a summary of my critique of CoI

a summary of my critique of CoI

by Cindy Xin -
Number of replies: 8

Thank you Sylvia for the introduction. To open the discussion I would like to attempt a partial summary of my critique of the community of inquiry framework (CoI). Sarah will follow to provide further thoughts. The full article is at http://www.jofde.ca/index.php/jde/article/view/755/1333. For those not familiar with CoI, I provide a summary description of the framework in my article. You should also refer to the original article -

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87−105.

My main arguments are three-fold. First, online discussion must be understood as foremost a communication phenomenon. Human communication is almost always multi-functional. In online discussions, we often combine instruction, intellectual exchange, and social interaction in a single utterance (as I am doing right now). Because of the multi-functionality of communication the three main aspects of CoI — cognitive presence, social presence and teaching presence — are intertwined. The distinction of these presences is useful for analyzing a conference after the fact, but they do not necessarily provide a participant the sense of what s/he should do in-situ when a conversation is in the making. This brings me to my next argument.

Online presence must be constructed through actual communicative acts that perform various social, pedagogical, and cognitive functions. By communicative acts I specifically refer to what Andrew Feenberg (1989) calls moderating functions. To create effective online presence, for example, a teacher must perform functions such as setting the agenda, recognition, prompting, and weaving. Performance of these communicative functions creates the context and atmosphere for discussion to continue. Desired states of affairs such as “open communication” and “group cohesion,” identified as two categories under CoI’s social presence, may or may not apply in any given situation. Participants must actively construct them via communicative acts. Online presence is an effect of what people do, i.e., their performance of communicative functions. By clarifying the nature of presence online, I wish to draw our attention to what leads to the presence of a participant or a thought or feeling.

The CoI model separates out the social dimension of communication. I argue that the social interaction between participants is essential to all communication, including intellectual exchange. Intense intellectual discussion depends on and produces social interaction no less than casual talk. Rather than attempting to isolate what is social as defined in CoI, I argue that the true sociality of online forums lies in the dynamics of discussion itself. Back and forth of discussion constitute what Gadamer (2004) calls the to-and-fro movement of the dialogue game. The game provides the intrinsic motives that draw participants into this movement and provoke their next move. The matrix of social interaction, itself extended in the course of discussion, provides the necessary context for continued engagement. 

I invite you to share your reaction to these thoughts. If you find any of what I have said confusing, please say so, and feel free to ask any questions.



Feenberg, A. (1989) The written world. In R. Mason & A. Kaye (Eds.), Mindweave: communication, computers, and distance education (pp. 22-39). Oxford: Pergamon.

Gadamer, H.G. (2004). Truth and method (2nd ed). London ; New York : Continuum.

In reply to Cindy Xin

Re: a summary of my critique of CoI

by David Porter -

Thanks for bringing your critique and this discussion forum forward. I went to the article link and scrolled directly to the section on Practical Implications, quoted below...

"Practical Implications

The practical implications of my arguments concern what teacher and students should do in a conference to make it productive. The method described here responds to the fact that communication must be continuously and intentionally produced. It is not a natural event even in face-to-face contexts, much less in the far more fragile online environment. A face-to-face class starts and ends at a specified time and it is presumed to be more or less successful by default if the students show up and stay until the end. Online, a conversation easily ends if no one keeps it going. Failure is self-evident and commonplace. To maintain a continuous flow of conversation, the participants must keep working at it by posting comments that invite further posts. The flow of online conversation is an achievement, produced through a collective effort."

For me the paper makes good sense - online discussion is largely a communicative act, requiring continuous engagement to achieve a result. Got it. Agree.

I guess what I'm now looking for is how these principles are extended and enacted in an enhanced technical environment where new possibilities exist for enriching both the presentation of information and the facilitation of discussion.

Clearly the environment we are currently using is an artifact of the old days in which online discussion formats began. It as if the world of the academic paper and online discussions forums of 2001 are mirrored here. I think our students expect more and would already be yawning in a discussion environment like this.

Where to next, and how to we extend the known world of the discussion forum to inform brighter and more engaging futures for online academic communication? How do we model better discussion formats ourselves and share them with our students? It can't all be text, can it?


In reply to Cindy Xin

Learning in Communities of Inquiry: A Review of the Literature

by Sylvia Currie -

It's vacation time for many in higher education, and I've received several email messages today from individuals with regrets that they are unable to participate in this discussion right now. (It's these personal connections that keep me inspired -- so thoughtful!)

One message was from Liam Rourke, and he reminded me about the systematic review of the CoI literature he conducted with Heather Kanuka: 

Rourke, L., & Kanuka, H. (2009). Learning in Communities of Inquiry: A Review of the Literature. Journal of Distance Education, 23, 19-48.

Cindy, of course, references this paper but I wanted to pop it to the top of the list. 

In reply to Cindy Xin

Re: a summary of my critique of CoI

by Nicholas Bowskill -


Dear Cindy,

This is a huge topic isn't it? And an interesting one too. It's difficult to know where to start but thanks for making some marks in the sand to get us placed.

There are a number of terms that we're using here any one of which could be the subject of a forum/seminar. I mention them to try and help me think some of them through as much as anything.

Communities is becoming a word used in many different ways. I've worked on online courses as a learning community. It was a defined knowable group of people who were mutually supportive of each other's learning. But this is also a term used for evolving groups that are more distributed in terms of time and places. Scope for example and more recently the idea of MOOCs etc.

What comes out of that particular term is a sense of the facilitation of a certain 'disposition' towards learning and towards each other. That is sometimes invoked by tutors and course designers as a way of signalling a kind of culture that is being anticipated. That might be distinct from the kind of culture that may be suggested by a more 'instructional' approach, for example whilst still being a learning design tool. 

In that sense the popularity of the term 'openness' may be functioning as the same kind of thing in more distributed settings. Perhaps again it is really indicating a cultural format for thinking together globally and indicating an intended disposition towards each other (as much as towards any particular content).

I don't feel communication, however important, is really telling the whole story here. And I have a sense of 'openness' as the new 'community' with all those questions still unresolved about power relationships, expectations of each other, boundaries, different knowledges, ownership etc all still unresolved.

I guess I'm just questioning the concepts of community and openness regardless of the communication that happens within such frameworks. Does social media point us to other 'dispositional' and 'design' alternatives? Are they just as questionable in other more fractured ways of communicating?

Best wishes,



In reply to Cindy Xin

Re: a summary of my critique of CoI

by Cindy Xin -


Thank you for being the first to respond. In the seminar description, we said that “we hope to further our understanding of online discussion in particular, and online education in general.” I didn’t know how soon we will go beyond online discussion, now I know. Let me quote you:

“Clearly the environment we are currently using is an artifact of the old days in which online discussion formats began. It as if the world of the academic paper and online discussions forums of 2001 are mirrored here. I think our students expect more and would already be yawning in a discussion environment like this.”

I have a couple of reactions: First not everything old is out-of-date. You are not, of course, saying this, but you provoke a question – Do online discussion forums like this one still have a place in online education with today’s students? If so, what is it? Second, I agree that today’s students are expecting more, but more what? Technical features and tools? Interaction with teachers? Or more ways of interacting with teachers? What about more intellectual rigor? More time to study? More hard work?  Are these on their wish list?

No matter what the students expect, I’m with you on the need to meet them where they are. At the same time we need to bring them to places where we expect them to be and grow. I know you would agree that dialogue is essential part of learning, as Sylvia suggested in the marginal notes. Does this mean, at least sometimes, that they need to experience forums like this?


In reply to Cindy Xin

marginal notes

by Cindy Xin -

I'm not sure whether anyone sees the annotations/marginal notes Syvlia and I added to the posts. If you don't see them, select Shared Annotations from the dropdown list at the upper right corner. The annotation feature is buggy for Moodle 2.0, for example, the red boxes with an exclamation mark inside shouldn't be there, and a more serious bug - you can't delete an anotaton right now once it is created. However, it is convenient if you want to add a twitter-like comment on the side. We work on fixing the bugs as we discover them. 


In reply to Cindy Xin

Re: a summary of my critique of CoI

by Barbara Berry -

Hi Cindy and Everyone,

I am very pleased that you are kickstarting this conversation on the CoI framework. It's a deep dive!

I am jumping in after skimming the materials and now re-reading them in the hopes that I can contribute something of value. My own experience with this framework is "light", meaning, I have not studied it carefully. although, like all frameworks, it's  worth examining closely especially since it's been 12 years and so much work has been done in relation to it.

Cindy, I like your paper very much. In particular, it affords a new way of looking at the CoI and provoking thought. I really like your ideas: i) "online discussion is a communication phenomenon"; ii) it is inherently social yielding a "matrix" that sets the conditions for ongoing engagement and iii) it is a live act, a performance if you will and the game metaphor and game theory allows us to examine the "to and fro" that occurs in online discussion.

David, as always, the characters are rallying for the "game" : ) I like the fact that you have introduced the notions (don't let me put words in your mouth as they are mine but we may be on the same page here) of historical, cultural context, and the "situativity" of this framework in relation to what was happening then and now.

One of my own observations and questions thus far have to do with the experience of the learner, the lurker, the non-participants and "peripheral" participants who are in the shadows of the big words? Perhaps this was not the original intent but, how can these folk not be considered especially in the context of formal, higher ed, course using online discussion? Now, I am wondering how does the CoI help me to understand and explain my own behaviours in online discussion? Other questions have to do with the explanatory efficacy of this original CoI framework? I love theory so I am wondering about the theoretical underpinnings. The concepts and language are also heavy with assumptions and ideas and on it goes......

looking forward to the "game" ; )



In reply to Barbara Berry

Re: a summary of my critique of CoI

by Cindy Xin -

Barb, you raise some important questions for us: What is the explanatory efficacy of CoI?  What are its theoretical underpinning and its assumptions? I really wish its three authors were here to help us understand. Unfortunate, we learned that none of them was available to join us. Related to your question, you also ask how does CoI help you understand your own behaviors in online discussion. I think this is a question that we can all attempt to answer, so let me redirect your question to all of us here and those who are listening in: Does CoI help you explain what you did in the past in online discussion – and if so, in what way? Knowing the framework, has it in any way guided you or informed how you conduct yourself in online discussion? 


In reply to Cindy Xin

Re: a summary of my critique of CoI

by Andrew Feenberg -

I too am interested in this discussion. I started doing online classes before there was any theoretical framework at all. We early adopters had to think through our practice as we improvised it. One framework I was acquainted with that I quickly rejected was the distinction between process and content. This framework was associated with the idea that you could give students readings or videos from famous people and then have "process facilitators" handle the interactions. It quickly became clear that conferences without leadership often failed and that leadership by someone who had no subject matter expertise was not appropriate in education. Yet the process/content framework is still an almost instinctual reaction to educational technology. I wonder if the COI model carries on this unfortunate tradition with its distinction between the social side and the cognitive side. Maybe that was not the intention of the creators of the model, but isn't that how it is mostly understood?