The CoI Framework

The CoI Framework presents 3 key elements that are key to creating a meaningful online learning experience – cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence (Swan et al., 2009).

  • Cognitive presence is how well students can think critically, solve problems, and engage with the course material. Cognitive presence is facilitated through activities like discussions, assignments, and assessments that challenge students to think critically.
  • Social presence is the extent to which students feel connected to each other and with the instructor, feel a sense of belonging to the class, and is facilitated through social interactions like discussions, group work, and other collaborative activities.
  • Teaching presence is related to the instructor’s role, the course’s design and facilitation, materials and learning activities.

Making sense of past online teaching challenge

This framework helped me to make sense of my experience teaching an online course during the pandemic. The course was a 3rd year undergraduate biomedical engineering course. In this course, an engineering professor “owned” the course and taught the biomedical engineering segments of the course, and I came in at 2 different points in the 14-week semester to conduct a report writing workshop and an oral presentation skills workshop.

First attempt: Fail

When I taught this course for the first time, the main challenge I faced was students not wanting to turn on their Zoom cameras even when I had requested that they do so. It seemed like the only way to get any reaction out of them during the zoom lesson was through short responses in the chat, polls and quizzes. But even then, not everyone participated. Although I had breakout room discussions and activities for them and required that they share their discussion outcomes on Mural, they didn’t always do the work. In fact, on several occasions, when I saw no activity on the Mural, I looked in their breakout room and found it quiet. No one was talking to anyone, even though I had stated that they should have their cameras on and complete the activity within a given time. It was really hard for me to connect with this group of students.

Second attempt: Success

The second time I taught this course, I changed a few things. Firstly, instead of having students discuss generic examples related to the writing principles that I wanted to teach, I gave them a past student’s assignment and the assignment rubric, and asked the students to work in groups to rate this sample assignment. Then I had each group share their results with the rest of the class, and if groups gave different ratings, I had them try to persuade each other to agree with their group’s rating. This was a more successful lesson. The students were engaged throughout.

Making sense with CoI

Reflecting on this experience now with my knowledge of the CoI framework, I think that what initially looked like a social presence challenge (how do I get the students to speak up and engage with me and with each other) was actually a teaching presence challenge, particularly in terms of activity design. In fact, (Shea & Bidjerano, 2009) found that the development of social presence depends on the development of teaching presence. Specifically, Shea and Bidjermo (2009, p. 14) surmised that “teaching and social presence represent the processes needed to create paths to epistemic engagement and cognitive presence for online learners.”

The first time I taught the course, because I had used generic examples, the students could not see the relevance of the activity to their own deliverables, and therefore probably viewed the activity as a waste of their time. But the second time I taught the course, because I had used a past student’s assignment as a sample for discussion and because I had asked them to discuss this sample using the rubric that I was going to use when I graded their assignments, the students thought the activity more meaningful and purposeful to their needs.

In this case, it appears that Teaching presence (the design of the activity) facilitated cognitive and social presence.


I feel much trepidation in using past assignments as samples. Although there is much research attesting to the effectiveness of using a combination of exemplars and rubrics towards improving students’ academic performance (To et al., 2022), I do not want to be “teaching to the test” or merely teaching students to interpret and fulfil rubric requirements.

In fact, Torrance (2007) has warned about the danger of making assessment criteria transparent, arguing that this has led to the evolution of assessment for learning to assessment as learning. Torrance (2007) cautioned that coaching students to produce criterion-referenced outcomes could encourage instrumentalism, whereby the focus of the learning activity is no longer on learning a skill but on producing the desired assessment outcomes.

Indeed, when marking the students’ eventual assignment submissions, I found that a number of submissions displayed sentences and expressions similar to those found in the sample assignment, thus lending support to Handley & Williams’s (2011) objection to using exemplars because they facilitate copying.


This post is about the CoI framework. In this reflection, the CoI framework has helped me make sense of a past teaching experience. The takeaway is the reminder that Teaching presence is essential to facilitating Social and Cognitive presence in online (and probably in-person) teaching.


Handley, K., & Williams, L. (2011). From copying to learning: Using exemplars to engage students with assessment criteria and feedback. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 36(1), 95–108. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602930903201669

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2009). Community of inquiry as a theoretical framework to foster “epistemic engagement” and “cognitive presence” in online education. Computers & Education, 52, 543–553. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2008.10.007

Swan, K., Garrison, D. R., & Richardson, J. C. (2009). A Constructivist Approach to Online Learning: The Community of Inquiry Framework. In C. R. Payne (Ed.), Information Technology and Constructivism in Higher Education: Progressive Learning Frameworks (pp. 43–57). IGI Global.

To, J., Panadero, E., & Carless, D. (2022). A systematic review of the educational uses and effects of exemplars. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 47(8), 1167–1182. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2021.2011134

Torrance, H. (2007). Assessment as learning? How the use of explicit learning objectives, assessment criteria and feedback in post‐secondary education and training can come to dominate learning. 1. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 14(3), 281–294. https://doi.org/10.1080/09695940701591867

Topic 4 reflection – Quiet black tiles on the Zoom screen