Building Online Community

Students experience online and hybrid courses through a series of connected interactions: student to student, student to instructor, and student to content interactions. The interactions have been explored in two theoretical models: the Community of Inquiry Framework and Swan’s Model of Interactivity and Learning Online.

The Community of Inquiry Framework suggests a way to understand how education is experienced under various educational contexts where there are differences in discipline, applications, and communications methods (online or blended) (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). Swan’s Model of Interactivity is adapted from the Community of Inquiry Framework, and is similar. It looks at each of the three areas as a form of interactivity that is crucial to meaningful online learning in computer mediated environments.

In planning for the student experience in an online or hybrid course it can be crucial to consider how the course meets these three elements for building an online community:

1. Student to Content & Cognitive Presence

2. Student to Instructor & Teaching Presence

3. Student to Student & Social Presence

1. Student to Content & Cognitive Presence

Tips for Improving Cognitive Presence & Supporting Student to Content Interactions

  • Communicate course goals and learning objectives

  • Use a variety of presentation styles

  • Provide multiple opportunities for practice/exercises

  • Provide hands-on problems with real world applications

  • Allow for sharing of relevant personal experiences

  • Encourage integration of information from various sources

  • Allow learner control of pacing (when appropriate)

  • Require explanations or reasoning of solutions, not simply answers

  • Plan frequent low-stakes assessment / feedback opportunities

  • Feedback should be clear and timely

  • Consistent layout in materials and navigation


2) Student to Instructor & Teaching Presence



Tips for Improving Teaching Presence & Supporting Student to Instructor Interactions

Design & Organization

  • Include introductory videos, personalized notes

  • Provide narrated PowerPoint presentations

  • Ensure course site is organized, clear, easy to navigate

  • Plan frequent opportunities for public and private communications

  • Review and consider the course/module objectives —ask  ‘does this discussion question support the course/module objective or focus?’ Students dislike busy work— discussion questions without a focus and purpose lead to shallow responses

  • Make discussions a significant part of course grade (extrinsic motivation)

  • Develop solid rubrics for grading discussion participation

  • Require student to respond to other student postings

Facilitating Discourse

  • Include icebreakers - introduce yourself - model behavior

  • Establish netiquette policy

  • Be timely - leave ‘evidence’ that you are present

  • Create questions that will elicit more than one answer or solution

  • Frame questions as open-ended. Begin questions with how, what or why

  • Summarize discussions

  • Don’t be the center of every discussion - don’t respond to all posts

Direct Instruction

  • Provide content-expert support

  • Timely and supportive feedback

  • Refer students to information resources

  • Organize activities that allow the students to construct the content in their own minds and personal contexts.

  • Consider using synchronous tools for office hours

3) Student to Student & Social Presence

Tips for Improving Social Presence and Student Interactions with Peers


  • Post introductions and expectations early.

  • Ask students to provide support for responses with examples/references, e.g. personal experiences, stories or other sources.

  • Share your own personal stories and professional experiences

  • Instructor and students should upload/share a profile pic

  • Address students by name

  • Create questions that encourage students to voice their opinion, perspective, personal experience

  • Incorporate discussions where students build pieces of their own projects, papers, etc. (e.g., ‘share your research topic and 3 reasons why it is relevant for your personal development’)

Open Communication

  • Create a “commons area” for off-topic discussions.

  • Provide a risk-free environment for sharing and exchange of ideas. (netiquette and peer review guidelines)

  • Use technology to support open discussions, Q&As (e.g., chat, Adobe Connect, etc.)

  • Summarize discussion threads weekly and participate throughout the week

Group Cohesion

  • Use appropriately sized small groups for discussions and activities

  • Ask or provide opportunities for student to share about their background and learning goals

  • Ask questions that encourage students to engage with other students in the class

  • Ask questions that prompt students to generate lists of information/data as a class

  • Provide assignments and opportunities for students to work collaboratively

  • Have small groups identify a team name and develop a team charter at the beginning of the course

Further Reading

Community of Inquiry Framework website:

Akyol, Z., & Garrison, D. R. (2014). The development of a community of inquiry over time in an online course: Understanding the progression and integration of social, cognitive and teaching presence. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks,, 12(3-4), 3-22. Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R. (1991). Critical thinking and adult education: A conceptual model for developing critical thinking in adult learners. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 10(4), 287-303. Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87-105. doi:DOI: 10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons

Hosler, K. A., & Arend, B. D. (2012). The importance of course design, feedback, and facilitation: Student perceptions of the relationship between teaching presence and cognitive presence. Educational Media International, 49(3), 217-229. doi:10.1080/09523987.2012.738014

Kanuka, H., & Garrison, D. R. (2004). Cognitive presence in online learning. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(2), 21-39.

Meskill, C. (2013). Online teaching and learning : Sociocultural perspectives. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing

Moore, M. G. (2013). Handbook of distance education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Swan, K., & Ice, P. (2010). The community of inquiry framework ten years later: Introduction to the special issue. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1-2), 1-4. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2009.11.00

Tolu, A. T. (2013). Creating effective communities of inquiry in online courses. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 70, 1049-1055. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.01.15

Back to Top