Topic 4: Communities of Inquiry and Communities of Practice

In moving towards the end of ONL171, the focus was on design for learning in online contexts. Topic 3 of ONL171 focused on learning in communities, specifically ideas around networked and collaborative learning. Among the recommended optional readings was a good overview of communities of practice (Wenger, 2010). A potentially very powerful framework was then introduced for Topic 4, namely Vaughan et al.’s use of Lipman’s (2003) idea of a community of inquiry. Though we learnt about a number of different models, for example Gilly Salmon’s Five Stage Model, on which PBL Group 7 did a thoughtful presentation, CoI seems especially powerful since it offers a good framework for thinking about online and blended learning. As became apparent in the course of taking ONL171 (if it was not apparent before!), building community is essential for online learning. The CoI framework suggests that one needs to work at fostering a CoI through social, cognitive, and teaching presence, and suggests ways of doing so through deliberate design decisions so as to ensure that such a community be established and sustained through a learning environment of trust (“social presence”), which would foster sustained reflection and discourse (“cognitive presence”), and provide direction and cohesion to the learning community (“teaching presence”) (Vaughan et al., 2013, p.12). This conceptual framework also suggests some key principles for operationalising the framework, updated from Chickering and Gamson’s 7 tried and trusted principles of good practice in undergraduate education (1987), in order to take account of the changed learning environments that characterise learning today:

While these principles have served higher education well in directing attention to good teaching and learning practice, we believe that these principles need to be updated to address the changing needs in higher education to become information literate in the age of the Internet. These principles must be consistent with the ubiquitous connectivity afforded students today.

A key aspect of the CoI approach is that of shared responsibility: “The pioneering innovation of virtual communication and community requires both teacher and student to engage, interact, and contribute to learning in new ways” (Vaughan et al., 2013, p.14). This is in part achieved by means of a “joint enterprise”: a common project that needs to move towards resolution, which very much reminds me of the idea of communities of practice (CoP). The CoP model presents a powerful framework for thinking about learning organizations: i.e., “groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise” (Wenger & Snyder, 2000, p.139). CoP is essential for thinking about learning and teaching in universities and other educational institutions and has been used extensively for considering how academic developers can support and foster enhancement in higher education (Mårtensson & Roxå, 2016, 178-179), highlighting among other things the importance of:

  • collegial conversation about learning and teaching, in particular informal conversation (also Roxå & Mårtensson, 2009);
  • a sensitivity to the local contexts of academics–in particular their orientation towards other dimensions of their academic practice, most especially research: i.e., the CoPs that are already in place;
  • shared learning projects, which help constitute the joint enterprise by deepening the mutual commitment of members and thereby push their practice further by fostering connections within the community
  • such projects require a rhythm of regular engagement as well as concrete (“reified”) artefacts that result from the work and document it so the work can benefit the community.

It seems to me that, in view of the above points, CoP is in principle very relevant also for online learning of the sort that we have engaged in over the last weeks in ONL171. It is possible to distinguish between CoPS and other forms of organization, as below:

A Snapshot Comparison.png

(Wenger & Snyder, 2000, p. 142)

How does CoI fit into this picture? Given that both CoP and CoI emphasise communities for learning, I wonder how they relate to each other. The notion of CoP did not evolve specifically in relation to online or blended learning, so what are the key difference and similarities between these CoP theory and the CoI framework? To what extent are they compatible, and can each learn from the other? How can we use the important insights of both to take an effective and efficient approach to academic development? This is a question that I would like to explore further, in particular with regard to what seems to me one of the key strengths of CoP theory, namely that CoPs can become self-sustaining if cultivated in appropriate ways (Mårtensson & Roxå, 2016). Given the ephemeral nature of online communities, which seems part and partial of their virtual character, what what can we learn from this theory to strengthen CoIs so that they persist, survive, and indeed thrive?


Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education. American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, 39 (March), 3–7.

Lipman, M. (2003). Thinking in Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mårtensson, K., & Roxå, T. (2016). Working with networks, microcultures and communities. In D. Baume & C. Popovic (Eds.), Advancing practice in academic development (pp. 174–187). London: Routledge.

Roxå, T. & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks – exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547-559. DOI: 10.1080/03075070802597200.

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press.

Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: The career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 179-198). London: Springer.

Wenger, E. & Snyder, W. (2000). Communities of practice: The social frontier. Harvard Business Review (January-February).


Topic 3: Challenges in online learning and the importance of community: guided instruction and the value of informal conversation

The two compulsory (or strongly recommended) readings for Topic 3 of ONL171 both explicitly deal with challenges in online learning, stressing the importance of community–including aspects that relate to participation and communication–not only for mitigating these challenges, but for enabling learning to occur (Brindley et al., 2009; Capdeferro & Romero, 2012). Ultimately, the most fundamental of these challenges is that of creating “access to a rich learning environment that provides opportunity for interaction and connectedness” (Brindley et al., 2009).  Despite the fact that social media are social, which by implication suggests “an information ecology … organized around friends” (boyd), nevertheless there is a difference between hanging out and goofing around with friends, and deep, sustained learning. Put most simply, despite its many affordances, online learning lacks at least one key advantage of traditional, face-to-face learning: the kind of rich environment made possible by real-time dialogic interaction with knowledgable others who are physically present. Lack of scaffolding and sufficient attention to instructional guidance in an information-rich environment, such as that afforded by online learning initiatives, can lead to frustration and impede learning on account of problems in relation to cognitive load, in particular in the case of instruction to novice and intermediate learners  (Kirschner et al., 2006).

Because of the highly mediated character of online learning, as evident from the absence of direct (or less mediated) access to a knowledgeable other in the form of the instructor, and consequently dependence on peer support (Weller & Anderson, 2013) in which there is no guarantee that one peer is more knowledgable than the others, it is crucial to address the challenges and potential frustrations of online learning experiences by paying attention to good ways in which to foster community. One way of doing so, as described by Garrison (2007), is through the creation and maintenance of three kinds of presence: social, cognitive and teaching.

I plan to write more about the community of inquiry (CoI) framework, from which this set of ideas is derived, in my post for Topic 4. Meanwhile, one key point in relation to this framework concerns the centrality of critical discourse for ensuring that learning occurs. By means of these three kinds of presence, an environment needs to be created that encourages and supports such discourse, which requires a shared goal or group project that needs to move towards a resolution phase (Garrison, 2007, p.66) as well as clear “structure (design) and leadership (facilitation and direction)” (p.67). This is a recognition of how important guided instruction is (and thus “teaching presence”), in particular in online environments; but it is also a recognition of the importance of meaningful interaction that moves beyond dialogue and towards discourse (p.67). For such interaction to occur, the point is that guided instruction within a strong community is required.

In the case of PBL Group 1, it has been interesting to observe how guided instruction by our facilitator has moved us as a group from dialogue and towards the kind of resolution of projects enabled by critical discourse. That said, as my fellow group member Tore Nilsson writes in an interesting post, we should not dismiss the value of apparently aimless “social small talk“: of dialogue that does not move towards critical discourse, in Garrison’s terms. Far from it: as Tore writes, in the case of face-to-face interaction such small talk is fundamental for establishing community, and one would expect the absence    of such informal conversation to be detrimental for establishing social presence, a precondition for a supportive and productive community of inquiry. This is because such informal conversations are essential for creating the kind of “personal but purposeful relationships” (Garrison, 2007, p.64) that are needed for such a community. Interestingly, however, as Tore notes, in the case of our group such small talk did not really occur very much at all, which raises the question as to “what [may] have been the catalyst for this successful online community“. Tore’s question is a fascinating one, and his tentative answer is that it has to do with two factors: the role our facilitator played, and our synchronous online meetings with the visual cues that are part and parcel of such meetings.

My own view is that our facilitator indeed played a role in fostering community and hence learning in our group: this speaks to the importance of guided instruction and sufficient scaffolding. However, though our group definitely managed to establish trust and move toward resolution, more informal small talk and undirected dialogue would have strengthened social presence considerably. Studies have shown that these kinds of conversations in the “backstage of the teaching arena” (Roxå and Mårtensson, 2009) are essential for shaping teachers’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviours in relation to their teaching. It therefore stands to reason that the absence of such conversations will limit learning about (open, online) teaching: the key and overarching aim of ONL 171. A key challenge for us is therefore to think about how such informal conversations can be fostered in the case of online learning.


boyd, d. (2008). Understanding Socio-Technical Phenomena in a Web2.0 Era

Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Capdeferro, N. & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences? The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44.

Garrison, D. R. (2007). Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61-72 Apr 2007.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. DOI: 10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Roxå, T. & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks – exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547-559. DOI: 10.1080/03075070802597200.

Weller, M., & Anderson, T. (2013). Digital resilience in higher education. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 16(1), 53.

Blog at

Up ↑