need approaches that encourage critical and creative thinking by being exposed to a variety of information sources which stimulate personal reflection and shared discourse. We must do all we can to search for truth through collaborative inquiry while being vigilant to the degradation of fact. As we have seen in the recent US election and the influence of fake news there is a pressing need to develop a good BS detector and be relentlessly skeptical. Less than credible media are proliferating on the web and we have to develop abilities to think critically while being flooded by questionable information presented as facts.

The human tendency is to decide things emotionally and not rationally. Collaborative inquiry is crucial to challenge questionable intuitive responses and encourage diversity of thought in our quest for shared understanding and knowledge. This requires a special set of conditions we have described as a community of inquiry (Garrison, 2017). Ironically my bubble and confirmation bias is the power of the CoI framework to address the need to think and learn critically and creatively in a world being dominated by social media. Your comments are most welcomed to free me from my ideological bubble.


Beran, T., Drefs, M., Kaba, A., Al Baz, N., & Al Harbi, N. (2015). Conformity of responses among graduate students in an online environment. Internet and Higher Education, 25, 63-69.

Garrison, D. R. (2017). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice (3rd Edition). London: Routledge/Taylor and Francis.

D. Randy Garrison · 4 years ago
Thinking and learning collaboratively is both a great benefit and challenge. The CoI framework addresses the benefits of discourse to test ideas as well as the means to introduce new lines of inquiry (divergent thinking). Notwithstanding that the dynamic of a CoI is focused on an educational environment, the critical thinking and inquiry process is generalizable and applicable to interpreting and analyzing information in our daily lives. I believe much can be learned and adapted from the CoI framework to assess the validity of information in our daily lives. A key element in a generalized inquiry process is leadership to challenge questionable assumptions and ideas. Accepting the responsibility to challenge ideas is a core requirement to participate in a CoI and the primary outcome goal for participants. We must have the curiosity and courage to break out of our ideological bubbles.
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kadir kozan · 5 years ago
thank you all for all these valuable insights....All these points reminded me of 3 things I used in one of my grad courses this semester:

1) Few stunning paragraphs from the following website:

"What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. Hunting, trade, agriculture, manufacturing — all of our world-altering innovations — were made possible by this ability. Chimpanzees can surpass young children on numerical and spatial reasoning tasks, but they cannot come close on tasks that require collaborating with another individual to achieve a goal. Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats."

"The key point here is not that people are irrational; it’s that this irrationality comes from a very rational place. People fail to distinguish what they know from what others know because it is often impossible to draw sharp boundaries between what knowledge resides in our heads and what resides elsewhere.

This is especially true of divisive political issues. Your mind cannot master and retain sufficiently detailed knowledge about many of them. You must rely on your community. But if you are not aware that you are piggybacking on the knowledge of others, it can lead to hubris."

2) A paragraph from the following website:

"Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups."

"“One implication of the naturalness with which we divide cognitive labor,” they write, is that there’s “no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge” and “those of other members” of the group."

3) Dr Daniel Willingham's book "Why don't students like school?" suggesting that our minds may not, primarily, have been programmed to think. In other words, the mind may not have mainly evolved to think and/or to love thinking but to look for ways of decreasing its cognitive overload when necessary.

All in all, it seems that collaboration naturally helps us overcome especially those problems which cannot be handled individually. However, this inclination to collaborate may also trigger the need to align with our group in ways that might be outdated when existing circumstances/knowledge change(s) over time.
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Tanya Beran · 5 years ago
Thank you Randy and Norm for the invitation to post to this blog. Conformity research and its related topics – confirmation bias, group think, social pressure, and on and on – continue to surprise us. Even with 60 years’ worth of publications it is still incredible to think that our reasoning is not objective, straightforward, or fair-minded. I have to say that with every study we do, I’m shocked all over again at how easily we agree with others. Whether it’s graduate students in an online classroom, medical students learning where to insert a needle in the knee, nursing students reporting vital signs, or medical residents on their various rotations, the pressure to conform and agree and be a friendly collaborator is everywhere. I hope you enjoy the challenge of divergent thinking, as invited in this blog, and develop a certain level of comfort in learning how to respectfully challenge one another’s ideas to explore creative solutions on how to truly think collaboratively.
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Martha Cleveland-Innes · 5 years ago
Thanks so much for this, Randy! I couldn't agree more and, particularly in light of recent events in the US, feel an increased commitment to help my students check and double check what they are hearing and thinking. This can be difficult in a well-developed CoI where keeping community members 'safe' may limit this kind of questioning. One of the item indicators in the CoI survey addresses this: "I felt comfortable disagreeing with other course participants while still maintaining a sense of trust." This climate allows us to get past Walter Archer's identified ‘pathological politeness.’ Let's talk about strategies to do this in online environments. What do instructors have to do to encourage and validate this kind of dialogue?
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Susan Bainbridge · 5 years ago
“What do instructors have to do to encourage and validate this kind of dialogue?”

In a forum, as the instructor, I need students to ‘talk back’. I want them to question course readings and to thoughtfully offer alternative viewpoints. Before we can create such dialogue we need to know each of them personally and create friendships (with them and between them) that last beyond the course.

Ideally a Community of Inquiry (CoI) would collaborate to investigate or look into some area together. Before we reach that stage, the instructor has to ‘inquire’ about the student. This is a listening exercise that must be genuine and sincere, otherwise the students will sense the lack of interest and the foundation will not be strong for the creation of a CoI.

So….how do we begin to create a CoI in an online class?

These are the steps I use:

1. During the week before the course begins, I look at the profile of each participant and copy and paste them to a document. I highlight key words and phrases: dentist, chef, teacher, love to travel, lived in India etc. This is the first step in ‘getting to know’ the class.

2. On the Monday of the Introductory Week I post an introductory video of myself. This is casual and doesn’t address the course. I want them to get to know me. The content isn’t as important as the ambiance. Every instructor has a different personality. I want to exude warmth, approachability, understanding, excitement , enthusiasm, and humour.

3. On Tuesday I post an announcement asking each participant to connect with me on Skype and then text me a convenient time for a 30 minute call.

4. I accept invites to connect on Skype and make calls to those who responded. This is usually about half the students. This exercise in itself shows me which students are organized and/or keen, as opposed to those who don’t contact me and may have a heavy schedule or other issues interfering already with their studies.

5. The interview/chats are solely about the student. I behave like a psychologist, listening and asking short questions. I learn a great deal about each student. Their confidence, personality, interests, struggles, learning needs, to name a few. I often learn enough about them to suggest topics for projects that may ‘fit’ with their professional goals. This increases their motivation and interest in the course very early in the course. As I listen, I add notes to my student document. This is important because you will not remember all these details after 20+ interviews.

6. Then I spend the rest of the introductory week chasing down and connecting with the remainder of the registered participants. Often there are a few that don’t connect with me on Skype. I put them on my ‘at risk’ list in Week 1 of the course until I see that they are functioning well without connecting with me. If someone is not participating and we have not chatted real time, I email them and reach out once more.

7. Skype has another huge advantage. Once the instructor and participant are friends on Skype then they can text the instructor on Skype. Much more efficient than email.

8. During Week 1 I post a document with useful phrases to be used when disagreeing with a reading or forum post. E.g. I understand your thinking, but have you ever thought about . . .This is a powerful document because it has the participants tacitly understand that perhaps an important component of forum discussion is to ‘question and disagree’ and offer ‘alternative’ ideas.

9. Now I step back. I watch the forum discussions. Sometimes I email/text a student with feedback. I find this better than a post to the forum. I want to quietly facilitate and give the student a chance to enhance their posts with cues from me.

I have seen forums where instructors answer each student post with a lengthy pontification. This will not create a CoI and very quickly turns into a teacher-centred environment where students no longer read or listen to the community, but rather choose to have a personal dialogue with the instructor for the duration of the course. Not only is this very dull, but also a great deal of unnecessary work and stress for both instructor and students.

Every group of students brings with them rich life experience and worldviews. The magic of each new group is the diversity of the group and how this dynamic can take us to new places. The best way to learn is to teach, and by allowing for a CoI to evolve, with proper scaffolding, allows deep learning for students and the instructor.

I would be really interested in what other instructors are doing. Have you ‘tweeked’ the steps I use, or do you do something completely different?
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D. Randy Garrison · 5 years ago
Excellent re creating the conditions and expectations for a CoI. The subsequent challenge, however, is to judge when and how to engage that encourages participants to assume increased responsibility to monitor and manage the discourse. This is what I have referred to as shared metacognition.
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Lisa Marie Blaschke · 5 years ago
I really like your approaches to establishing a bond of empathy and trust with students, and I try to do much the same with my students, especially relying on student profiles as a basis for understanding and interacting with students and assessing their work. The individual Skype call is an approach I have not used (except in individual situations), mostly due to time constraints — although I have used group Google Hangouts for similar purposes (and to save time!). As to replying to each student individually: personally, I prefer to hang back and allow others to respond and if there are no takers, will pose a question to the group asking them to respond, in an attempt to nudge them toward dialogue in community rather than purely dialogue with the instructor (a resulting dialogue that might be fulfilling for the student, but which runs the risk of diminishing community building).
Re: Randy’s post -- so very timely and important! I also find that we can fall into the traps of ideological conformity, with students preferring to align their thinking with that of the crowd and choosing not to express any form of dissension. (I have also seen examples of the „pathological politeness“ that Marti refers to emerging in discussion threads and group work.) Here, I think we need to step in as instructors and look for and encourage hints of dissent from other students, and if this does not emerge, then stage a tactical intervention that presents a dissenting viewpoint. (I tend to refer to these as „devil’s advocate“ posts; even if I agree with the student, I will take a different viewpoint in order to get him or her to articulate/defend the argument and to reflect upon other perspectives.) The approach can also serve as a model for students in their own posts. I think the approaches that Susan describes are an excellent means for establishing an environment of trust that allows for and supports (and promotes!) opportunities for dissent and divergent thinking. If those opportunities do not appear (i.e., „crowd-thinking“), then instructor intervention would be needed to stir things up a bit. As Randy has noted, the challenge lies in knowing when and how to do this…which emphasizes the importance of instructors having a strong sense or „feel“ for their classroom community so that they can respond accordingly.
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D. Randy Garrison
Professor Emeritus, University of Calgary
D. Randy Garrison is professor emeritus at the University of Calgary.Dr. Garrison has published extensively on teaching and learning in adult, higher and distance education contexts. He has authored, co-authored or edited twelve books and well over 100 refereed articles/chapters.His recent books are Thinking Collaboratively: Learning in a Community of Inquiry (2016) and E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice (3rd Edition) (2017); for which he won second place for the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Division of Distance Learning Book Award, 2017.



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