Using the COI Framework as a Tool to Onboard Online Learners

In higher education, onboarding learners who are new to online learning environments can be a difficult task. For instance, learners who move from traditional, face-to-face instruction must endure a “qualitative shift” (p.63) in the way they interact with peers, instructors, and learning content in digital learning systems (Garrison et al., 2004). Luckily, research indicates that online course designers and facilitators can follow the strategies outlined by Garrison et al.’s (2000) Community of Inquiry Framework to ease this transition for learners. The framework acts as a foundation to create open, collaborative, and constructivist learning experiences (Williams, 2016) which promote meaning-making and active participation with new online learners (Cleveland-Innes et al, 2007). 

The COI framework focuses on three presences of educational transaction: Cognitive, social, and teaching (Garrison et al., 2000). Although vastly interconnected, each of these elements within the COI framework serves a distinctive transactional function. The cognitive presence pertains to the extent learners can “construct and confirm meaning” (p.11) through sustained personal and social reflection and communication (Garrison et al., 2001). The teaching presence is concerned with the “design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes” (p.5) to inject meaning and personal value for learners as they strive to achieve the course learning outcomes (Garrison et al., 2001). Lastly, the social presence refers to the course and facilitators’ ability to provide an open, supportive, and inquiry-based collaborative learning environment where learners can express their unique personalities and develop “personal and affective relationships progressively” (Garrison et al., 2011, p.34 as cited in Williams, 2016). 

So what does this mean for onboarding new online learners? Simply put, online facilitators and course designers can harness the guidelines of the COI framework to deliver practical learning experiences that make learners feel comfortable with their surroundings, valued, and free to express themselves for the good of learning. This article illustrates COI-based design and facilitation by presenting nine tips on supporting three commonly experienced issues when onboarding new online learners.

See an infographic summary of the tips in this article here.

Teaching Presence 

Issue: I’m sure the instructor viewed discussion threads, but they seemed more like a “fly on the wall” (p.9) than a teacher (Cleveland-Innes et al., 2007). 

Tip 1: Communicate to learners that online courses are typically guided learning experiences, rather than traditionally taught, to help them take “ownership of the program [or course]” (p.9) and a greater sense of responsibility for their learning (Cleveland-Innes et al., 2007; Vaughan et al., 2013). 

Tip 2: Interact with the learners as much as possible in the early stages of an online course to establish an active teaching presence with the learners (Cleveland-Innes et al., 2007). 

Tip 3: Provide clear and concise direction on all aspects of an online course (e.g., learning goals and objectives, assignment and reading schedules, due dates, etc.) and deliver timely feedback on assessments and learning check-ins, so learners feel supported throughout their learning experience (Cleveland-Innes et al., 2007; Vaughan et al., 2013). 

Cognitive Presence 

Issue: I limit my interaction and participation out of the fear of saying something wrong in front of the learning community, limiting my understanding of the course content (Cleveland-Innes et al., 2007).

Tip 1: Provide opportunities for social exploration by encouraging learners to interact amongst themselves, before or after directed learning sessions, such as lectures, to help learners feel comfortable with their peers and more likely to engage in discussion activities (Cleveland-Inees et al., 2007).  

Tip 2: Encourage dialogic participation by providing real-time or asynchronous feedback and prompts that promote learner efficacy and make the meaning-making process easier for learners (Cleveland-Innes et al., 2007). 

Tip 3: Regulate collaborative learning experiences, such as synchronous and asynchronous discussions, by providing triggering events (e.g., discussion prompts) and time for learners to reflect on learning content before learners participating in the activity (Garrison et al., 2000; Williams, 2016). 

Social Presence

Issue: I got the feeling that I didn’t get to know the instructor and they didn’t get to know me (Cleveland-Innes et al., 2007).  

Tip 1: Establish a dialogic discourse that emphasizes respect, academic inquiry, purposeful engagement, and open communication to provide all learners with equal opportunity to express themselves and their unique personalities (Garrison et al., 2004). 

Tip 2: Ensure both learners and facilitators have adequate time, early in a course, to feel comfortable using the chosen digital communications technology, so they feel prepared to express themselves, free of any technological barriers (Cleveland-Innes et al., 2007).  

Tip 2: Present adequate opportunity for learners and facilitators to get to know each other by incorporating small group assignments, discussion forums, and other collaborative learning experiences. Some learners feel more comfortable with social interaction as a course progresses, suggesting it appropriate to scaffold (e.g., increase progressively) social interactions throughout an online course (Cleveland-Innes et al., 2007).

As the reader can see, the three COI presences overlap considerably. However, it is primarily the facilitator, and their teaching presence-related efforts, that set the stage for effective community-based learning to occur. Therefore, if an online course involves collaborative- and process-driven learning experiences, facilitators and course designers should turn to the COI framework as an excellent guiding resource. Further, if new online learners are enrolled in such a course, the flexibility of the COI framework, as demonstrated in this article, can help facilitators deliver outstanding support for learners undertaking new roles as online learners.  



Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2007). Role Adjustment for Learners in an Online Community of Inquiry: Identifying the Challenges of Incoming Online Learners. International Journal of Web-Based Learning and Teaching Technologies, 2(1), 1-16.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in digital education. American Journal of Distance Education

Garrison, D. R., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Fung, T. (2004). Student role adjustment in online communities of inquiry: model and instrument validation. In JALN (Vol. 8, Issue 2).

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Athabasca University Press. Chapter 3: Facilitation (pp. 45-61).

William, L. (2016). Community of inquiry model: A conceptual framework for online learning research [Youtube Video].

2 thoughts on “Using the COI Framework as a Tool to Onboard Online Learners

  1. I enjoyed reading through you approach to CoI in this context, Jonathan. Getting students comfortable with online learning can be difficult and a big part of this — which you’ve addressed very well — is the time required. Tips like making it clearly as early as possible how the course will function (facilitated, not taught), providing time to socialize after a sessions, and getting them into groups early on are great examples of this.

    I do have one question for you regarding your Cognitive Presence area. There is often a lot of overlap between the three presences so there isn’t necessarily a perfect place for one tip to be placed, but I’m interested in hearing about what led you to place “provide learners with time to socialize before or after synchronous sessions” under Cognitive Presence. That is not to say that it doesn’t belong there, but I’m interested to know what led you to put it there rather than under Social Presence.

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for reading my post! I appreciate you taking the time to provide a review.

      Great question! There are two primary reasons why I put this element in the cognitive domain. First, the article I cited listed it in the cognitive presence section, which at first glance, led me to the same curiosities you have expressed; however, after I had some time to reflect on it, it all made sense. The reason it landed under the cognitive presence is based on the goal of this type of student-student interaction, which is to support the cognitive processing capacities of the learners during real-time discussions – this is where there is a major overlap between the three facilitation presences. After interacting in an open and supportive environment where students can be themselves and interact on a real level, their social confidence within that learning group can improve, enabling them to speak more freely during lectures, with less fear of ridicule from classmates. This new sense of efficacy and increased participation helps learners ask critical learning questions, like asking for further clarification on a topic or paraphrasing a concept in their own words to see if they understand the message correctly; this ultimately enables their ability to cognitively process the learning material and generate long-term memory stores.

      Now, this type of student-student activity could easily land in the social domain, but since this approach is so deeply rooted in the cognitive domain, it makes more sense to put it in that category.

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