Module 4: The Virtual Classroom as a Learning Community

The Virtual Classroom as a Learning Community

By now you’ve likely realized the extent of planning that goes into a well-crafted online course. The ways in which form and function combine alongside time and space — the way your course will express and facilitate convergence — lays the groundwork for accommodating a profound and meaningful learning experience. One way of examining this convergence is by employing the Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison et al., 1999).[1] Put forth at the turn of the millennium, the framework provides a foundation through which to establish an atmosphere of curated support. While much has changed and evolved in the last 20 years when it comes to how we learn and interact online, the model still serves as an excellent yardstick with which we can guide our thinking.

Community of Inquiry displayed as a Venn diagram with three parts: "Social Presence", "Cognitive Presence", and "Teaching Presence". Description to follow in captions.
Caption: Community of Inquiry is displayed as a Venn diagram with three circles: “Social Presence”, “Cognitive Presence”, and “Teaching Presence”. At the intersection of the three circles is “Educational Experience.” At the intersection of “Social “Presence” and “Cognitive Presence” is “Supporting Discourse.” At the intersection of “Cognitive Presence” and “Teaching Presence” is “Selecting Content.” Finally, at the intersection of “Social Presence” and “Teaching Presence” is “Setting Climate.”
Source: Adaptation of Community of Inquiry presented as a Venn diagram. Adapted from Garrison, Anderson, Archer 1999

In this module, we’re going to explore the three tenets of the Community of Inquiry (social presence, teaching presence and cognitive presence), how they relate to online learning and how they work together to create an authentic and consequential learning experience.

Social Presence

As defined by the article’s authors, social presence refers to community members’ ability “to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves … as “real people”” (Garrison, et al., 1999, p. 89).[2] While, hopefully, all the learners in your course will be “real people,” established social presence is what allows those real humans to represent themselves honestly and authentically. Co-creating communication guidelines and the utilization of engagement-oriented tools (things we covered in the previous chapter) work in service of this form of presence. By inviting learners to work together in shaping the course itself, your community is set up from the get-go as a safe space that welcomes a multiplicity of identities and methods of expression. How the socialization gets actualized and expressed will likely be as unique as your course!


Below you’ll find a presentation with a few different suggestions for ways you can shape new kinds of spaces to better serve the things that make your course special.

In the interactive element below, use the menu bar (☰) on the left or the arrows on the right to view the contents on all pages (3).

Activity: Spacing Out

Think about what kind of social environment you wish to cultivate. Will it be a long, sustained conversation? Or something shorter that will see people driving through and dropping off? Will the conversations be woven into the fabric of the course later? Or will they take on a more ephemeral format? Figuring out the qualities of the prospective conversation in advance will allow you to more easily select the necessary software/tools with which to fashion the space and guide your learners. If you’re having trouble, consider the showcase found in the Tool Dreamin’ section.

Even if you work to fashion a space that isn’t specifically geared toward the learning goals and course material, providing learners with multiple means to talk, emote and express themselves will do much to generate social presence within your community. Keep in mind, however, that even if you’ve collaboratively created guidelines for respectful communication, things can sometimes get messy. Your management or guidance of these additional spaces is important. Establishing social presence isn’t a “set it and forget it” activity. It’s a form of cultivation that most assuredly requires your engagement. Where you set things up and guide learners, what you draw attention to, how you facilitate meaning: your own presence will be imperative in creating a unique learning experience.

Teaching Presence

With possible tools and spatial configurations in mind, you might be already considering the ways in which general socialization and your instructor presence will intertwine. Even a well-designed course with a fine-tuned sense of additional emotive space can falter without the presence of an instructor. It’s always important to remember that no matter how much planning and pre-work you put into your course, without having you there to grease the wheels and facilitate the experience, your learners will likely feel disheartened and maybe even a little lost. Apart from the more conventional practice of how to best structure an online course, teaching presence refers to the process of supporting and enhancing your community’s pursuit and exploration of the course’s learning goals (Garrison, 1999, p. 90).[3] All of which is simply to say that even after charting a course, every ship needs a captain.

Let’s say you’ve set up discussion boards for your course, and you’ve populated them with thought provoking and stimulating conversation starters. You’ve set them all up to be time-released in accordance with the syllabus schedule. You’ve even found funny, cute little GIFs that reference jokes that you’ve shared with your learners. If you’re not present on the boards to guide and nudge the conversation as it evolves, that conversation might not be serving the goals of the course. Without your intervention, gross misunderstandings of core concepts might get perpetuated, or polite disagreements might flourish into full-blown hateful arguments. Being present will not only afford you the opportunity to get ahead of the decision curve when it comes to moderation of these social spaces, but it will also provide you with moments in which to reaffirm understanding and help course correct wayward learners. Whether it’s a question regarding course material, or confusion about scheduling and tool usage, as a leader of your community you’ll be responsible for directing and channeling the energy of these interactions.

Select a topic below, marked with an arrowhead, to reveal more information.

If you find yourself faced with a crisis of intervention, ask yourself the following questions:

When things get a little murky, you can always reflect on the shared values that you’ve identified with your learners. If your actions as a leader and moderator of the learning experience deviate too wildly from the tenets you’ve curated for your community, learners might not feel comfortable conversing in the space you’ve provided. Being able to start a new dialog or even reassess an old one might become necessary as the course evolves and takes on new shapes.

Remember that not all problems will be bobbing along on the surface — brightly lit up with alarm bells sounding. The very qualities that make online courses accessible and powerful are the very things that could present as challenges to learners (self-directed learning free of traditional physical or temporal restraints). Even if your LMS is not equipped with robust tracking, spotting and reaching out to learners that appear to be struggling (or not participating at all) is a great way to establish presence in a more direct manner. In a more visible way, regularly utilizing announcements and mass-email features is a great way to maintain an ongoing discourse with your community and invite comments or questions as you progress through the course.

Activity: Message in a Bottle

Try to think of an instance when you had to make a judgement call in a course. It could be a time when you added to a discussion or had to moderate one that was going off the rails. Maybe you overstepped in your feedback or were wracked over the best way to guide one of your learners. Maybe everything was going swimmingly and you’ve since worked to nudge and massage things so as to further replicate that atmosphere. Use the reflection prompt below, describe what happened, how it made you feel, and how you best approached the solution. No matter how unique the circumstance, that question of presence is likely something that other teachers have experienced (or will).

Cognitive Presence

Within the Community of Inquiry framework, cognitive presence refers to our learner’s ability “to construct meaning through sustained communication” (Garrison, 1999, p. 89).[4] While it might seem like a bit of a no-brainer, this notion cuts to the core of the collaborative ethos we’ve been exploring in this module and the previous one. Positioning the material and facilitating surrounding conversation in a supportive way is what will allow your course to become something more than a collection of facts and tasks.

In her book Designing Culture, Anne Balsamo preaches the imperative need to think about digital technologies not simply as a pipeline through which to pump content or material, but instead

explore the ways in which these technologies are implicated in the reconfiguration of knowledge production across domains of human culture.[5]

Your course serving as a site of convergence ought to occur naturally because of your deliberate attention to the enablement of authenticity. The creation and maintenance of spaces in which to authentically express oneself, your honest and emblematic embodiment of the co-created course values and communication guidelines — these conscious qualities of design enable profound meaning-making to occur within your community.

So far, we’ve discussed a few different ways in that the design of your course will facilitate the convergence of presence. Making new spaces (possibly using software or tools) allows new and different types of conversation to take place that might have been otherwise inaccessible. Additionally, we explored the ways in which establishing instructor presence can keep students engaged and improve the fecundity of the course by encouraging new insights and ideas.

One way of having learners articulate their cognition is with authentic forms of assessment. Authentic assessment will ask learners to take relevant course content and explore, assess and create with it, rather than merely understand or recall information. In revised versions of Bloom’s Taxonomy, we see a scaffolding that begins with information acquisition and ends with active performance. By crafting assessment strategies with this trajectory in mind, learners will be able to develop their understanding of the subject matter while creating inherently meaningful (and unique) relationships between the material and each other.

It’s important to remember that these more demanding, authentic forms of assessments are at the top rungs not because they are a separate stratum, but because learners build their way up to them. How can you create without first gathering your materials? Moreover, the nature of your assessments will likely be somewhat informed by the constraints of the course itself.

Select a topic below, marked with an arrowhead, to reveal more information.

Here are a few things to keep in mind before you let your imagination run wild:

Activity: Aesthetic Synthesis

At the outset of this module, the Community of Inquiry is presented as a Venn diagram. This is because, in order to put forward a meaningful educational experience, we are required to craft a space in which all the aforementioned forms of presence converge in a finely tuned balancing act. Without instructor presence, your community might quickly fall astray. Without the social presence, your learners will have difficulty in generating meaningful connections and finding a sense of community at all. And without cognitive presence, your learners might struggle in articulating what they learned. All three tenets work together in harmony — two out of three simply doesn’t cut it. In the final activity of this module, we ask that you sit down and map out what the Community of Inquiry looks like in service of your course. You can have at it with a pen and paper, fire up Photoshop, or try out a specialized diagramming tool like LucidChart. Taking what you’ve learned so far, visually explore the ways in which your unique learning community can be designed to converge.

Tip: If you need an example to get you going, take a look at Joop van Schie’s concept map of the Community of Inquiry framework [PDF] itself. Additionally, if you’re struggling with identifying what these things look like with your course, remember to try out TRIZ — identify what you don’t want and go from there.

Key Takeaways

Cultivating a community of inquiry successfully will require the convergence of all three forms of presence (social, cognitive, teaching). Your role as the instructor should be thought of as a leader and as a facilitator, rather than as someone that schedules and administers tasks.

Strong communication serves as the foundation on which learners can authentically create meaning.

  1. Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87–105.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Balsamo, A. (2011). Designing culture: The technological imagination at work. Duke University Press.


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Designing and Developing High-Quality Student-Centred Online/Hybrid Learning Experiences by Seneca College; Humber College; Kenjgewin Teg; Trent University; and Nipissing University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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