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D. Randy Garrison
December 7, 2022

The evidence is becoming clear regarding the success or failure of online learning duringCOVID-19. Notwithstanding the challenges of time constraints and professional development support associated with mounting online learning environments, the primary educational lesson from the forced adoption of online learning duringCOVID-19 is that there was a lack of understanding and appreciation for the value of engagement in discourse grounded in a secure learning community. I argue here that the evidence is growing that insufficient engagement in online learning environments during the covid pandemic resulted in unsatisfactory deep and meaningful learning experiences and outcomes. I use the term engagement in the broadest sense and suggest that deep and meaningful engagement is best achieved in a learning community as described by the Community of Inquiry (CoI)framework. My conclusion is that the educational response to COVID-19 forced an online learning experiment that ultimately drew attention to the need for an engaged learning community consistent with the collaborative-constructivist premise of the CoI framework.

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework indicates the importance of communicative engagement socially and cognitively for a deep and meaningful learning process. In a previous post I provided evidence to support the conclusion that engagement significantly predicts both completion and success rates ( It was also shown that the CoI framework is a validated guide to design and deliver engaged learning experiences online. In another post I pointed out that a CoI is predicated upon providing professional development to faculty who have not participated in online learning ( stated that “Invariably when online learning does not go well it is a consequence of a lack of community and faculty development”. Conversely, when learners are actively engaged in reflective interaction the benefits are invaluable (Chadha, 2022). It is to these points that I direct the following observations.

I suggest that the greatest mistake traditional educational institutions made during the covid pandemic was to simply apply traditional presentational approaches to learning in an online context. This approach did not appreciate the crucial importance of social engagement and critical discourse in a coherent and purposeful community of learners. Moreover, I believe this is the primary reason for many of the online learning deficiencies and failures during the covid pandemic. A good example is the study of primary and high school students in a largely self-regulated environment that is typical of too many forced moves to online learning during the covid pandemic. A study that I believe reflects many of the panic adoptions of online learning found that the greatest difficulty was alack of interaction and communication (He, Zhao & Jiang, 2022). They also note that “many teachers lack experience and preparation for teaching online[and] … do not place enough emphasis on interaction or even know how to design interactive activities, which leads to a lack of student interaction with teachers” (p. 14). This was reinforced in another study of a COVID-19 lock down that concluded there was “ineffective interaction” (Kan, Degotardi, & Li,2022).

To reinforce my position regarding the importance of engagement, Goode, Nieuwoudt and Roche (2022)concluded that “behavioural engagement with online learning modules has a positive effect on academic success and is a significant predictor of a higher final score” (p. 76). Moreover, regarding the issue of engagement and discourse, Han, Ellis and Guan (2022) explored learning orientations and found that “students' average collaborations significantly contributed to their academic achievement [and those with an orientation to understanding] had more collaborations and stayed in a better position in terms of capacity to gather information” (p. 1). More specific to the covid pandemic, Mavroudi and Papanikolaou (2022) studied online learning approaches of instructors during the pandemic and found a significant difference in terms of instructional dialogue. Their concluding recommendation was the adoption of “… social-constructivist approaches that can sustain high-quality instructional dialogue” (p. 1) and creating faculty development programs that will help instructors with online dialogue. Regarding lessons learned, Lobos et al. (2023) in a study of over 600undergraduate students concluded that new learning scenarios should consider active and collaborative strategies with a diversity of feedback. Finally, with reference to COVID-19 and adult learners, Hunt et al. (2022) concluded “that the design principle of maximising social interaction, at peer to peer and peer to educator levels, resulted in an enhanced student experience” (p. 1).

Admittedly the previous references are a recent convenience sample of research that supports my position regarding the importance of engagement in learning satisfaction and success. However, the evidence is accumulating and it reinforces previous CoI research in that adopting a collaborative and engaging approach is essential for a successful online learning experience. For example, a study of COVID-19disruption in higher education revealed instructional strategies related to the three CoI presences portrayed an effective switch to online learning (Auf,2023). In addition, it must be emphasized that it is also crucial to provide faculty development direction and support in terms of creating and sustaining a trusting community of learners. Educators must be provided with a clear understanding of the value of, and how, to create an engaged (collaborative)learning community if they are to be able to encourage and guide learners to actively assume responsibility to collaboratively regulate their learning online. When adopting online learning during covid pandemic, a study of metacognition emphatically emphasized “that online teachers should first analyse their students’ specific needs, adopt appropriate and innovative teaching methods, and redesign their courses, instead of directly transforming their course to the blended, flipped, or fully online form” (Tsai, et al., 2022).

Raising the issue of metacognition suggests another factor central to a community of inquiry. As important as engagement and discourse is, we must go beyond simple engagement and focus on the collaborative inquiry process itself. Online learners must go deeper and become active inquirers or “student-researchers” as Canabarro et al. (2022) suggest. That is, they must also become metacognitively aware of the inquiry process and begin to assume the responsibility of self and co-regulation. This requires a teaching presence that facilitates and guides learners to understand and adopt metacognitive inquiry strategies and skills. Metacognitive awareness of the inquiry process adds another crucial element to understanding the limitations of our educational response to the covid pandemic and draws attention to the importance of faculty development to create the essential teaching presence for a successful and satisfying online learning experience.

The inference is that the true failure of the stress test of online learning during COVID-19 was a lack of understanding of the parameters and demands of such a challenge which precipitated an inadequate educational response. To reiterate, too often there was inadequate engagement in critical discourse and a metacognitive understanding of the inquiry process. I would argue that only through developmental support can educators be provided with the perspective and methods to ensure a collaboratively engaged inquiry approach to learning online. Ultimately, the best hope is to provide a coherent perspective and understanding of online learning communities to guide the creation and sustainability of an engaged community of inquiry.

In conclusion, as much as I believe the judgement of online learning associated with its rapid adoption during COVID-19 was unfairly put to the test, it did bring welcomed attention to the possibilities of both online and blended approaches to learning. The shift to online learning opened the door to more flexible and effective educational approaches when maximized by engaged learning communities. Retrospectively, it is clear there was a glaring need for a theoretical grounding of online learning approaches and practices. Theoretical grounding of online and blended learning provides the structure and rationale to rethink classroom approaches regarding engaging learners in deep and meaningful collaborative activities in an online environment. Frameworks such as the CoI have the potential to provide the coherence, understanding, and the methodology to provide design considerations and practical guidelines across various disciplines and contexts for educators to deliver a fully engaged online learning experience.


Auf, T. A. (2023). Transactional highereducation partnerships in the COVID-19 era: Students’ rating of an online andmodular learning programme. European Journal of Education Studies, 10(1).

Canabarro, A. P. F., van der Westhuizen, A., Zanni, F., Abbadi, A.,Shabnab, S. & Alvesson, H. M. (2023). “We were like Zoom beings”: Insiderperspectives on student learning during the initial shift to online classes inSweden at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cogent Education, 10:1,DOI: 10.1080/2331186X.2022.2160116

Chadha, A. (2022). Pedagogical Interrelationships: The TransformedLandscape of Deliberations. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching andLearning, 22(2).

Goode, E., Nieuwoudt, J.,& Roche, T. (2022). Does online engagementmatter? The impact of interactive learning modules and synchronous classattendance on student achievement in an immersive delivery model. AustralasianJournal of Educational Technology, 38(4), 76-94.

Han, F., Ellis, R. A., & Guan, E.(2022). Patterns of students' collaborations byvariations in their learning orientations in blended course designs: How is itassociated with academic achievement? Journal of Computer Assisted Learning,1– 14.

He, J., Zhao, H., & Jiang, F. (2022). Analysis of the Status andInfluencing Factors of Online Learning. Canadian Journal of Learning andTechnology, 48(4), 1-18.

Hunt, I., Power, J., Young, K., & Ryan, A. (2022). Optimisingindustry learners’ online experiences–lessons for a post-pandemic world. EuropeanJournal of Engineering Education, 1-16.

Kan, L., Degotardi, S., & Li, H. (2022). Similar Impact,Different Readiness: A Comparative Study of the Impact of COVID-19 on ECTEPractice. Sustainability, 14(21), 14078.

Lobos, K., Cobo-Rendón, R., García-Álvarez, D., Maldonado-Mahauad,J., & Bruna, C. (2023). Lessons Learned from the Educational Experienceduring COVID-19 from the Perspective of Latin American University Students. Sustainability,15(3), 2341.

Mavroudi, A., & Papanikolaou, K. (2022). A Case Study on HowDistance Education May Inform Post-Pandemic University Teaching. TheInternational Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 23(4),57-74.

Tsai, C. W., Lee, L. Y., Cheng, Y. P., Lin, C. H., Hung, M. L.,& Lin, J. W. (2022). Integrating online meta-cognitive learning strategyand team regulation to develop students’ programming skills, academicmotivation, and refusal self-efficacy of Internet use in a cloud classroom. UniversalAccess in the Information Society, 1-16.



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 fifteen books; 94 articles; 68 book chapters; 40 conference proceedings; and more than 100 academic presentations. His major books are: Garrison, D. R. (2017). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice (3rd Edition); Garrison, D. R. (2016). Thinking Collaboratively: Learning in a Community of Inquiry; Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles and guidelines; Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (2000). A transactional perspective on teaching-learning: A framework for adult and higher education. Curriculum vitae


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The Community of Inquiry is a project of Athabasca University, Mount Royal University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, as well as researchers and members of the CoI community.