A good online small group causes you to forget that you aren’t meeting face to face. Unfortunately, good online small groups are hard to find.  Too often, their is a lack of meaningful connection among group members, causing group members to lament, “I just don’t feel close to my small group.”  E-Small Group Leaders need a model to help them transcend the physical distance which separates small group members.  For this, we turn to the work of D. Randy Garrison who provides a process for using collaborative inquiry in online education.

Garrison’s community of inquiry model applies the principles of collaborative, constructive learning by creating a sense of “presence” in e-learning classrooms, despite the lack of physical presence. Garrison defines presence as “a sense of being or identity created through interpersonal communication.”[1] The community of inquiry creates this “sense of being” through three interdependent elements: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence.


First, Cognitive Presence describes the students’ ability to “construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse.”[2] That is, cognitive presence is established through the expression of high-level critical thinking in dialogue with teachers and peers. Instructional strategies which develop cognitive presence may include: 1) question-driven and problem-based learning activities, 2) small breakout groups, 3) allowing sufficient time to engage and complete assignments, 4) student sharing of powerful learning experiences and discussion of why it was eventful, and 5) using WebQuests collaboratively to search, analyze, and synthesize information from the internet.[3]

Second, Social Presence is “the ability of participants to identify with a group, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop personal and affective relationships progressively by way of protecting their individual personalities.”[4] That is, social presence is the “ability of learners to project their personal characteristics into the community of inquiry by presenting themselves as “real people.”[5] Establishing social presence can be challenging in e-learning environments because of the limited amount of interaction time and the restrictive nature of the written word.

Garrison suggests the following for developing social presence in e-learning classrooms: 1) acknowledge and welcome participants, 2) be encouraging and supportive, 3) project your personality as a teacher and allow student to get to know you as a person, 4) suggest that students log on at least three times per week, 5) encourage students to acknowledge individuals when responding to specific contributions, 6) laud contributions when appropriate, 7) be conversational an not too formal, 8) encourage “lurkers” to participate, 9) express feelings but avoid flaming, 10) Be cautious using humor, and 11) encourage students to inform the teacher by email of tensions or anxiety.[6]

Finally, Teaching Presence is “the design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes.”[7] Developing teaching presence means, “bringing together the cognitive and social in purposeful and synergistic ways.”[8] Garrison suggests the following teaching roles in e-learning: 1) instructional design and organization, 2) social facilitation, and 3) direct instruction.[9]

The Community of Inquiry model provides a holistic approach that takes seriously the complex series of relationships between teacher, students, and subject. For our purpose, the model provides a model for online education that is grounded in constructivist theory and makes use of e-learning technology. Perhaps most importantly, it takes seriously the social dynamic of learning that is often difficult to recreate without “face-to-face” interaction.

Like the progressive educators of the 20th century, contemporary educators continue to look for education theory that takes seriously the role of both teacher and student. With the advent of e-learning classrooms, educators are presented with a new forum in which to apply the principles of constructivism as they seek to assist their students in constructing knowledge through collaborative inquiry and discovery.

As the church continues to leverage popular education theory in its small groups and bible studies, the e-learning classroom, which follows the community of inquiry model, will become an invaluable tool for the purposes of evangelism and discipleship.

In many ways, the e-learning classroom is a new frontier for the church; bringing with it the excitement and trepidation that often nip at the heel of the pioneer. To be sure, the church must approach this foreign territory with great care, but this should not be overstated. After all, though technology and method may change the Spirit-led process remains the same, for:

Whether online or offline, distance or face-to-face, the educational process looks like this: utilizing instructor and student input, the teacher is guided and empowered by God to devise and employ a learning space where the learning community can be lead in actively and reflectively engaging with the curriculum for the purpose of bringing about lasting, truth-based, and holistically assessed change in the learners.[10]

[1] D. Randy Garrison, E-learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2011), 22.

[2]Garrison, 23.

[3] Garrison, 92.

[4] Garrison, 23.

[5]Mark A. Maddix, James R. Estep, and Mary E. Lowe, Best Practices of Online Education: A Guide for Christian Higher Education (Charlotte: Information Place Publishing, 2012), 109.

[6] Garrison, 93.

[7] Garrison, 24.

[8] Garrison, 56.

[9] Garrison, 56.

[10] Maddix, 14-15.