D. Randy Garrison
May 13, 2019


                Thispost builds on a previous post regarding the outcomes of a community of inquirylearning experience (July 2018). Notwithstanding the encouraging findingsaddressed in the previous post, I suggested at the time that this is animportant topic requiring further research. As such I was very pleased to see severalrecent articles that focused on outcomes in collaborative learningenvironments. The first article by Sofer and Cohen (2019) looked at completionof an online course and pass/fail outcomes. They concluded that engagement significantly predicted bothcompletion and success. This is interesting in itself but the crucial question Ihad was how does one create engaging learning experiences? In this regard I believethat the Community of Inquiry (CoI) theory is a popular and validated guide todesign and deliver engaged learning experiences. In fact this is supported bythe second study I want to describe that explores success in the form ofretention but also provides insight into the influence of engagement inretention (Boston et al., 2019).

                TheBoston et al. (2019) study provides a fascinating look at the CoI frameworkfrom the perspective of retention. The premise is that retention in onlinelearning environments is influenced by very different variables compared toface-to-face settings. Using CoI indicators and a wide spectrum of studentrecords it was revealed that “a significant amount of variance in re-enrollmentcan be accounted for by indicators of Social Presence” (p. 3). Furthermore, ofthe other significant indicators “… four were from teaching presence (33% ofall teaching presence indicators) and nine were from cognitive presence (75% ofall cognitive presence indicators)” (p. 13). These findings provide testimony to the value of collaborative learningenvironments and specifically to the efficacy of CoI indicators (especiallysocial presence) to predict success in terms of persistence.

                It is of particular interest tonote the influence of social presence in persistence. The Boston et al. studyfound that responses to the social presence item #16 (Online  or web-based  communication is  an excellent medium  for social  interaction) “account  for over  18%  of the  variance associated  with whether  a  student returned  to studies in thesemester subsequent to completing the survey” (p. 13). The authors state thatthis is “a remarkable finding, especially in light of the sample size obtained”(p. 13). I can attest to the “remarkable” finding that one item of the CoIquestionnaire could account for over 18% of the completion variance. Years agoI was studying dropout in college level programs. I had gathered considerabledata associated with a range of psychosocial variables which were transformedinto five distinct factor scores (Garrison, 1985; 1990). This comprehensive setof measures ended up explaining 18.2% of the persistence/dropout variance. Consideringthat a wide range of distinct variables could only explain 18% of the variance,it is remarkable that one variable could explain the same amount of variance whenpredicting complex behavior such as persistence.

                Ihave great confidence in the findings of this research as I have worked with manyof the authors of this study who have contributed significantly to thedevelopment of the CoI framework. However, while Social Presence (SP) is aninteresting and complex variable, I must reiterate a caveat that I have notedpreviously. I have argued that SP can certainly contribute to creating a senseof community but it can also inhibit critical discourse when participants arereluctant to critically challenge others (Garrison, 2017). This position issupported in another recent study (Lawa, et al., 2019). While SP can improvelearning effectiveness, these authors state that SP also appears “to have weakadverse effects on learning performance” (pp. 9-10). The explanation is that unstructured social discussion may notpositively affect learning performance. This perspective is even more stronglysupported in a study by d’Alessio et al. (2019). These authors found thatbuilding social presence was not sufficient. Their findings suggest “that studentsequally thrive when they feel like they are exchanging ideas with theirinstructor and peers and that they receive feedback on their ideas and work”(p. ?). They also state that their findings support the CoI theoreticalframework. From a practical perspective; “Student interactions and groupdiscussion require clear instructor guidance to keep the student on track andmake social activities effective in achieving learning targets” (Lawa et al., 2-19,p. 10).

                Whendiscussing outcomes associated with a community of inquiry, it is essential toaddress the process or transactional nature of the community. Engagement doesinfluence persistence and predicts a greater chance of success when attentionis paid to a complementary balance among the presences. For example, too muchemphasis on SP can distract from inquiry; similarly, too much teaching presencecan attenuate collaboration. In this regard, the advantage of focusing on abalanced process places the emphasis on the learning transaction and deepapproaches to learning. The added advantage is that undue emphasis is notplaced on outcomes.


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), 3-19. Available from:

d’Alessio, M. A., Lundquist, L. L., Schwartz, J. J., Pedone, V., Pavia, J., & Fleck, J. (latest articles). Social presence enhances student performance in an online geology course but depends on instructor facilitation. Journal of Geoscience Education,

Garrison, D. R. (1985). Predicting dropout in adult basic education using interaction efforts among school and nonschool variables.  Adult Education Quarterly, 36(1), 25-38.

Garrison, D. R. (1990).  Factor structure of variables associated with dropout:  A confirmatory study.  The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 4(1), 1-15.

Lawa, K. M. Y., Gengb, S., & Lic, T. (2019). Student enrollment, motivation and learning performance in a blended learning environment: The mediating effects of social, teaching, and cognitive presence. Computers & Education, 136, 1-12.

Sofer, T., & Cohen, A. (2019). Students' engagement characteristics predict success and completion of online courses. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 35(3), 378-389.



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.