Published on 2014/03/20

Nurturing Online Learning Environments: Atmosphere Created Within Online Courses

Nurturing Online Learning Environments: Atmosphere Created Within Online Courses
There are six strategies educators can put into place to support the development of a Community of Inquiry among online learners.
Beginning in the 1990s, Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson and Walter Archer from the University of Alberta developed the “Community of Inquiry,” a framework to guide online instructors to create a supportive atmosphere for learners.

For deep learning to occur, they noted that online instructors should create a sense of cognitive presence (expect learners to explore, integrate and apply new ideas), social presence (support open and risk-free communication with collaboration) and teaching presence (facilitate discourse, organizing and directing instruction). It must be noted that an investment of considerable time and thought (considering the need to carefully craft messages and select resources, as described above) guides online instructors to create and maintain this kind of supportive atmosphere, such as the framework of Community of Inquiry proposes.

The following strategies will ensure students are deeply connected to their learning materials, and can lead to success in the online learning environment:

  1. Encourage and anticipate collaboration and the exchange of ideas;

  2. Establish a series of supportive, open, extended, online conversations via discussion board threads, interjecting sensitive feedback and redirection periodically;

  3. Monitor and revise directions and the structure of course portals;

  4. Communicate periodically and sensitively with learners to address their questions and offer clarification of expectations;

  5. Seek recommendations and feedback on course materials and the design of assignments;

  6. Consider and integrate newer resources, digital media and varied means of communication and idea representation so learners perceive that course content is relevant, engaging and relates to their need for ongoing education.

Learners gain much when their responsible interactions and efforts are valued and support all members of the learning community within an online course. Kathryn Miller noted in a recent study that students’ sense of isolation diminished following the creation of an online community and interactions with their instructor and peers. It may require much time and thought, but establishing Communities of Inquiry with online learners has immense benefits.

This is the third in a five-part series by Susan Farber on creating a nurturing online learning environment. To read the first two installments and preview the rest of the series, please click here.

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Readers Comments

Curtis Keller 2014/03/20 at 1:14 pm

I appreciate the mental image of a “community of inquiry.” It can be hard for online students, who don’t have the benefit of seeing their peers face to face, to feel a “community” connection. However, Farber et al. show that, with a few simple tweaks on the instructor’s part, a support network can be established in an online course.

Susan Farber 2014/03/20 at 10:58 pm


A few gradual steps or actions, like the “tweaks” you propose, can guide students to feel that their instructor creates a sense of community.
What is critical is that these “tweaks” build on each other, and that the effort is ongoing or piecemeal. It takes time, thought and a desire to connect with students. Thanks for your comments.

James Branden 2014/03/21 at 9:58 am

It’s interesting that, of the six strategies listed, only one refers to adopting new technologies for the online classroom. Online courses carry a lot of hype in that they’re perceived to come with all the “bells and whistles” and latest tech trends. But these six strategies signal to me that, at the end of the day, this type of format can only be effective if the instructor is dedicated to principles of open communication, trust and support.

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