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Blended Learning: A Community of Inquiry approach

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, Anderson and Archer, 2000) identifies three elements as critical to an online educational experience: cognitive presence, social presence and teaching presence.

Fig. 1: The Community of Inquiry framework (adapted from Garrison, Anderson and Archer, 2000)

Cognitive presence

Cognitive presence is ‘the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse’ (Garrison, Anderson and Archer, 2000: 89). It manifests itself in online courses in students’ ‘sense of puzzlement’ at a ‘triggering event’; in ‘information exchange’ as students explore content; and in students connecting and applying ideas as they work through the processes of ‘integration’ and ‘resolution’ (Garrison, Anderson and Archer, 2000: 89).

Social presence

Social presence is ‘the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g. course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop interpersonal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities’ (Garrison, Anderson and Archer, 2000: 89). It can be seen in students’ emotional expression, open communication and group cohesion.

Teaching presence

Teaching presence is ‘The design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes’ to achieve learning outcomes (Garrison, Anderson and Archer, 2000: 89-90), and can be the responsibility of students as well as instructors. It includes instructional management, such as defining and initiating discussion topics; building understanding; and direct instruction, such as focusing students’ attention.

These elements combine to shape three core aspects of the educational experience, as shown in Fig. 1: supporting discourse, selecting content and setting climate.

Karen Swan (2004) has mapped each element of the CoI framework to a different form of online interaction, as shown in Fig. 2. Though the CoI was originally designed for asynchronous, text-based online learning environments, it can be applied to blended asynchronous and synchronous environments that incorporate a variety of tools and activities. The following section shows how these tools and activities and learning design can promote each kind of interaction: Student-content, student-student and student-teacher.

Fig. 2: The relationship between interaction and presence in an online learning environment (adapted from Swan, 2004)

Student-content interaction


To make your course content meaningful and engaging to students, and to help students interact with it, structure it so you provide a clear route of progression for students to follow. You can start to do this by editing the course menu, as shown in Fig. 3:


Fig. 3: Examples of a simple menu, where content is grouped by week, and a themed menu, where content is grouped by theme and subject

Creating varied content

Once you have decided on a structure, create your course content. Provide a variety of media and activities to stimulate students and ensure they are actively engaged. Use a combination of:

  • text-based content
  • attachments (PDFs, PowerPoints)
  • links to external content (journals, websites)
  • videos (either self-made or on YouTube)
  • webinar recordings
  • instructor-led content (PowerPoint supported with audio/video)

Structure your content into clear sections and digestible chunks so students can easily access and follow it.

Supplementary resources

Supplement your own materials with Open Educational Resources (OERs): freely accessible, openly-licensed text, media and other digital assets that are useful for teaching, learning and assessment. Popular OER repositories include:

If you use OERs, source materials that are accurate, relevant and free to use. Check licensing permissions using Creative Commons, and remember to reference and give attribution to content that is not your own.

Tools and activities

Design activities using a variety of tools to help students interact and engage with your learning content:

  • set a quiz or assignment, formative or summative, for students to test their knowledge and understanding of content
  • use a survey or poll to gauge students’ opinions on a topic or learning material
  • attach a video or reading at the top of a discussion forum and set a task to focus students, help them gain a deeper understanding of the content through peer learning, and enable them to display their understanding
  • set a task for students to complete using a wiki, to facilitate information exchange, sharing and collaboration.


It is important that you give students space to reflect on their learning. You are an integral part of encouraging them to engage in reflection. To do this you could: 

  • create a learning journal, private or shared with you, for students to collect useful learning content or measure and record their personal growth and development
  • set up a blog, informal or grade-bearing, for students to share weekly reflections on topics they have studied.

Student-student interaction

Community building

Help students to get to know each other at the start of the course and build an online community. To do this you could:

  • ask students to create a profile and read each other’s profiles on Blackboard
  • set up an informal forum discussion where students share something about themselves with rest of the group
  • dedicate part of the first live lecture or tutorial to an informal synchronous discussion where students form breakout groups to share personal information.

Peer learning and collaboration

Create opportunities for peer learning and collaboration. To do this you could: 

  • use asynchronous discussion forums and synchronous discussions, including group activities, to help students gain a deeper understanding of course content through peer learning
  • use a variety of discussion tasks, including case studies, role plays and debates, to facilitate peer learning
  • provide a variety of tools to help students brainstorm and share ideas, e.g., Mentimeter, Padlet or a whiteboard
  • set tasks for students to complete using a wiki or shared online document to facilitate information exchange and collaboration
  • design group assignments that assess students on both individual contributions and group collaboration
  • facilitate peer review of individual and group assignments.

Student-teacher interaction

Maintaining contact

It is important to maintain regular contact with your students. The most effective way to do this is through course announcements in Blackboard. Use announcements to:

  • inform students of new content that you have uploaded to the course
  • tell students what they should be doing in the course during the week and set goals, perhaps through Monday morning announcements to introduce the activities for the week ahead
  • send summaries to reflect on what the course has covered during the week and how this leads into the following week’s content
  • develop student motivation by explaining how the week’s tasks are linked, and what the ILOs are for each task, giving students a reason to engage with your content and with you.

If you use
announcements, don’t limit them to text; you can attach files, insert images and embed video too. If you select the option to send your announcement as an email, students not only see it in the course but also receive it via their PolyU email account. Finally, add a course link to the announcement so students can navigate directly to the content that you select, reducing cognitive load.

Use email within Blackboard to target roles, groups or individuals. For example, you might want to congratulate somestudents on their hard work or communicate with others who may need extra motivation or encouragement.

If you use email, remember it will be sent from your PolyU email address. Blackboard will not keep copies of any email that you send. If you are writing to the whole class, it is better to use an announcement, as these are stored on the course.

Providing support

Create discussion forum in which students can ask general questions about your course. These questions can cover technical issues, important dates and deadlines for assessment, resources you have shared or any aspects of the course that students are finding difficult.

Giving feedback on student learning

Give students prompt and meaningful feedback on their learning. In addition to feedback on assignments, you could:

  • build automated feedback into quizzes in Blackboard
  • use the comment feature in a wiki, Padlet or shared document to give feedback on individual contributions in group tasks.

Collecting feedback on the student learning experience

Collect student feedback on their learning experience: 

  • create surveys in Blackboard or use Microsoft Forms to gather student feedback on the week’s content
  • create polls at the end of live lectures or tutorials for students to give feedback on different learning activities and share how far they achieved the learning aims of the session
  • ask students to write about their learning experience in a forum discussion, blog or learning journal.

Blended online learning: A flipped classroom approach

In traditional approaches to learning, shown on the left of Fig. 4, students might read learning materials individually before class, listen to a lecture during class, and then complete homework activities after class. In a flipped classroom approach, shown on the right, students gain knowledge before class. During class, the teacher can guide them to ‘actively and interactively clarify and apply that knowledge’ (University of Texas 2013, n/p), enabling them to extend their learning after the class has finished.


Fig. 4: Traditional (left) vs. flipped classroom (right) approaches to learning design (University of Texas 2013)

How does the flipped classroom approach work in a blended online context?

In a flipped classroom approach, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages typically take place online, while the class itself takes place in person. However, the approach can also be applied to a blended online class, combining synchronous and asynchronous modes. Before class, students can complete activities asynchronously online to gain knowledge of the subject content, actively apply and deepen their knowledge in a synchronous online lecture
or tutorial, and then continue to develop their knowledge online, perhaps through discussions or an assignment.

The important thing is that learning does not only happen during a synchronous class: it should also take place before and after the session.

Table 1 shows suggested learning activities for the different stages, together with the types of interaction they each promote: student-content (S-C), student-student (S-S) or student-teacher (S-T).

Student activity Interaction

read an online document or presentation
watch an instructional video
respond to or check understanding of the document, presentation or video using a quiz or poll
brainstorm ideas for the session using an online tool like Padlet
post questions in a discussion forum

S-C, S-S
S-C, S-S, S-T


brainstorm ideas using the chat or whiteboard
annotate an image using the annotation tool
respond to or check understanding of subject content using the feedback icons, a poll or a third-party quiz tool
discuss subject content using the chat or in a breakout room
take part in a role play or debate
create and edit a shared online document or presentation
give an individual or group presentation using their webcam, microphone and shared screen
carry out in peer assessment

S-C, S-S
S-C, S-S
S-C, S-S
S-C, S-S
S-C, S-S


continue editing the online document or presentation they worked on during the session
take part in a forum discussion to discuss ideas that have emerged from the session
review the session recording and add questions or comments using the uRewind discussion tool
create a shared summary of what they have learned using a wiki
create a video summary of what they have learned
reflect on their learning using a blog or journal
complete a quiz or assignment to demonstrate what they have learned
carry out peer assessment

S-C, S-S
S-C, S-S, S-T
S-C, S-S, S-T
S-C, S-S

Key learning points

  • design educational experiences with a balance of student-content, student-student and student-teacher interaction
  • promote student-content interaction by making learning materials meaningful, structured and varied with opportunities for students to engage with content and reflect on their learning
  • promote student-student interaction through online socialisation, collaboration and communication
  • promote student-teacher interaction through announcements, emails, a general discussion forum and meaningful feedback on student learning
  • plan for learning to take place before and after a synchronous lecture or tutorial, not only during the session.

References and further reading and viewing

CoI, online interactions and blended online learning

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher educationInternet and Higher Education, 11(2), 1-14.

Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating Cognitive Presence in Online Learning: Interaction Is Not Enough. The American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 133-148.

Kyei-Blankson, L., Ntuli, E., & Donnelly, H. (2019). Establishing the importance of interaction and presence to student learning in online environmentsJournal of Interactive Learning Research, 30(4), 539-560.

Swan, K. (2004). Relationships between interactions and learning in online environmentsThe Sloan Consortium, 1-6.

Szeto, E. (2015). Community of Inquiry as an instructional approach: What effects of teaching, social and cognitive presences are there in blended synchronous learning and teaching? Computers & Education, 81, 191-201.

Online video tutorials from EDC to learn more about the different tools within Blackboard


Online help resources for synchronous online learning platforms

Third-party tools to engage students during your synchronous lecture or tutorial

Third-party tools to engage students during your synchronous lecture or tutorial