A Rubric to Identify Online Course Plans for a Community of Inquiry

Community of Inquiry

A community of inquiry (COI) is what it sounds like—people gather to learn from each other. I argue that a COI can be preplanned to engender a robust learning environment. What that entails is under investigation. For instance, a query of COI educational research on the EdTechLib database garnered 6500 articles. “The ‘community’ in “community of inquiry” is not defined by time or space. A common question, problem, or interest helps to forge the connection” (Shields, 1999, para. 2).

Historically, interdisciplinary scholarly communities have been around since the time of Theagenes of Rhegium who orally interpreted texts to pupils in the 6th century B.C.E. (Hornblower & Spawforth, 1998). Those ancient Greek gatherings were generally teacher-centered in an unidirectional flow of information between the teacher and listening participants until eventually taking on the Socratic method of shaping pupils’ understanding through questioning for critical thinking in the 3rd century B.C.E.

As for the American educational setting, the foundations of a COI can be found in John Dewey’s writing and reform efforts, which were influenced by Charles Sanders Pierce’s logic of inquiry for scientific methods and Jane Addams’ pragmatic approach to social analysis (Shields, 1999). For example, Dewey strongly believed that through experience-based learning, students could intellectually address subject matter with the assistance of their teachers (Dewey, 1938).

Fast forward to computer-mediated instruction, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) proposed a COI framework for distance education. It includes the following elements they deem essential: social presence (SP), cognitive presence (CP), and teaching presence (TP). According to Google Scholar, their COI framework has been cited academically 4817 times. Based on their research and related literature, my interpretation of the COI presences is as follows:

  • SP is the co-construction of meaning through shared learning experiences to engender student agency from connectedness.
  • CP is the engagement in learning activities that demand higher-order thinking skills.
  • TP refers to feedback and instruction and can be presented through instructor or student-led activities.

Online Community of Inquiry Syllabus Rubric ©

The online course syllabus serves as a plan of action that can be utilized for discussing continuous improvement between course design collaborators (i.e., instructional designers, course developers, instructors). To that end, I developed a rubric to evaluate online instructors’ planned interactions for delivering computer-mediated instruction based on their syllabi. It is used to analyze proposed interaction treatments (ITs) such as student-student opportunities for discussion, not the actual course. Our purpose was to determine the inclusion and strength of ITs to provide instructional design (ID) feedback to online instructors regarding their course plans. The underlying theoretical premise being the more interactive the course, the higher the level of student satisfaction and course achievement. Cummins, Bonk, and Jacobs (2002) conducted a similar syllabi study that looked at formats and levels of communication of online courses from colleges of education.

The rubric’s purpose is to provide a pragmatic solution to prevent problematic teacher-led (passive knowledge) online courses with little student interaction nor rigorous academic challenges. The Online Community of Inquiry Syllabus Rubric© is based on general concepts from Garrison, Anderson, and Archer’s (2000) COI framework, quality distance education rubrics (California State University-Chico, 2009; Johnson, 2007; Quality Matters™, 2014; & Roblyer & Wiencke, 2004), and significant literature. It consists of the following categories: ID for CP, technology tools for COI, COI loop for SP, support for learner characteristics, and instruction and feedback for TP. The 5-point rubric has the following scale for the criteria: low, basic, moderate, above average, and exemplary. Points awarded determine the course’s potential level of engendering an online COI (i.e., low, moderate, or high). See rubric.

Content Analysis Research of Online Course Syllabi

Rogers and Van Haneghan (2016) conducted the initial research utilizing the rubric with two raters. Good interrater-reliability agreement was obtained in the review of 23 undergraduate and graduate education online course syllabi, intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC) = .754, p < .001 and 95% CI [.514, .892]. Results indicated the potential for above-average CP (= 4.7); however, SP (M = 3.1) was moderate, and TP (M = 2.7) was basic. Rogers and Khoury (2018) replicated the study at a different institution across disciplines with 31 syllabi; those findings mirrored the previous study’s levels of COI presences indicating a weakness in TP. For action research, the rubric criteria and results can serve as talking points between instructional designers and course developers to address gaps. Table 1 provides common ID feedback based on my 2018 syllabi analysis.

Table 1: Common Feedback Based on the Online Community of Inquiry Syllabus Rubric Analysis

Rubric Category Instructional Design Recommendations
Instructional Design for Cognitive Presence Include higher order thinking activities such as case analysis, papers that require synthesis or evaluation of peer, self, and/or product. See the list of cognitive activities in the Online Course Design Guide in Table 3.
Education Technology for COI

· Add group work for collaborating on projects with Google Hangouts or Skype, so students can learn from each other.

· Use Schoology’s Media Album for students to share their projects and obtain peer feedback. For example, students could narrate PowerPoint project and save as MP4 to create a video presentation to add to a digital portfolio.

COI Loop for Social Presence

· Provide a rubric for discussions to make the criteria clear.

· Provide discussions on readings to enhance learning from each other.

Support for Learner Characteristics


· Add the College’s accommodation statement.

· Provide links to academic tutoring services.

· Provide strategies for remediation and/or resources for building background knowledge.

Instruction and Feedback for Teaching Presence

· Add specific online virtual office hours and format options. For example, use Skype, Google Hangouts, or FaceTime with your smartphone for human interaction.

· Describe direct instruction. Will there be narrated PowerPoints, audio summaries, lecture notes, or commercial program?

· Add information on feedback response time and format.


Contact the Author

Sandra Rogers, PhD, is the instructional designer and trainer at Spring Hill College. Her research interests are gaming, second language acquisition, and e-learning. See her professional blog on instructional design called Teacherrogers.Sandra encourages you to use the Online Community of Inquiry Syllabus Rubric© at your workplace and that you cite her work if published. Contact her at Sandra (dot) Annette (dot) Rogers (at) Gmail (dot) com for more information or rater training. Sandra will present a poster session on this at the American Educational Research Association in Toronto, CA in 2019.


Cummings, J. A., Bonk, C. J., & Jacobs, F. (2002). Twenty-first century college syllabi: Options for online communication and interactivity. Internet & Higher Education, 5(1), 1.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. The Kappa Delta Pi Lecture Series. New York: NY: Collier Books.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 2(2-3), 87-105. doi:10.1016/s1096-7516(00)00016-6

Hornblower, S., & Spawforth, A. (1998). The Oxford companion to classical civilization. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, E. S. (2007). Promoting learner-learner interactions through ecological assessments of the online environment. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(2). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol3no2/johnson.htm

QM Higher Education Rubric Fifth Edition. (2014). Quality Matters. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/StandardsfromtheQMHigherEducationRubric.pdf

Roblyer, M., & Wiencke, W. (2004). Exploring the interaction equation: Validating a rubric to assess and encourage interaction in distance courses. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 8(4).

Rogers, S., & Khoury, S. (2018, October). Rubric to evaluate online course syllabi plans for engendering a community of inquiry: Round II. Paper presented at the meeting of the Association of Educational Technology & Communications, Kansas City, MO.

Rogers, S., & Van Haneghan, J. (2016). Rubric to evaluate online course syllabi plans for engendering a community of inquiry. Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference, 349-357. Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Rubric for Online Instruction. (2009). Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. California State University-Chico. Retrieved from http://www.csuchico.edu/tlp/resources/rubric/rubric.pdf

Shields, P. M. (1999). The community of inquiry: Insights for public administration from Jane Addams, John Dewy and Charles S. Pierce. Archives of the Digital Collections at Texas State University. Retrieved from https://digital.library.txstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10877/3979/fulltext.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y


  Comments: 1

  1. Good piece of work on Online Community of Inquiry.I have learnt a lot especially from the syllabus rubric Analysis.The whole article is timely and clearly presented.

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