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

3 thoughts on “Community of Inquiry in Self-Directed Learning

  1. Hi Sandra,

    I enjoyed reading your blog post and infographic. Specifically, I found it interesting that you thought about educating learners about social learning and why learning together as a group enhances the learning experience. As facilitators, we might assume that learners already know the benefit of social learning. The fact that you deliberately chose to include this strategy highlighting the importance and mechanism of social learning is a smart way to establish a social presence.

  2. Collboration is not just Group Work, is the biggest take away from your infographic for me. As designers we often rely too much on the premince that we need to have this formalized into a big assignment and never let it generate organically.

  3. Hi Sandra, I really enjoyed your infographic and perspectives of the CoI framework. How you applied it to self-directed learning is striking. I was drawn to your last thought, “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.” This resonated with me because I had a recent conversation with my daughter who is in grade 5 and she complained about what she doesn’t like about group work. Although, I explained to her the benefits of teamwork/group work, I am not convinced that she appreciates it. Spinning it with your thoughts on what group work means underscores partnership- it is not just about the task to be accomplished but rather it is about learning and going through the ups and downs together. Thank you!

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