D. Randy Garrison
December 5, 2018

Structured massive open online courses (MOOCs) provide cost-effective access to high quality course materials. This approach to online learning, however, exhibits an inherent limitation in that they are implicitly large enrollment courses with constrained opportunities for sustained discourse. That said, with the growing popularity of MOOCs, interest is being directed to understanding the nature of such learning experiences, particularly with regard to facilitating interaction and engagement. Moreover, researchers are starting to use the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework to study collaboration in a MOOC.

Notwithstanding the challenges in creating a community of inquiry for large enrollment and shorter term courses, recent studies have confirmed the overall structure of a community of inquiry within a MOOC setting (Kovanović et al., 2018; Saadatmand et al., 2017). Findings suggest that the design of a MOOC is of primary concern if one is to try and create a community of inquiry. In this regard, Saadatmand et al. (2017) argue a community of inquiry can be created in a MOOC with sufficient focus on teaching presence (design, facilitation and direction). They state “that teaching presence in the phase of pre-course design and organization and the facilitating role of instructors is significant in establishing a learning community that trigger learners’ interaction during the course” (p. 72). Another research team supported this conclusion when they explored study strategies in MOOCs using the CoI survey (Kovanović et al., 2019). They identified three distinct groups of learners with different study strategies; however, notwithstanding these differences, the primary recommendation was to encourage more active roles in terms of instructional support and guidance (i.e., teaching presence). Finally, Hew et al. (2018) also noted with regard to MOOCs that “student engagement is promoted when certain instructor attributes are present” (p. 87).

The challenge of engagement and discourse in a MOOC suggests that participants do not attach importance to peer interaction. In a community of inquiry, discourse is shaped by all three elements (social, cognitive and teaching presence). Moreover, social presence in a CoI is seen as an important condition to establish peer interaction and sustained discourse but may be a particular challenge in large enrolment courses. In fact, substantial differences have been found in MOOC populations with regard to how they perceive social presence (Poquet et al., 2018). This finding is reinforced by Stranach (2017) who studied two MOOCs offered by institutions of higher education. Stranach concluded that “… while participants in MOOCs felt comfortable expressing themselves “as real people” (a key indicator of social presence), the majority did not view themselves as being part of a community of learners within their respective courses” (p. 2). Pragmatically speaking, Stranach suggested that “… encouraging greater amounts and quality of collaboration through the design of assignments and other assessment and evaluation items can lead to improved social presence, and an enhanced educational experience overall” (p. 2).

The CoI framework with its emphasis on purposeful collaboration has been shown in the previously cited research to be a useful theoretical perspective to facilitate discourse in a MOOC. This is further supported by a large-scale analytical study of MOOC design features that suggests designers could avoid “flying blind” by referring to the CoI framework “in designing their courses at a more granular level” (Xing, 2018, p.12). All of which highlights the potential of using the CoI framework to better understand the learning experiences presented with the adoption of massive open online courses. Moreover, the results indicate the ability of the CoI survey to distinguish the characteristics of MOOC environments and reveal design implications. Further support of this position is provided by Stenbom (2018) in a recent systematic review of over 100 research papers using the CoI survey. He concluded that the “survey provides results that are valid and reliable” and that further research should “expand the settings in which the instrument is applied” (p. 28).

In conclusion, I have repeatedly noted the generic nature of the CoI framework and its value in studying and creating collaborative learning experiences in a variety of settings. However, with regard to the focus of this post, I would argue that the CoI framework and survey has the potential to understand the design and delivery of MOOCs with the goal of creating more meaningful learning experiences through purposeful discourse.


Hew, K. F., Qiao, C., & Tang, Y. (2018). Understanding student engagement in large-scale open online courses: A machine learning facilitated analysis of student’s reflections in 18 highly rated MOOCs. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 19(3), 69-93.

Kovanović, V., Joksimović, S., Poquet, O., Hennis, T., Čukić, I., de Vries, P., Hatala, M., Dawson, S., Siemens, G., & Gašević, D. (2018). Exploring communities of inquiry in Massive Open Online Courses. Computers & Education, 119, 44-58.

Kovanović, V., Joksimović, S., Poquet, O., Hennis, T., de Vries, P., Hatala, M., Dawson, S., Siemens, G., & Gašević, D. (2019). Examining communities of inquiry in massive open online courses: The role of study strategies. Internet and Higher Education, 40, 20-43.

Poquet, O., Kovanovic, V., de Vries, P., Hennis, T., Joksimovic, S., & Gasevic, D.(2018). Social presence in massive open online courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 19(3), 43-68.

Saadatmand, M., Uhlin, L., Åbjörnsson, L., & Kvarnström, M. (2017). Examining Learners’ Interaction in an Open Online Course through the Community of Inquiry Framework. European Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 20(1), 61-79.

Stenbom, S. (2018). A systematic review of the Community of Inquiry survey. Internet and Higher Education, 39, 22-32.

Stranach, M. (2017). Social presence in two massive open online courses (MOOCs): A multiple case study (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta.  Retrieved September 15, 2018 from:

Xing, W. (2018). Exploring the influences of MOOC design features on student performance and persistence. Distance Education. Retrieved December 5, 2018 from:



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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