D. Randy Garrison
November 9, 2020

I was recently interviewed for a podcast focused on Reflective Teaching in a Digital Age ( The focus of the discussion was using the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework to rethink online learning. During this interview I had the opportunity to explore the role of the CoI framework in terms of the thoughtful design of online education through collaborative inquiry. Part of this discussion was to briefly outline the genesis of the CoI framework. This work began in the 1990s as we explored the possibilities associated with using computer conferencing to deliver a graduate online program (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2009; Garrison, 2021). The educational opportunities that computer conferencing provided was a means to engage learners in sustained discourse asynchronously. This eventually opened the door for the consideration of collaborative approaches to learning online.

Our work with computer conferencing provided the context for the development of the CoI framework. The creative stimulus for this development was the possibility to offer a graduate program that would be accessible to working adults. We had a pragmatic need to educationally justify offering such a program virtually as we were faced with considerable institutional resistance and skepticism as to the quality of such a program. At the time there were few examples of quality online learning experiences. We addressed this by using the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework to explain and justify a collaborative learning experience that could be sustained asynchronously online. The CoI framework was very useful in this regard and the program was approved. Subsequently we shared the framework in our seminal publication (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000) which was followed by a series of articles focusing on each of the elements of the framework. Subsequently we broadened our own community of inquiry as colleagues joined us to produce a rich body of research (Garrison, 2017). These foundational studies proved to be transformational regarding the pedagogy of online and blended learning. It is important to note that a key contribution to expanding our research was the validation of the CoI questionnaire that opened the door to more empirical studies across a range of contexts (

Shifting to the reality of the COVID pandemic and the widespread adoption of online learning, the pandemic has required a radical and rapid rethinking of the teaching-learning transaction. The possibilities and constraints associated with online learning needed to be understood and adopted without delay. The challenge was to provide guidance and support to educators to migrate their curriculum to an online environment. The enormity of the challenge has quickly become apparent. It is no longer an option to leave faculty to their own devices or simply offer tips without a coherent understanding of the goals and possibilities for an effective teaching-learning transaction online. The challenge is creating and supporting an active involvement of learners in an online environment. I suggest that this is why the CoI framework has attracted growing attention. The CoI framework provides a coherent representation of relevant information and the means to navigate between theoretical and practical information. It is for this reason that institutions and educators have turned to the CoI framework to provide perspective and guidance. Beyond having a map or template it is crucial that institutions take a collaborative approach to faculty development. Design communities of inquiry should be developed to examine how collaborative inquiry could be designed and implemented in online environments. 

A major reason for this interest in the CoI framework is that it is supported by the scientific literature. The CoI framework has been shown to be the most widely researched and relevant theoretical framework for online education. The evidence for this has been described in E-Learning in the 21st Century (Garrison, 2017) and reinforced through recent studies. For example, in a survey of five online course design models in teacher education, Ranjan (2020a) concluded that the best suited model was the CoI. In another survey of e-learning, Valverde-Berrocosoet al., (2020) found that the CoI was the most used theory and was the most relevant theoretical framework. Focusing on the CoI framework to examine trends related to online teaching and learning, Kim and Gurvitch concluded “that many studies implemented CoI as a course design and examined its outcomes” (Discussion). Finally, in a case study of 54 participants looking at student learning objectives and outcomes, Bissessar et al. (2020) found that “the three interdependent presences that form part of CoI (cognitive, social, and teaching) were instrumental in helping them to complete their modules and to achieve student learning objectives and outcomes” (p. 62). From this I believe it is safe to conclude that the CoI framework is of considerable relevance and value in the adoption of online learning.

Some time ago I speculated that e-learning innovations had shifted our thinking about what was possible in terms of deep and meaningful online learning experiences. I argued that it was important to embrace the reflective and communicative advantages of online learning. Much of this was predicated upon the potential to create and sustain a community of learners asynchronously online. To this point I stated that online learning (e-learning) “is not simply another technological innovation that fundamentally has little impact on the educational experience” (Garrison, 2011, p. 3). While I was obviously optimistic, my experience decades earlier with computer assisted learning taught me that this was likely to be a slow and developmental process. This was true, but as often occurs, unexpected developments precipitate transformational change virtually overnight. This is where we appear to find ourselves. The question is whether the unexpected developments of a pandemic will see online educational approaches become mainstream.

This focus on online learning got me thinking about the sustainability of online learning when students return to traditional face-to-face educational environments. To answer this sustainability question concerning sustained presence of online learning, I believe we need to look beyond the technology and focus on the pedagogical assumptions and best practices associated with online learning. If online learning cannot be at least as effective or better than typical classroom experiences, then clearly online learning will not be sustainable let alone transformational. The lesson of the CoI framework is that it reflects the Deweyan ideal of a collaborative educational experience where learners are actively and responsibly engaged in the process of inquiry. From this process of inquiry, the goal is to have learners take responsibility to construct meaning through personal reflection and validate understanding through shared discourse. Clearly it is difficult to make judgements regarding the prognosis of the sustained adoption of online approaches to teaching and learning while we are in the eye of the storm. However, the growing interest and adoption of the CoI framework is a testament to the potential of online learning for critical discourse. For this reason, I am encouraged that we will see a presence of online approaches to learning in traditional educational contexts in the years ahead.

The way forward in this regard is the adoption of the blending of face-to-face and online learning. To me this is the most obvious path to the acceptance and adoption of online learning. Blended learning (BL) is not new and has gained significant traction in higher education. We argued more than a decade ago that BL “is emerging as the organizing concept in transforming teaching and learning while preserving the core values of higher education” (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008,p. 143). This was based on the ability to fuse the distinct capabilities of synchronous and asynchronous communication shaped by a community of inquiry model while mitigating the weaknesses of each separately. In fact, a recent study supports this position with the conclusion that both "online and blended learning were unambiguously more effective than the traditional[teacher centric] face-to-face mode" (Ranjan, 2020b, p. 363). Another study comparing blended to face-to-face designs concluded that “Students rated the blended course as one with better overall course experience” (Chudaeva, et al.,2020, p. 1). While we were ahead of the curve when we wrote Blended Learning in Higher Education and made this prediction, most classrooms in higher education have adopted BL approaches to various degrees. One important difference today is that there is a significant move to blending work from home and office which can only help but enhance the acceptance and normalization of online and blended learning.

In conclusion, Whether theshift to online learning will be sustained and transformational remains to beseen. However, there is every indication that we are entering a new era and I am optimistic with regards to the extent of the adoption and sustainability of online and blended approaches to learning. We have experienced a forced test of the potential of online learning. My optimism is mitigated by the stress and  reaction to the demands for a radical transition during the pandemic. We have not fully tested the possibilities of online discourse and lack of social presence exhibited in many circumstances. However, I believe that with growing experience and expertise it will be difficult to ignore the obvious advantages of integrating online learning into traditional classrooms. In this regard, the CoI framework provides the map and argument to rethink teaching and learning. BL learning approaches are resonating with faculty as they understand the educational possibilities. The flexibility of BL approaches provides distinct advantages to instructors as well as students. One thing I am confidence about is that BL is becoming the norm in higher education. The term itself is becoming mote as most traditional classrooms have integrated online and face-to-face learning to various degrees. The key is to rethink and recognize the benefit of a community of inquiry. In this regard I am pleased to say that the CoI framework has contributed to providing a coherent collaborative constructivist perspective and pragmatic suggestions for the thoughtful implementation of online reflection and discourse. 

Reflective Teaching in a Digital Age: Community of Inquiry (CoI) Framework and Online Teaching


Barbosa, G., Camelo, R., Cavalcanti, A. P., Miranda, P. Mello, R.F., Kovanovic, V., & Gašević, D. (2020). Towards automatic cross-languageclassification of cognitive presence in online discussions. LAK '20:Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Learning Analytics &Knowledge, March 2020, pp. 605–614.

Bissessar, C., Black, D., & Boolaky,M. (2020). International online graduate students’perceptions of CoI. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning,23(1), 62-83.

Chudaeva, E., Loth, G., & Somaskantha, T. (2020). ExploringBlended Learning Designs for Community College Courses Using Community ofInquiry Framework.

Garrison, D. R. (2021). From Independence to Collaboration: APersonal Retrospective on Distance Education. In M. Cleveland-Innes, & D.R. Garrison, (Eds.). An introduction to distance education: Understandingteaching and learning in a new era (2nd edition) (pp. 13-24). London:Routledge.

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

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2010). The firstdecade of the community of inquiry framework: A retrospective. Internet andHigher Education, 13(1-2), 5-9.

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. (2008). Blended learning inhigher education: Framework, principles and guidelines. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.

Gi-cheol Kim & Rachel Gurvitch (2020) Online Education ResearchAdopting the Community of Inquiry Framework: A Systematic Review, Quest,DOI: 10.1080/00336297.2020.1761843

Park, H., & Shea, P. (2020). A Review of Ten-Year Researchthrough Co-citation Analysis: Online Learning, Distance Learning, and BlendedLearning. Online Learning Journal, 24(2).

Ranjan, P. (2020a). Exploring the Models of Designing Blended &Online Learning Courses for Adoption in Regular Teacher Education Course. Voicesof Teachers and Teacher Educators, 9(1), 75-89.

Ranjan, P. (2020b). Is Blended Learning Better than Online Learningfor B.Ed Students? Journal of Learning for Development, 7(3), 349-366.

Valverde-Berrocoso, J., Garrido-Arroyo, M.,  Burgos-Videla, C., & Morales-Cevallos, M.B. (2020). Trends in educational research about e-learning: A systematicliterature review (2009–2018). Sustainability, 12(12), 5153.

Anastasios Katsaris · 10 months ago
Thank you professor.
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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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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.