D. Randy Garrison
April 3, 2019

Without question the most important development of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) theoretical framework is the growing evidence as to its construct validity (see September, 2018 post). With this in mind I was very pleased to see the publication of a study that provided a new approach to validating the CoI framework (Dempsey & Jang, 2019). The primary goal of this study was to “re-evaluate the factor structure,... and explore the relationships among the three Presences” (p. 62). This thought provoking research provides new insights into the advancement of the structure of the presences (subfactors) and the validation of the framework.

Dempsey and Jang (2019) argue that to “understand communities of inquiry... it is critical to understand the contributions and interactions of each of the subfactors” (p. 65). The novel approach of this research was to approach the validation of the CoI framework from the perspective of the components of the core presences (hierarchical confirmatory factor analysis). As such, a 10-factor model reflecting the sub-components of the presences achieved an excellent fit (with elimination of some items); that is, the pattern conformed to the structural components or subfactors of the presences. Further examination revealed three clusters consistent with the traditional CoI framework. This three factor model also proved to be “theoretically more interpretable” (p 69). Their conclusion is that “the 10-factor model and three-factor higher order model fit much better than the often accepted and tested first-order three-factor model,... [suggesting] that teaching, social, and cognitive presence are each multidimensional and hierarchical” (p. 71). The effect is that “accounting for the 10 subfactors offers important insights as researchers learn about the contribution of each subfactor to the higher order construct” (pp. 71-72).

The result of this approach is that this study established the validity of the three presences but with the caveat that the “subfactors did not demonstrate clear divergent validity” (p.72). That is, individual survey items need to be considered further. For example it was found that “the social presence subscale, in comparison with the teaching and cognitive presence subscales, was found to be significantly less well-defined” (p. 72). In this regard, the authors state that “Further research should continue to parse each item, each subfactor, and the factors more generally to see how the CoI survey might be further refined in these directions.” (p. 72).

Another related issue to refining items relates to the theoretical consistency of the construction of teaching presence (TP) items where most begin with the phrase “The instructor.” The point is that using the word instructor does not appear to be consistent with the collaborative constructivist foundation of a CoI where teaching responsibility is distributed within the learning community. As such, the authors state that the TP items should be revised “to reflect the construct’s commitment to the distribution of teaching authority and responsibility” (p.74). The challenge, however, is to recognize that the CoI framework reflects an educational learning experience that inherently must recognize the legitimate role of the formal instructor while encouraging learners to assume the role and function of an instructor. This seeming contradiction or at least conflict makes it very difficult to revise the wording without creating confusion as to the legitimate function the item is referencing. Many of these functions are, at least initially, the primary responsibility of the formal instructor notwithstanding the intent to create a collaborative learning experience. Therefore, with regard to revising the TP items, I am concerned with diminishing the validity of an established questionnaire in order to gain theoretical clarity. That said, a possible solution might be to use “leadership” in place of instructor? To be clear, I make this suggestion with reservation about how this might be interpreted by respondents and that we may lose more than we gain. In any case, I shall leave this for others to decide and test how revising the TP items, to improve theoretical consistency, will impact the validity of the questionnaire.

Finally, from the perspective of the causal relationships among the presences, Dempsey and Yang (2019) found that social presence had a mediating relationship between teaching and cognitive presence as had been reported in previous studies. Moreover, they state that the “results indicated that social presence had a statistically significant positive effect on cognitive presence” (p. 71). This suggests that social presence can have an important influence on academic success. Parenthetically, evidence to this point can be found in a recent study by Boston, et al. (2019). Therefore, although social presence is conceived as a mediating factor in a CoI, its impact on success should not be underestimated. On another issue of causation, Dempsey and Yang (2019) argue that if framed from the perspective of shared metacognition, “teaching presence might make the most conceptual sense as the outcome of a community of inquiry” (p. 74). This certainly supports my belief that cognitive presence in terms of the awareness and management of collaborative inquiry (ie, shared metacognition) provides a sound foundation for sustained learning.

In conclusion, notwithstanding the constructive suggestions of the Dempsey and Yang study, their research ultimately provides validation for the CoI theoretical framework. With regard to constructive suggestions, I highly recommend a close read of this article with regard to refining and revising the CoI survey. This is one of the more significant contributions to the development of the CoI theoretical framework and its validation.


Boston, W., Diaz, S. R., Gibson, A. M., Ice, P., Richardson, K, & Swan, K. (2019). An Exploration of the Relationship Between Indicators of the Community of Inquiry Framework and Retention in Online Programs. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 14(1), Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330985126

Dempsey, P. R., & Jang, J. (2019). Re-examining the construct validity and causal relationships of teaching, cognitive, and social presence in Community of Inquiry framework. Online Learning Journal, 23(1), 62-79. Retrieved from https://olj.onlinelearningconsortium.org/index.php/olj/article/view/1419/786



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.