A Robust Virtual Experience

Online instruction and learning are significantly different than the swift transitions to virtual environments that occurs in response to emergency situations. Intentional, well-designed online courses involve an immense amount of planning and preparation that is most often not possible during a crisis or similar disruption.

Presence in Online Teaching & Learning

The Community of Inquiry theoretical framework can help instructors improve student learning and satisfaction in all courses, but especially those online  where spontaneous interaction among students and between students and faculty are less likely. A social constructivist model for creating meaningful online learning experiences, the framework focuses on three critical and consistent elements – social, teaching and cognitive presence.

These definitions of types of presence first emerged in 2006 from the work of D. Randy Garrison, a retired professor from the University of Calgary. He also has published extensively on teaching and learning in adult, higher and distance education contexts, and has won several awards. In this model, students and instructors are at the heart of effective learning, while technology is a supplement used to amplify their presence and engagement online.

Social Presence

Social presence refers to the ability of students and instructors to establish a community within the course, even though they are not in a face-to-face environment. Built on a foundation of trust and presence, individuals project themselves and perceive others as three-dimensional people through open communication, affective expression and group cohesion.


To develop social presence in your online course, start by sharing information about yourself to begin building connections. You can share details about your family, pets, interests and who you are as a person.

Also, encourage students in your course to share as well, while always allowing flexibility around which aspects of a student’s background or social identity they choose to share. Design activities and assignments that allow students opportunities to share more about themselves, their values, strengths, and personal and professional goals.

Course Activity Examples
  • Introductions and sharing in the week before and during the first week of class
  • Include a discussion thread or forum for informal exchanges between students
  • Make space throughout the course for students to discuss or reflect on ways that their individual values, beliefs and perspectives intersect with, complicate, or challenge course topics, materials or frameworks

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence refers to the design and organization of your course and activities, course delivery and hands-on instruction. It encompasses the work you do before and during your course. Teaching presence comes through in your syllabus, assignments, readings, discussions, resources and other course materials and also is a part of everything you do to guide, support and shape students’ experiences. Effective teaching presence sets clear expectations and provides supportive guidance.

Course Activity Examples
  • Set clear expectations for students, including specifics about synchronous class session etiquette, how participation is defined, and in what ways and with what frequency students should engage with the course Moodle site or other materials
  • Coach and guide students on how to keep pace with their learning and think deeply about what they know and why they know it
  • Encourage questions about activities and assignments
  • Use announcement tools to ensure students are aware of responsibilities, due dates and other activities
  • Use email or other private communications for confidential correspondence and gentle and firm guidance, as needed
  • Provide supportive feedback that communicates your belief in the student’s ability to succeed, and include follow-up assignments that provide a clear opportunity for students to apply that feedback as they continue to refine their skills and knowledge

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence refers to the extent to which students are able to construct meaning through sustained communication, reflection and discourse. In a course community, attention, effort and commitment is required of instructors and students. Cognitive presence integrates existing learning with new learning, which requires knowledge, reflection, discussion and confirming meaning.

Course Activity Examples

Set high expectations for student inquiry and expectations in the course
Evaluate student responses and provide feedback or questions that encourage further thought and analysis of ideas
With input from students, strive ensure that project outcomes are relevant, long-lasting and meaningful (authentic assessments)

Source & References


Pierce College’s Transition to Teaching Online website includes extensive details about Garrison’s Community of Inquiry theoretical framework. Visit the site for more course activity examples and additional information. 

Noted References

These definitions of types of presence first emerged in 2006 from the work of D. Randy Garrison, a retired professor from the University of Calgary. He also has published extensively on teaching and learning in adult, higher and distance education contexts, and has won several awards.

Garrison, D. R. (2006a). Online collaboration principles. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(1) pp. 25-34.  Accessed August 12, 2015 at http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Garrison, D. R. (2006b) Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. Accessed August 13, 2015 at http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ842688.pdf