D. Randy Garrison
April 22, 2021

In a previous editorial I had addressed the challenge of designing a collaborative inquiry that goes beyond simple interaction to achieve deep and meaningful learning (Editorial 18). On this topic I want to draw attention to a study that focused on a subtle but crucial aspect of interaction in a collaborative learning experience. A study by Scott Mehall (2021) looked at “purposeful interpersonal interaction (PII) ... for identifying high quality interpersonal interactions which are demonstrated to lead to better student outcomes” (p. 1). Scott’s findings “demonstrated that greater PII does generally lead to greater student satisfaction and perceived learning [but there is] ... evidence of apoint of diminishing returns” (p. 1). He concludes that “PII does appear to be an important component of the OL [online learning] experience, and instructors and course designers can utilize these findings to create course designs with satisfactory levels of PII” (p. 9). While further research is called for, these findings help to inform best practices in terms of “satisfactory levels of PII, while decreasing extraneous interactions” (p. 9).

Of particular interest for me is the juxtaposition of PII with personal social interaction (PSI). It was noted that, in part, the amount of PSI (Social/Rapport Building Designs for Interaction) “was the highest correlated element with mean student satisfaction and the second highest with mean perceived learning ... [and] appears to be the most important form of interaction (Mehall, 2021, p. 8). This is consistent with work I did with Dr. Marti Cleveland-Innes in an article that we subtitled “Interaction is not Enough” (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). The insight is recognizing the importance of both purposeful and social interaction. Our conclusion was that “simple interaction, absent of structure and leadership, is not enough. We need to have a qualitatively richer view of interaction” (p. 145). In this work we emphasized the importance of purposeful interaction or critical discourse to achieve deep and meaningful learning outcomes; however, it is important to emphasize that this is not separate from establishing a secure social climate that makes possible open communication.

Some time ago I had offered the idea of purposeful communication as a refinement to the social presence construct to distinguish personal from academically purposeful communication and address the interdependency between social and cognitive presence (Garrison, 2011). I argued that a “community of inquiry must be both inclusive and critical” while balancing the social and academic elements of a quality learning environment (Garrison, 2017, p. 37). The original definition of social presence focused largely on socio-emotional communication. For this reason, I felt there needed to be greater emphasis on purposeful or academic discourse and a clear connection to cognitive presence. I therefore revised social presence to emphasize purposeful communication. This was grounded in research that demonstrated the importance of group cohesion and productivity for shared identity regarding the purpose of the group that took precedence over interpersonal bonds as group cohesion and community developed. The goal is to facilitate discourse by creating a climate of trust through social interaction that will in turn provide the environment for purposeful interaction leading to intended academic goals. Purposeful interaction can be appreciated from the perspective of cognitive presence and the inquiry process but requires a climate that encourages open communication. These forms of interaction are in fact necessarily interdependent and mutually reinforcing in a successful collaborative learning environment.

Mehall (2021) has provided evidence that purposeful interaction is associated with perceived learning and satisfaction. I have also noted that purposeful interaction is associated with cognitive presence and the inquiry process. This brings me to another recent research article that explores this issue from a complementary perspective. A study by Lim and Richardson (2021) explored CoI presences and perceived learning outcomes and found that “cognitive presence showed the most powerful predictive effects on students’ perceived learning outcomes and satisfaction” (p. 1). Of particular note considering the previous discussion is that this “can be promoted through the facilitation of higher level discussion prompts“ (p. 11). That is, perceived learning outcomes is facilitated through higher level discussion. Logically following this the authors go on to say that “this research also confirmed that teaching presence is an important factor for predicting students’ perceived learning and satisfaction [and] that teaching presence is essential to successful learning experiences for online learning students” (p. 11). This provides further evidence of the importance of purposeful interaction by way of “higher level discussion prompts” and the link to teaching presence in a quality educational experience.

The conclusion is that purposeful interaction or discourse is associated with the quality of discussion and successful learning outcomes. Moreover, this supports our earlier position that “interaction is not enough” (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). At the time we argued that interaction alone is not a guarantee that learners will be engaged in deep and meaningful inquiry directed toward intended outcomes. While social presence creates an environment for open communication, it is purposeful discourse that shapes the quality of cognitive development and the optimal functioning of a community of inquiry. Critically, social presence has been shown to be a mediating variable regarding cognitive and teaching presence (Editorial 20). More specifically, purposeful discourse describes the overlap between social and cognitive presence - all of which is predicated upon teaching presence reflected by the design, facilitation, and direction of the inquiry process.


Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-Learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice (2nd edition). London: Routledge/Taylor and Francis.

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.

Lim J., & Richardson, J. C. (2021). Predictive effects of undergraduate students’ perceptions of social, cognitive, and teaching presence on affective learning outcomes according to disciplines. Computers & Education, 161, Article 104063.

Mehall, S. (2021). Purposeful interpersonal interaction and the point of diminishing returns for graduate learners. The Internet and Higher Education, 48, 100774.

Anastasios Katsaris · 8 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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