Learner Presence Matters: An Exploration of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) Framework

Concurrent Session 5

Brief Abstract

A mixed-methods research study on the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework builds on prior work by examining how learner characteristics (learner presence) may impact CoI. The results illustrate how faculty and course designers can drive deeper learning through enhancing the CoI presences in online and blended learning environments.


Catherine Honig, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and Chair, MBA Program in National Louis University's College of Professional Studies and Advancement (CPSA). She earned her doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology from Bowling Green State University and has over 25 years of higher education teaching experience. She currently designs and teaches online courses in leadership and I/O psychology, and her research interests place emphasis on high-touch online instruction, student perceptions of online and blended learning, and the impact of EdTech tools on student learning and engagement in online courses. Catherine also serves as the Editor of MERLOT's Psychology Editorial Board.

Extended Abstract

Background & Statement of the Research Problem

The current research study explores the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, a theoretical structure developed to explain the processes leading to online learning effectiveness. The CoI is grounded in a social constructivist tradition that underlines the role of collaborative inquiry in knowledge construction, and research findings suggest that intentional development of three “presences”—teaching presence, social presence, cognitive presence—yields a robust learning experience. An emerging line of research further suggests the value of examining a fourth presence—learner presence—to capture individual learner characteristics that may impact CoI. (See the CoI Blog at https://coi.athabascau.ca/ for a complete review of the CoI framework and published CoI research.)

Though still a subject of debate, research evidence in support of learner presence is accumulating.  In a sample of 3165 undergraduate students, Shea and Bidjerano (2010) found that learners’ perceptions of teaching presence and social presence were significantly correlated with their ratings of self-efficacy (a component of learner presence).  Moreover, the authors compared blended and online courses and found that teaching presence and student self-efficacy were more strongly related in blended (vs. fully online) courses. They concluded the need for expanded teaching presence to support self-efficacy in online students, and they also communicated the value of broadening and further investigating the learner presence construct.

Using a qualitative investigative approach in a blended learning context, Lam (2015) found that students exhibited various self-directed learning behaviors—such as searching for unassigned external resources or collaborating via social media. She termed these behaviors autonomy presence and concluded that this fourth presence advanced student learning.

 Pool, Reitsma & van den Berg (2017) also employed a qualitative research approach to examine learner presence in a blended course whose design was guided by the CoI framework. The authors found that students struggled with self-regulation—such as managing time and coordinating tasks—in the online side of the course. The authors concluded that the lack of self-regulation skills heightened the importance of teaching presence.

These findings speak to the value of the CoI framework in researching, explaining, and developing the processes that contribute to the development of collaborative learning environments. They particularly suggest the value of continued research on learner presence.  The current study aims to build on this line of research by focusing on students’ motivation and attitudes –with particular emphasis on metacognitive self-regulation in the learning process – and examining how these may relate to teacher presence, social presence, and cognitive presence.

Importantly, the current study also employs both quantitative and qualitative assessment of the CoI presences in the context of a single research study, thus heightening the opportunity to observe the CoI presences at the individual course level and to examine the implications of degree of self-regulation among students in different online and blended courses and the quality of the CoI evident in those same courses.

Research Questions

The primary research questions follow.

  • What is the relationship among learner presence and perceptions of the three CoI presences (social, teaching, cognitive)?
  • What relationship does learner presence have to the actual course design (blended/online structures) and participation data?


A university seed grant provided the impetus and resourcing for the current research study. During the Fall and Winter terms of the 2018-19 academic year, 21 MBA students attending both online and blended courses at a Midwestern university completed a voluntary survey designed to explore CoI. Six (6) of the 21 participants also volunteered to participate in structured follow-up interviews designed to deepen the exploration of CoI.

A description of the research context and specific measures appears below.

Context. The research and measurement context is an MBA program in which accelerated courses are offered in both blended and online formats. Data were collected from 11 individual courses in the discipline areas of leadership, marketing, economics, accounting, and strategy. All courses (both blended and online) are associated with fully populated online course templates; thus, the activities and assignments are essentially held constant across the sections of any given course.

CoI Survey. Measurement of the three CoI presences was accomplished via electronic administration of the validated 34-item CoI Survey. (See the CoI Blog at https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/coi-survey/ for a link to the CoI Survey, which is available under a Creative Commons license.)

Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ).  Measurement of learner presence was addressed via electronic administration of selected questions from the Metacognitive Self-Regulation Scale of the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ), a measure of “college students' motivational orientations and their use of different learning strategies” (Pintrich, Smith, Garcia & McKeachie, 1991, p.5).

LMS Data and MBA Course Practices.  LMS data related to posting and page viewing as well as MBA courses practices related to assignments and activities were collected to examine the three CoI presences and learner presence.

Interview Protocol. A 30-minute interview protocol was designed to follow up on survey findings and to systematically explore students’ CoI perceptions. Particular emphasis was placed on learner presence and its relationship with teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence.

Results & Interpretation

Data analysis currently is under way.  The results are expected to provide enhanced insight into the relationship between learner presence and teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. The integration of survey data, interview data, and LMS data will provide a unique understanding of how the CoI presences manifest themselves at the level of individual courses and, taken together with learner presence, how they might be heightened for maximum effect. This, in turn, can inform the development of high-quality online and blended learning experiences that are distinguished by their emphasis on both community and inquiry.

Session Interaction

A Discovery Session format will provide the maximum interaction benefit. Session participants will be able to engage with the researchers in in-depth discussion of the research questions, methodology, and findings.

Session Outcomes & Takeaways

The presentation will provide participants with an opportunity to learn how one university’s faculty has engaged in an empirical investigation of the Community of Inquiry Framework, with emphasis on both theoretical implications (e.g., the interaction of CoI presences with learner presence) and implications for course design and pedagogical practice. The findings are expected to be of particular significance for MBA programs and the business disciplines. Slides and materials will be made available for sharing, and participants will be able to compare and contrast the results with their own experiences in designing and teaching online and blended courses. 


Lam, J. (2015). Autonomy presence in the extended community of inquiry. International Journal of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, 81(1), 39-61.

Pintrich, P.R., Smith, D.A.F., García, T., & McKeachie, W.J. (1991). A manual for the use of the motivated strategies questionnaire (MSLQ). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning.

Pool, J., Reitsma, G., & van den Berg, D. (2017). Revised community of inquiry framework: Examining learner presence in a blended mode of delivery. Online Learning, 21(3), 153-165.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education, 55 (4), 1721-1731.