Loyola University Chicago

Faculty Center for Ignatian Pedagogy

Building Community

In their seminal piece Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) discuss how to design successful higher education experiences that incorporate what was then described as computer mediated communication. The foundation of successful higher education experiences”, Garrison and colleagues explain, is a community of inquiry (CoI). Since the publication of Garrison and colleagues’ 2000 article, numerous researchers have used the CoI framework to examine how to create meaningful learning experiences, particularly in online and blended environments. As you can see in the image below, the three elements of the CoI are cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence.

 Community of Inquiry

Image retrieved from The Communty of Inquiry Multi-Author Blog

The three elements are interrelated. To establish cognitive presence, for example, there should be a teaching presence and a social presence. 

Cognitive Presence 

Cognitive presence is the “extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, p. 89). Cognitive presence is the foundation on which critical thinking is built. Developing students’ critical thinking skills is the principle aim of higher education. One example of how to build cognitive presence is through skillful discussion design and facilitation. For examples, view the asychronous communication and discussion area.

Social Presence  

Social presence is “the ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as “'real people’” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, p. 89). The degree to which students feel comfortable in the learning environment affects their engagement in learning. Particularly in online classes, social presence and student-to-student interaction combats loneliness and cultivates community. One example of how to create social presence is to create a discussion forum or other opportunity for students to introduce themselves and get to know each other. For examples, view the asychronous communication and discussion area.

Instructor Presence 

When we teach face-to-face classes, we can show students that we are paying attention to them through nonverbal cues like eye contact and facial expression. In the physical location of a classroom, there is little distance between instructors and students. In online and blended classes, instructors and students may not be in the same physical location or time zone, and there are no verbal cues like eye contact and facial expression to communicate attention. To make up for the physical distance between students and instructors, being "present" in the course is one of our critical responsibilities as online instructors.  Teaching presence, also known as instructor presence, “includes the selection, organization, and primary presentation of course content as well as the design and development of learning activities and assessment” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, p. 90).  The way in which we facilitate the class is another aspect of instructor presence. Here are a number of suggestions on how to demonstrate instructor presence.

How do instructors demonstrate presence? 

Instructors can demonstrate their presence by providing feedback, communicating regularly, and facilitating the formation of a community.  

Giving feedback 

  • Give timely feedback on discussions and assignments  
  • Request feedback from students to find out how things are going

Communicating regularly 

  • Give updates about course activities and assignments 
  • Open each week with a brief introduction about what students will learn  
  • Give students the opportunity to see each other and their instructor in real time by holding synchronous sessions  

Creating community 

  • Use humor and be friendly
  • Use a conversational tone when communicating with students so that they feel at ease  
  • Share relevant professional stories to help students understand content  
  • Publish an instructor biography  
  • Write a letter that welcomes students to the course  
  • Log into the course daily 
  • List contact information and specify when students can expect a response  
  • Hold office hours  
  • Create a forum that allows students to introduce themselves
  • Respond to each student in the introductions forum and ask the students to respond to their peers  

Asynchronous Communication and Online Discussion 

In blended and online courses, students and instructors communicate asynchronously. Unlike synchronous, face-to-face communication where students might receive immediate responses to questions from us, asynchronous communication usually involves delayed responses since communication is happening online and not all users sign-in at the same time. Online discussion is a primary form of asynchronous communication in online and blended courses.  Conversation between students and their peers and between students and the instructor that takes place in an online discussion helps build a community, a particularly important aspect of online classes. Here are some tips for how to use discussion to create community and engage students.  

Tips for facilitating discussion

  • Respond to each student’s post. By participating regularly, advancing the conversation, and challenging students to consider opposing views, we model meaningful participation. Particularly early on in the course, instructors can set the tone for high levels of participation and encourage meaningful dialog.
  • Post wrap up or summary notes about the discussion at the end of each week. The summaries show students that instructors are paying attention and reinforce key ideas. Or, ask the students to write the summaries. The summaries can be text, audio, or video. For help with creating audio or video summaries, visit ITRS.

Discussion questions and activities 

Here are some tips about how to structure discussions.

  • Use open-ended questions that invite discussion. Try to avoid yes or no questions or questions that just ask students to share facts.
  • Create questions that elicit a variety of perspectives
  • Ask students to create questions or present content to discuss to help them take ownership of the discussion and to share items they find interesting. 

Evaluating discussion 

Use rubrics to assess students’ participation in discussion. Let students know what the requirements are for answering the discussion questions and for engaging with their peers during discussion. Be clear about when initial posts and responses to peers are due. Include expectations for participation in discussion in the syllabus.  Here are a few sample rubrics for evaluating discussion.

Discussing sensitive topics

When we play an active role in the course and in the course discussion forums, we can monitor the tone and content of the discussion and make sure that none of the students dominate the conversation or steer the conversation off course.  Being explicit about the type of communication that constitutes a respectful environment is important so that students know what types of behavior are not acceptable.   The Inside Higher Education article “Fostering Open Minds Online” (Ferber, 2017) offers several guidelines we can share with students to prepare them for conversations about topics that are often sensitive.  

  • Be open to having opinions and values questioned 
  • Engage in dialog with peers in an effort to understand others’ point of view 
  • Use I statements to describe perspectives 
  • Stop and think before responding to a discussion post that is upsetting 

Concluding Thoughts

Particularly in online and blended courses, discussions are one of the primary ways we engage with our students and our students engage with each other. Investing the time in setting up a meaningful discussion, then, will pay dividends toward building dialog and community in an online or blended course.




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