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Duckworth on Education: Community of Inquiry

Whether for convenience, cost, or COVID-19, educators everywhere are seeking to build up online components of the programs they offer. Faced with a bewildering number of online learning systems and activities, educators can easily find themselves mistakenly focused more on the tools of online education than the technique.1 This can lead to frustration and failure for educators looking to expand their online offerings. A better approach can be establishing the technique or education framework that is most likely to lead to success, and then finding the tool(s) best suited to make that happen for your EMS education program.

One of the most widely known and well-researched approaches to online learning experiences is the Community of Inquiry (COI).2 The Community of Inquiry concept was developed in 2001 by Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer to create a more effective online learning environment.3,4 Garrison, Anderson, and Archer created a three-part framework of teaching presence, cognitive presence, and social presence for online programs. This may bring to mind the psychomotor, cognitive, and affective domains of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, but COI is something different—it’s something educators set up to help students build their psychomotor, cognitive, and affective skills.5

Rather than an educator putting together online activities to simply expose students to a list of content they must know, the COI educator sets up a community where the students work together to make meaningful connections with content. The Community of Inquiry recognizes that knowledge is not simply something transferred from the teacher to the student. COI is a collaborative-constructivist design, meaning that learning occurs as students actively work together in the process of acquiring new information, making meaning of it, and applying it in real-world situations.6

The Community of Inquiry breaks down this way:

  • Teaching presence is the set-up and maintenance of cognitive and social components so the students actively work together to gather knowledge, improve skills, and develop affective attitudes. This involves development and organization of the online components and facilitation of the course as well as direct instruction.
  • Cognitive presence refers to the students’ work gathering knowledge, improving skills, and developing correct attitudes through online activities that foster personal reflection and critical thinking.
  • Social presence is more than simply working in groups to complete assignments. It is the students’ ability to connect with each other as real people rather than as online user names, which is crucial to the development of affective attitudes, communication, interpersonal, and other soft skills.

EMS educators can use a COI to improve online offerings by developing and incorporating those three elements: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence.

Tips for developing teaching presence in online EMS education:

  • Identify the big ideas and key take-home points and develop course activities that will help students truly utilize these in the field.
  • Ensure class and assignment expectations are clear and thoroughly understood by students.
  • Be physically present in the course, preferably every weekday or, at a minimum, four days a week.
  • Provide students with timely, supportive, and meaningful feedback.
  • Clearly and concisely answer all questions regarding activities, assignments, and testing. If you receive repeated similar questions, consider revising the instructions.
  • Coach students to keep pace with not only their assignments, but more importantly with their learning and performance objectives.

Tips for developing cognitive presence:

  • Help students see the connection between their own expectations for the course and the established course objectives.
  • Provoke high performance by challenging student responses. Don’t leave students feeling like you will simply tear down whatever they say. Rather, have them explain their line of thinking in defense of their response being the best choice in the given situation.
  • Further challenge them by providing additional information or slightly changing the scenario. Don’t crush them with unwinnable situations. Encourage them to rapidly adapt to dynamically changing conditions even if it means making imperfect choices.
  • Use practice assignments, simulations, and self-testing to provide numerous opportunities for peer interaction, instructor feedback, and fostering skill development.

Tips for developing social presence:

  • Even if some students already know each other, create an online group or forum for students to post an introduction and short bio including their background, expectations for the course, and perhaps another relevant introductory question or two.
  • Model an effective introduction by posting your own bio and answer to these questions. Other educators who are part of the program should do the same.
  • Students listen best when they know they are being listened to. Read each student’s post and respond with a brief welcoming reply acknowledging their answers. Later in the course, as you respond to other posts and provide feedback, refer to students by name and reference their background and other posted information. Where you can, encourage other students to do the same.
  • Consider offering optional virtual office hours for students using any one of the currently available online conferencing tools. Consider leaving certain times as open group Q&A with others set aside for one-on-one chat.
  • Strongly encourage interaction and collaboration between students to complete assignments. Building and encouraging an affective social presence for students will help small group discussions, problem-solving tasks and activities that require the contribution of different perspectives to improve communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills.

One of the biggest challenges to effective distance and online education is the barrier the glass screen puts between students and educators. Building a Community of Inquiry through the development of effective teaching, cognitive, and social presences where students are challenged by the course material, educators and each other will help them achieve clinical excellence.7


1. Moller L, Huett JB. The Next Generation of Distance Education: Unconstrained Learning. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.

2. Anderson T. How Communities Of Inquiry Drive Teaching And Learning In The Digital Age.,

3. Garrison DR, Anderson T, Archer W. Critical Thinking and Computer Conferencing: A Model and Tool to Assess Cognitive Presence, 

4 Garrison DR, Anderson T, Archer W. Critical Thinking, Cognitive Presence, and Computer Conferencing in Distance Education. Am J Distance Educ, 2001; 15: 7–23.

5. Hoque DME. Three Domains of Learning: Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor. J EFL Educ Res, 2016; 2: 9.

6. Garrison DR, Akyol Z. The Community of Inquiry Theoretical Framework. Handb Distance Educ, 2013; 104–19.

7. Garrison DR. E-Learning in the 21st Century. Routledge, 2016.

Rommie L. Duckworth, LP, is a dedicated emergency responder and award-winning educator with more than 25 years working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and public and private emergency medical services. He is currently a career fire captain and paramedic EMS coordinator.

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