Community of Inquiry in Self-Directed Learning

View as a PDF: Community of Inquiry Infographic

Self-directed learning and a Community of Inquiry (CoI) are not mutually exclusive. However, learning by one’s self and learning as a group are often seen as opposites. Although a self-directed approach to learning may offer students more agency and flexibility in how and what they choose to learn (Hiemstra, 1994), it often suffers from too much focus on the self. Self-directed learning need not, and should not, be a solitary activity. Garrison (2015) argues that “thinking is deeply embedded in our environment and the shared experiences of those with whom we engage.” The theory of social constructivism suggests that we not only learn experientially, but that those experiences are contextualized and enhanced through social interaction. Students can learn, under their own direction, while also collaborating with others.

In my context, I teach a course called Free Learning at the secondary level in a K-12 school. Free Learning is both a pedagogical approach and an open-source online learning environment. Through this approach, “students chart their own learning through a varied map of challenges and experiences” (Parker, 2015). A Free Learning map is a network of units where each completed unit may unlock one or more connected units. This offers students a learning environment with scaffolded content along with the agency to choose their own path through the map. This year, with our students learning online, it is essential to consider effective frameworks for collaboration and social learning.

One of the challenges with a self-directed pedagogy is to create an environment that also facilitates teamwork and collaboration. In Free Learning, this is done by offering students to opportunity to enrol in units individually, in pairs, threes, fours, or fives. However, the affordances of a learning technology doesn’t mean students will seize this opportunity (Dron, 2014). As a facilitator of Free Learning, and any other self-directed approach to learning, it’s essential to help foster a mindset of collaborative learning. Rather than seeing themselves as a class of separate learners, students should be encouraged to see their group as a cohort of like-minded learners, each discovering and sharing new knowledge as they explore the Free Learning map together.

To support social learning, I have developed an infographic to apply a Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework to a self-directed context. My infographic offers strategies for facilitators based on teaching presence, social presence and cognitive presence (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007; Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes & Garrison, 2013). These strategies aim to help overcome the solitary focus of self-directed learning and encourage students to work collaboratively. By applying these strategies to my own teaching practice, I hope to help students see the benefit of working together, and foster a mindset of collaboration and co-creation of knowledge in my class. Collaboration in a community of learners, especially in a classroom setting, is more than just group work: it’s a practice of collectively discovering, sharing, questioning, and reflecting on new ideas.


Dron, J. (2014). Innovation and How we Change. Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda, 237–265.

Garrison, D. R., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2007). Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues, and future directions. Internet and Higher Education, 10(3), 157–172.

Garrison, D. R. (2015). Thinking collaboratively: Learning in a community of inquiry. Routledge.

Hiemstra, R. (1994). Self-directed learning. The sourcebook for self-directed learning, 920.

Parker, R. (2015). Free Learning [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Chapter 3: Facilitation. Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Athabasca University Press. Retrieved from

Thoughts on Digital Facilitation

3 thoughts or ideas you have about digital facilitation:

  • My first thought about digital facilitation is that I have much to learn! This course has come at a great time. Our classes in Hong Kong have resumed as online-only, so each idea or theory from this course stands to offer something tangible that I can try out in my classes right away.
  • A key consideration for digital facilitation is that it is distinct from face-to-face facilitation. Experiences that feel natural in person can become tiring online, expectations for attention span and technical aptitude are different, and the learning experience itself needs to transform rather than be transplanted.
  • Synchronous facilitation, such as the online learning we’ve seen a lot recently, should account for timezones and be empathetic of peoples demands on their time. This may take the form of recorded sessions, as well as polling students for optimal times, or varying the times of live video sessions to offer more possibilities for students to join.

2 questions you have about digital facilitation:

  • When promoting social spaces and community in an online setting, how do facilitators create a space that students feel motivated to authentically participate in, rather than resorting to making participation a mandatory part of the course grade?
  • When facilitating a video setting for younger students, should they be forced to always have their camera on and be present? What about considerations for students who may feel embarrassed about their home setting, or may not have a quiet space available to them during a synchronous learning activity?

1 metaphor or simile about digital facilitation:

  • Good digital facilitation is like a rhythm. Every lesson or learning experience can’t happen at the exact same pace. There needs to be variety and variation, but not too much, just enough that it creates rhythm and flow. For example, weekly synchronous chats, mixed with asynchronous reflections, mixed with self-paced activities. A rhythm isn’t completely random: there’s some structure and repetitiveness in the variation, to create a difference in kind of learning as well as difference in volume of learning. The result is a learning experience that flows together while having both variation and repetition.

Photo by Armand Khoury on Unsplash