Does Inquiry Equal Learning?

Our team continues to explore the theoretical framework of Garrison and others known as the Community of Inquiry.  As Karen Swan, Randy Garrison, and Jennifer Richardson note in “A Constructivist Approach to Online Learning: The Community of Inquiry Framework,” the CoI framework is “a process model of online learning.”


Swan goes on to say that this framework assumes that effective online learning, especially higher order learning, requires the development of community, and that the development of such a community is not a trivial challenge in the online environment.

This had us asking ourselves such questions as:

  • Do we believe this underlying assumption?
  • What is “community”?
  • How does a “community of inquiry” differ from other types of communities, including more social communities?
  • Does this focus on “inquiry” actually enhance learning?  Is there research to support this?
  • Should this framework form the basis for faculty development for online instruction?  Are there alternative models?  What research suggests the adoption of one model over another?

I have to admit that our discussions shook some of my core beliefs, because the Community of Inquiry framework has informed my online teaching for at least the past decade.  My colleagues have heard me categorically state that community is critical, that developing a community of learners takes effort, and that through my work with my students, I get to know them at a far deeper level…and draw out of them far deeper inquiry.

But where is the proof?  I have done few studies on my own students, and I have perhaps read with rose-colored glasses the work done by others…many articles of which seem to have as their genesis the team surrounding Randy Garrison.  Where indeed is the proof?

We spent some time differentiating between “community of inquiry” and a social community.  Within online learning, a CoI can certainly have social presence, but that does not necessarily equate to “friending” everyone in the class.  Rather, due to the textual basis of most online courses, design must take into consideration opportunities for open communication between students and with faculty.  Students need to “see” their fellow students and their instructor as real people…and fellow learners.  The “social” has more to do with developing trust between participants than it does with finding soul mates.

As an aside, for me there is a danger in this conversation…that of swinging so far away from the social aspects of learning that we also slide the “fun” out of learning.  Our students are adult learners, and particularly at the graduate level, pretty focused on outcomes.  They want to understand why they are doing something as much as they want to understand what they are doing.  But that does not mean – to me – that the process of learning cannot be enjoyable and sharable.  One reason I have gravitated to the use of blogs in my teaching is the enjoyment I have and that I perceive from my students as their thinking is made visible and shared.

Our team conversation moved around to metacognition.  If, as we noted last week, cognitive presence is rooted in the Practical Inquiry model, with social presence and teaching presence as drivers. then how do we as faculty make this process clear to our students?  Would having a metanarrative, or overarching conversation about our learning model, help adult learners better understand and succeed within our online design?  The adult learning theories from Malcolm Knowles would certainly suggest this.  Knowles identified six principles of adult learning:

  • Adults are internally motivated and self-directed
  • Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences
  • Adults are goal oriented
  • Adults are relevancy oriented
  • Adults are practical
  • Adult learners like to be respected

This to me is foundational…and given this, it suggests that in my work with faculty, I should assist them in considering how they might have this narrative with their students…given the online environment with both its challenges and its affordances.  I see the CoI framework as a reference model, not a recipe – a thought posted by Harold Jarche.  He noted that “A reference model is an abstract framework consisting of an interlinking set of clearly defined concepts produced by an expert or body of experts in order to encourage clear communication.”

Next week, we will continue our discussion on metacognitive educational elements, using as a basis for our conversation a 2003 article from Pawan and others, as well as a 2013 article by Garrison and Akyol.  Still working to make sense of this all…but it certainly is driving my deeper thinking, and for that, I thank my good colleagues in the Center for Teaching Excellence!


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