D. Randy Garrison
January 4, 2019

At the core of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework is critical discourse in the service of inquiry. The CoI framework identifies three overlapping elements (social, cognitive and teaching presence) that create the conditions for open communication and meaningful discourse. The challenge is how do we design the conditions for collaborative inquiry that go beyond simple interaction to achieve deep and meaningful learning? Design is the first component of the Teaching Presence (TP) construct (others being facilitation and direction) and the initial focus for creating a CoI. Parenthetically the TP construct is supported by considerable research but has been further validated recently through a confirmatory factor analysis of a large sample in an Asian culture (Nasir et al., 2018). It is important to emphasize that this finding is important in that it supports the generalization of the TP construct across cultures.

A recent study of the implementation of blended learning using the CoI survey revealed the importance of design (Nazar, et al., 2018). This study concluded the “most positively rated statements [of the CoI] related to material design and organization” (p.1). Furthermore, consistent with the importance of design, focus groups reported the need to “consider carefully the construction of their learning environments” (p. 7) but that more facilitation and direction is required. These findings add to the growing evidence as to the importance of the TP construct in guiding and shaping the practice of collaborative inquiry and associated discourse.

My previous editorials have largely been focused on foundational research associated with validating and understanding the philosophical and theoretical dimensions of the CoI framework. However, in a previous post on design (January, 2018), I emphasized that this was the first but continuing responsibility of teaching presence. That is, design in terms of shaping and directing the evolving inquiry process continues to ensure the goals of the learning experience are achieved in a timely manner. It was also emphasized that meaningful discourse can be advanced considerably with a metacognitive understanding of the dynamics of collaborative inquiry and the role of discourse. In this post I alluded to the design principles of the CoI framework. At the outset I want to explicitly review these principles. To be clear, each of the principles incorporates issues of social and cognitive presence. The seven principles are (Garrison, 2017, p. 112):

1)            Plan for the creation of open communication and trust
2)            Plan for critical reflection and discourse
3)            Establish community and cohesion
4)            Establish inquiry dynamics (purposeful inquiry)
5)            Sustain respect and responsibility
6)            Sustain inquiry that moves to resolution
7)            Ensure assessment is congruent with intended processes and outcomes
That said, we need the guidance of more specific methods and techniques. Now many of these tasks and techniques for thinking and learning collaboratively are well known. The problem, however, is that these are not organized and understood in any meaningful theoretical structure that can be applied by designers and communicated to participants in a community of inquiry. A good example of this is a study that focused on identifying clear guidelines for the design of student-led discussion in online learning communities (Hambacher, Ginn & Slater, 2018). The goal was to find a method to address this problem that could be easily adopted and implemented. Using the CoI framework they focused on balancing teacher presence and social presence to identify a structure for discussion that would achieve “deep dialogue.” The authors proposed and described “… four instructional design features of the online … discussions that aim to create the conditions for social connections that support learning: forming small learning communities, assigning roles and responsibilities, rotating roles and setting intervals for interaction, and balancing structure with flexibility” (p. 6).

Hambacher et al. (2018) argued that small groups set the climate through familiarity and building a shared history. Assigning roles and responsibilities increase participation. Balancing structure with flexibility voided excessive instructor control. Together these features promoted increased cognitive presence. Without question these design features are supportive of the development of deep dialogue by creating social presence through small groups and strategic instructor presence. The authors also recognized the need for additional design features and how they may be incorporated into a framework. In this regard, I would argue for design features that have a theoretical genesis and structure. In this way they are more amenable to a more coherent and strategic approach that favors generalizability. This could begin by relating design features to the seven principles of a CoI identified previously.

The focus on small groups to foster greater interaction and quality of dialogue through peer questioning was also the finding of a study by Davies and Meissel (2018). They compared whole group with small group discussion and concluded that small groups were more likely to question each other’s assertions. This is essential for critical discourse and meaningful learning. Similar to the previous study they emphasized the importance of social presence, noting that, in part, this could be explained by investment in “developing social relations” (p. 223). Another study that focused on questioning to strengthen dialogue was conducted by Filius et al. (2018). They found that questioning feedback stimulated reflection and therefore strengthened dialogue. Similarly, Forbes and Gedera (2019) argue that “Highlighting misunderstandings enables possibilities for negotiation, change, and improvement” (p. 1). Moreover, they argue for active teacher presence to enhance engagement.

Discourse stimulated through misunderstanding and questioning is an essential aspect of Practical Inquiry (cognitive presence). In this regard I would point out that reflective deep dialogue (discourse) inherently requires a metacognitive monitoring and management function. In a collaborative learning setting this is a shared responsibility and every effort must be made to have all participants engage in monitoring and managing the learning transaction. For this reason I would argue that deep discourse is more effectively and efficiently enhanced with awareness of the inquiry process (cognitive presence) where understanding the nature of discourse is conducive to deep and meaningful learning. This was reinforced in a recent article on patterns of quality learning discussions (Han & Ellis, 2019). They point out that we need to do more than simply provide an opportunity for discussion. Students must understand the “intent and benefits of discussions … and think more about how to use discussions” (p. 18). This is where Shared Metacognition and an understanding of the inquiry process based on discourse (Practical Inquiry model) can have a long-term influence on deep and meaningful learning. We will pick-up on this point in a future editorial exploring the practical implications and worthwhile research associated with shared metacognition.

Design is critical to ensure purposeful collaborative engagement in thinking and learning. The implicit premise of the previous noted articles is that interaction is not enough for deep dialogue or critical discourse (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). Design should include activities that focus on awareness of the inquiry process and the importance of taking responsibility and control of discourse.


Davies, M. J., & Meissel, K. (2018). Secondary students use of dialogical discussion practices to foster greater interaction. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 53, 209-225.

Filiusa, R. M., de Kleijnb, R. A. M., Uijlb, S. G., Prinsb, F. J., van Rijena, H. V. M., & Grobbeea, D. E. (2018). Strengthening dialogic peer feedback aiming for deep learning in SPOCs. Computers & Education, 125, 86-100.

Forbes, D. & Gedera, D. P. (2019). From confounded to common ground: Misunderstandings between tertiary teachers and students in online discussions. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 35(4), pp-pp.

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.

Garrison, D. R., & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 133-148.

Hambacher, E., Ginn, K., & Slater, K. (2018). From serial monologue to deep dialogue: Designing online discussions to facilitate student learning in teacher education courses. Action in Teacher Education, 40(3), 239-252.

Han, F., & Ellis, R. A. (2018). Identifying consistent patterns of quality learning discussions in blended learning. The Internet and Higher Education, 40, 12-19.

Nazar, H., Omer, U., Nazar, Z., & Husband, A. (2018). A study to investigate the impact of a blended learning teaching approach to teach pharmacy law. International Journal of  Pharmacy Practice. Retrieved December 19, 2018 from

Nasir, M. K. M., Surat, S., Maat, S. M., Abd Karim, A., & Daud, Md. Y. (2018). Confirmatory factor analysis on the sub-construct of Teaching Presence’s in the Community of Inquiry. Creative Education, 9, 2245-2253.

Oh, E. G., Huang, W-H. D., Mehdiabadi, A. H., & Ju, B. (2018). Facilitating critical thinking in synchronous online discussion: comparison between peer- and instructor- redirection. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 30(3), 489-509.



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), and he recently won the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Division of Distance Learning Book Award (2nd place), 2017.



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The Community of Inquiry is a project of the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University, researchers of the Community of Inquiry framework, and members of the CoI community.