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A 4th Presence for the Community of Inquiry??

By Terry Anderson January 6, 2016 - 10:20am Comments (7)

The Community of Inquiry has emerged as the most widely referenced (the seminal 1999 article approaches 3,000 citations) and arguably the most widely used model for constructivist based e-learning design and research. I’ve always thought that it’s greatest strength is its simplicity (only 3 major, but interacting components) and the way the model can readily be used by teachers to devise and evaluate online learning courses and by researchers to guide the development of research questions and data collection strategies.

In the late 90’s we were interested in showing empirically that emerging ‘new’ forms of interactive distance education could support the type of high quality learning that is possible (though certainly not always available) in classrooms. We wanted to provide evidence for Randy Garrison’s claim that this was a new mode of teaching and learning that was education at a distance – not high tech, traditional cognitive behavioural style distance education. Thus, we focused on a key component of constructivist learning –social presence. We also picked up on Randy’s earlier work (based on Ennes, Paul and Lipman’s work) on critical thinking to devise the phases of cognitive presence. Finally, though Walter Archer, Randy and myself were all active in informal adult learning, we realized that the activity we were focusing on took place in institutional contexts with students studying in degree programs. Thus, we wanted a focus on the critical design, facilitation and subject matter expertise components of teaching presence.

Perhaps we quit too early, as this post argues next, but we had created a parsimonious model that was easily illustrated in the now famous COI Venn diagram. I also recall the fluidity with which new indicators were added to each of the presences as we poured over the transcripts from asynchronous computer conference based courses.   In early days, it was easy to add, delete or reword indicators, but the three presences seemed to us then to account for all the major themes of successful online courses. A special call out here to Liam Rourke who worked as a graduate student on this project, and was responsible for much of this early identification and classification work. The COI work was especially enhanced with the development by Ben Arbaugh and colleagues of the COI survey, which made it much easier to gather perception data to measure each of the three presences.

We have never argued that the model identifies all possible components of successful formal education – either online or in the classroom. And perhaps not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before additions (and a few deletions) were suggested. For example, David Annand, (2011) suggested that social presence wasn’t really needed for effective teaching and learning.

A number of researchers picked up on the need for the contextual or interface “presence” and in the case of distance education for the participants to master the mediating technology. Gilly Salmon (2000) in her famous 7 step e-learning moderation model sees such technical support as a key component of each of her moderation steps. I was never that impressed with these arguments as every context – including classrooms, uses some combination of asynchronous and synchronous media to support teaching and learning. Thus, the “presence” of the media and the need for and skill with which teachers and learners adapt to it is a minor factor that is unique to each teaching and context and I thought would needlessly complicate the COI model.

First came the close to convincing arguments from Peter Shea and his colleagues that the COI model lacked awareness of the critical role that the learner plays in formal education. We all realize that the same learning context and interventions can affect different students with vastly different effect. Thus, Shea and Bidjerano (2010) postulated the need for Learner Presence to account for these important learner set of variables in either online or classroom education.

Marti Cleveland-Innes, Prisca Campbell (2012) and other of Marti’s colleagues next argued that “emotional presence” was notably absent from the original COI model. My rather lame excuse that 3 males from Alberta, were very unlikely to posit the existence of emotional presence, since “real men” in Alberta, don’t do ‘emotion’. Rienties and Rivers (2014) picked up on these ideas of emotional presence in a review study – Measuring and Understanding Learner Emotions: Evidence and Prospects. They who directly added a fourth element to create what technically is now no longer a Venn diagram since it does not show all possible interactions of all 4 components.   It is now a Euler model – see

The most recent suggestion for a fourth presence comes from Lam (2015) who validated the existence of the original three presences, and then coined a new term for the type of learner agency that resonates with Shea’s “learning presence. Unfortunately she described this new addition to the COI as “Autonomy Presence”. Wikipedia explains that Autonomy comes from Ancient Greek: αὐτονομία autonomia from αὐτόνομος autonomos from αὐτο- auto- “self” and νόμος nomos, “law”, hence when combined, is understood to mean “one who gives oneself one’s own law” (Wikipedia). The word is used largely in the context of independence and freedom to make one’s own decisions. In educational context, this “autonomy” is valued to some degree, but as all students know, is severely curtailed by the edicts and wishes of the teacher. The indicators that Lam uses to identify and classify autonomy presence are however becoming increasingly important as the Internet provides additional or supplemental resources and communities that students can use to enhance, augment and validate their learning. (see below)


Terumi Miyazoe and I (2015) discussed this empowerment and the ability for students to increase student-student and student-content interaction in the context of my interaction equivalency theory in our 2015 paper Interaction Equivalency in the OER and Informal Learning Era.

It strikes me that the critical elements of learner, interface and autonomous presence flow directly from Alberta Bandura’s (1989) work on agency in which he described three types of agency in social cognitive theory. These are autonomous, mechanical and emergent interactive agency (p. 1175). The word agency evolved from Medieval Latin agentia “active operation,” Certainly the capacity for “active operation” can include most of the elements of interface presence since being productively active implies control over the environment. Shea’s reminder of the importance of the learning presence in the control of “active operation” is also subsumed in agency.

So my own suggestion in the search for the ‘missing’ element(s) in the COI model is to add agency presence to the COI trinity. This term is simpler than autonomous, builds on the seminal work of Bandura and captures the components mentioned by both Shea and Lam.

But where does that leave emotional presence? I argue that emotion is included in social presence (for example the indicator use of affective language) elements and in agency presence in line with both Bandura’s autonomous interaction – the capacity to recognize and use the power, insights and liability of emotional responses and his emergent agency in which emotions can be used to reach insights not accessible to those denying their existence or unable to deal with them effectively.

I haven’t validated this model empirically but it would likely include and consolidate many of the elements identified by Lam in her autonomous presence and Shea in his learning presence. And hopefully this addition would bring the COI model more in line with the emergent and networked resource ideas of modern connectivist theories.


Annand, D. (2011). Social presence within the community of inquiry framework. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(5), 40-56.

Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. American psychologist, 44(9), 1175.

Cleveland-Innes, M., & Campbell, P. (2012). Emotional presence, learning, and the online learning environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(4), 269-292.

Lam, J. (2015). Autonomy presence in the extended community of inquiry International Journal of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, 81(1), 39-61.

Miyazoe, T., & Anderson, T. (2015). Interaction equivalency in an OER, MOOC and informal learning era.Best of Eden 2013 Issue – EURODL

Rienties, B., & Rivers, B. A. (2014). Measuring and understanding learner emotions: Evidence and prospects. Learning Analytics Community Exchange.

Salmon, G. (2000). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online. London: Kogan Page.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education, 55(4), 1721-1731.



  • Jon Dron January 6, 2016 - 10:33am

    Seems to me that 'autonomy presence' is almost a contradiction in terms! A fully autonomous learner would have no presence at all in a community of inquiry.

    I wonder, though, whether 'agency presence' is not a better term than 'teaching presence', and is a superset of it, rather than something entirely different? The question here is what agency is for, in this context. If it is concerned with directing, nurturing, inspiring, catalyzing, or supporting learning practice (and, given the context, it seems that it must be - we are not concerned with agency to go get a haircut) then it is something that can be exhibited by a learner, an interface, a teacher, a collective, and, of course, by a learner for that learner (autonomy).

  • Rita Zuba Prokopetz January 6, 2016 - 4:29pm

    Great post -- I have been 'following' you since last summer...

    Any thoughts on 'timely feedback' and 'cultural presence'?

    How about 'community engagement' and 'collaborative climate'?

    I welcome your thoughts.

  • Mary Pringle January 7, 2016 - 8:58am

    I would see agency/autonomy as operative across social, cognitive, and teaching presences. The level of agency/autonomy exercised in each domain would affect the learning experience in various ways. I  agree with Terry that emotional presence is an aspect of social presence. And the notion of agency/autonomy operating throughout might make learning presence an unnecessary addition (I really like the Venn diagram!). This has probably been said, but teaching presence can be an important engine of learning for both instructors and students, especially in the networked environment. I think that the original COI model handles these additional considerations just fine!

  • Jon Dron January 8, 2016 - 6:26pm

    It is interesting and informative to think about what sets are actually represented in the Venn diagram. I think the only way they can actually meaningfully be called sets (with intersecting subsets, as shown) is if they are sets of things that can be discovered through analysis of messages in discussion forums or similar interactions. Any other interpretation I can think of leads to incommensurate sets that could not overlap at all. So, we can see that some messages are concerned with teaching, some with building social connection and capital, some with constructing meaning, and some with mixtures of each. This means that, if anything is to be added to the model, it should be another set or subset of message types that are discoverable in similar ways.

    Emotional presence might be indicated (to give very coarse illustrative examples) by someone saying 'I am depressed' or 'I am angry' or 'this makes me happy'. When used in a discussion forum it is hard not to see this as a subset of social presence. But what if enthusiasm (or boredom) is conveyed by a teacher as part of the teaching process? 'Hey, wow, look at chapter 12!' is very different from 'read chapter 12', and different again from 'have you read chapter 12?', not just in emotional content but in pedagogical intent and method. And what if the 'meaning that is constructed through sustained communication' (the definition of cognitive presence) is value-laden and the meaning is constructed as a clear emotional response? This is pretty much what happens when boundary thresholds are crossed and is often revealed in emotional terms - 'aha!' kind of moments, or 'I just realized...'. So it does kind of make sense to include emotional presence. The question that bothers me, though, is whether there are ever any messages that solely convey emotional presence? That question bothers me a bit about the other presences too, especially cognitive presence. Is there any expression indicating cognitive presence that does not also indicate teaching presence and/or social presence? I find it hard to think of any because, as soon as such things are reified in discussion, they contribute at least to teaching presence.

    I am not sure exactly how autonomy or agency might be revealed in a discussion though I am fairly sure there must be ways that both could be discerned. But so could dozens of other things like growth, agency, structure, control, belief, sentiment, negotiation, mimetic convergence and so on, not to mention an indefinite number of things that likely have no direct bearing on learning like use of nouns, short sentences, words beginning with 'A' and so on. Hard to know where to stop.

    Unless, of course, the presences shown in the Venn diagram are not sets at all? That would open up a can of worms!

  • Rita Zuba Prokopetz January 8, 2016 - 10:17pm

    Re: " indefinite number of things that likely have no direct bearing on learning like use of nouns, short sentences, words beginning with 'A' and so on. Hard to know where to stop."


    As an educator of English as a Second Language, I had to single out the statement above.  I would need more time to comment on it.

    Regarding the sets/subsets mentioned, I find that as (human) agents with the capacity to consciously and unconsciously (subconsciously?) make decisions, we so choose our depth/shallowness as we maintain an online presence.

    As I read (more, and more, and more...) some of the literature for 802, I pause and reflect on how my own learners must 'feel' when they willingly choose to search for knowledge in our online tasks; how they choose to reflect on what worked/what didn't; and how they react toward the experience. 

    As agents, we belong to the social world where feelings - more often than not - shape and guide our actions. Therefore, the emotional presence may be on a category of its own (perhaps, a new topic for doctoral research with a post-constructivist underpinning?).

  • Jon Dron January 9, 2016 - 11:25am

    I'd not thought about ESL. On reflection, there is probably nothing that couldn't potentially make a difference to some learners, sometimes. It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it.

    I agree - the emotional aspect is crucial in all learning (at least from an individual's perspective, even if it is not made visible in a discussion) and, sometimes, is by far the most significant part. I also think that it could qualify as a presence in a CoI, by the implicit definition of 'presence' in the COI model, because it is something that can be discoverable in a learning dialogue. Perhaps there's a more general 'affective presence' that might encompass this, and perhaps that also encompasses teaching and social presence, and maybe agency. Or maybe we could narrow it down to a more neutral 'sentiment presence' (which clarifies that it is about what is expressed rather than what is felt).

    The more I think on it, though, the more I think we are in the realm of Wittgensteinian language games and family resemblances. There are countless facets and dimensions that may be significant or insignificant in different learning contexts, of which social, teaching and cognitive presence are only a few, any one of which might be missing (well - I am not sure about teaching presence, in its loosest, distributed cognition sense, but if we are using it that way then it leads to a tautology and tells us nothing). This is a lot like trying to define what we mean by 'game' - any definition we can conceivably come up with will admit to exceptions. There is and can be no common feature set that describes all games, nor all communities of inquiry, but we all generally recognize one when we see one. And, of course, it is very valuable to have discussions about the definitions that we do come up with, even though none can actually be truly definitional.

    This conversation is, incidentally, a nice example of a CoI!

  • Mary Pringle January 9, 2016 - 12:09pm

    For me, the real value of a model is that it provides a useful conceptual vocabulary and generates this kind of discussion. Humans seem to like trinities, which may be part of the appeal of the COI model.