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Teaching Using Canvas: Building a Community of Inquiry

Building a Community of Inquiry

Building a Learning Community using a Community of Inquiry Model

Garrison, Anderson, and Archer developed the Community of Inquiry Model to describe the ways in which multiple types of online presence interact in an online course. 

Watch the following video [1 minute 41 seconds] as it describes the inter-related aspects of presence based on the Community of Inquiry Model. 

Another important aspect of building a community of inquiry is to get to know your students and building authentic, meaningful and professional relationships with each individual. One way to do this is to encourage Well-being, Mindfulness, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusiveness. 

Image showing personal pronoun choices

Pronouns and names are really important for connecting with students.  It also helps the connect to each other.  A quick way to do this is during the first week post a survey (textbox in the Quiz tool) asking student to define preferred names or pronouns.  You can also ask if they have concerns about the course.

Some ideas on how to achieve student engagement in an online environment:

  • Create time and space for students to get to know each other. Consider small group virtual meetings the first few weeks with breakout sessions for Think/Pair/Share. Working Groups on assignments and giving students their own space to connect via Zoom (this can be done right inside of Canvas). Synchronous assignments might be challenging in an asynchronous course, though, since students aren't guaranteed to have shared availability.
  • Learn about the concept of learning communities. A learning community is a group of people who share common academic goals and attitudes and meet semi-regularly to collaborate on classwork. Some instructors leave open a Zoom session or Collaborate Ultra for students to hang out in while working on projects together. 
  • Think outside the box. Even thought this might be uncomfortable for an instructor, connecting with students personally makes a huge difference. One UW Superior instructor recently had "Hat Day" where everyone wore a hat that they like and explained why they wore it via a Zoom meeting. It brought together a sense of community which was the point of the whole exercise. You can do this with videos or photos in a discussion board as well.

Developing an Online Presence

The concept of presence in online teaching builds on the body of work on teaching and learning including Dewey, Chickering and Gamson, and many others who've studied the psychological and sociological aspects of learning and computer-mediated communications.  Good practices include:

  • Engaging in student-faculty contact through introductions, announcements, virtual office hours, and prompt response to student questions and concerns.
  • Fostering cooperation among students through all-class or small-group discussions and well-supported group work using both asynchronous and synchronous (when feasible) learning opportunities.
  • Planning for and facilitating active learning (as discussed in the Active Learning Section).
  • Giving prompt feedback, including both summative feedback and actionable formative feedback.
  • Providing explicitly clear instructions regarding due dates and participation for all modes of learning.
  • Being reasonable in your expectations regarding quantity of reading and work within any given time frame.
  • Providing clear expectations for student work and participation through rubrics and examples.
  • Using multiple means of instruction, engagement, and assessment such as audio, video, screencasts, diagrams, etc. to support Universal Design for Learning.

While online learning spaces such as Canvas provide students with more flexibility and new ways to collaborate, success in the online environment is directly related to how present and engaged both the instructor and the students are in the virtual classroom. Being present in your class is good practice regardless of the mode of learning and supports student learning and engagement. Pasadena Community College offers some guidelines for regular effective contact with students.

Instructor Initiated Interactions
  • Design daily or weekly assignments and projects that promote collaboration among students.
  • Model course netiquette at the beginning of the semester with instructor-guided introductions.
  • Pose questions in the discussion boards which encourage various types of interaction and critical thinking skills among all course participants.
  • Monitor content activity to ensure that students participate fully and discussions remain on topic.
  • Create a specific forum for questions regarding course assignments.
  • Ask students for feedback about the course on a regular basis and revise content as needed.
Frequency and Timeliness of Interactions
  • Maintain an active daily presence, particularly during the beginning weeks of a course.
  • Give frequent and substantive feedback throughout the course.
  • Let students know what response time they should expect for questions/inquiries (generally 24-48 hours).
Expectations for Interactions
  • Explain course policy regarding student-initiated contact (where to post questions, assignments, etc.) in the syllabus.
  • Outline and explain netiquette in initial course documents.
  • Clarify important dates, such as assignment and assessment deadlines, not only in the beginning but also throughout the course.
Absences from Interactions
  • Inform students immediately of the absence should an illness, family emergency or other unexpected event prevent continuing regular effective contact for a prolonged period of time (>1 week).
  • Inform student of whom to contact with course questions during the absence.
  • Let students know when regular effective instructor-initiated contact will resume.

Communication is Key

Communicating with your students is the core of your course. Active and timely communication supports teaching presence and when instructors participate supportively and frequently, students perceive the instructor as both enthusiastic and as an expert in the field. It's also more meaningful than student satisfaction expressed on course evaluations. Starting out as you mean to go along by communicating in a welcoming and supportive manner from the beginning, having a personal course introduction, an approachable syllabus, and an interactive introduction discussion, sets the tone for the class.

Once you get into the semester, however, instructors can have questions about response time and whether to use individual or group communication. Generally speaking, response to emails and other student questions should occur within 24 hours. Some faculty prefer to disconnect over the weekend, but you need to consider that it may be the time when most students are working and questions may arise. In that situation, you may want to indicate that you will respond to only urgent questions over the weekend. If you are getting the same questions repeatedly, instead of sending an email response to each student, it is often more efficient to post an announcement to the entire class addressing the question. If what you are communicating would be helpful to more than a handful of students, it is more efficient to share it to the entire group through an announcement or a Q&A discussion.

Types of Presence within the Community

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence includes both the planning and forethought that go into building your course and what you do in the moment when interacting with your students. The parts of teaching presence that occur while the course is in session include facilitation of discourse and direct instruction. Direct instruction is the more straightforward of the two and would include pre-developed presentations, assessing student work and providing instructive feedback, diagnosing misconceptions, clarifying concepts, and referring students to additional resources or practice opportunities. Facilitating discourse involves regularly reading and providing feedback on student postings, encouraging participation, moving the discussion forward when it stalls or gets off track, identifying and drawing out areas of agreement and disagreement, pointing out linkages, and helping students articulate shared understandings.

Immediacy behaviors can be helpful when facilitating discourse. Things like referring to students by name, encouraging student-student conversation, sharing personal examples from your own research, travel, or conversations with other faculty contribute to both social and teaching presence. It is important to stay present throughout the course, not just at the beginning of the semester. Maintaining continual instructor presence during the course, particularly during natural activity lulls, keeps students motivated and engaged. Students need the structure and leadership of your active teaching presence to move from surface learning to a deeper level of engaged learning. This might take the following forms:

  • Defining clear expectations for student work and interactions.
  • Creating and sequencing manageable sections of content.
  • Facilitating discourse with engaging questions and challenges to test understanding, as well as by modeling appropriate contributions to the discussion.
  • Structuring both collaborative and individual activities that are aligned with desired learning outcomes.
  • Assessing learning at a deeper, more complex level and providing feedback on learning processes.

Feedback as an Example of Teaching Presence

Giving feedback on assignments is a critical part of the direct instruction component of teaching presence.  It provides a natural opportunity for one-to-one teaching presence while supporting student learning. Getzlaf, et al (2009) describe effective feedback as:

  • a mutual process involving both student and instructor
  • providing constructive guidance that builds confidence
  • guiding through explicit expectations and ongoing coaching
  • meeting mutually established timelines
  • being applicable to future situations.

It is important for students to get frequent feedback on how they are doing. Are they learning what they are supposed to be learning? Are they achieving the learning outcomes? The most effective way to ensure that students get the feedback they need to stay on track is through a comprehensive, balanced assessment strategy that includes both formative and summative assessments. You can even have students provide peer feedback if you structure it well.

There are several ways to provide feedback in Canvas: individual written, audio, or video feedback through Speed Grader or via an Inbox message; group feedback in the group space via a group announcement or discussion forum; and aggregated class feedback via whole class announcements or discussion forums. However you choose to provide feedback, it is important that the feedback be provided in a timely manner and that it includes specific suggestions for improvement.



Getzlaf, Beverley; Perry, Beth; Toffner, Greg; Lamarche, Kimberley; Edwards, Margaret (2009). Effective Instructor Feedback: Perceptions of Online Graduate Students. Journal of Educators Online. 6. 10.9743/JEO.2009.2.1. 

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence is central to successful student learning. The quality of cognitive presence reflects the quality and quantity of critical thinking, collaborative problem-solving, and construction of meaning occurring in student↔student and student↔faculty interactions. You can model and support cognitive presence in your interactions with students in discussions, assignment feedback, and other communications. 


Cognitive presence is based on the iterative relationship between personal understanding and shared dialogue. Building on the work of John Dewey, Garrison proposed the Practical Inquiry Model shown here.  This model integrates these two aspects in a cycle beginning with a question or puzzle - called a triggering event - or just a general awareness that something isn't making sense. The learner then explores the available information and alternatives to make sense of the problem and connects this new information to previously learned concepts. Finally, the learner takes action to solve the problem or answer the question based on their newly integrated understanding.

The overlap between cognitive presence and teaching presence, often identified as "Regulating Learning" focuses on the co-regulation of learning and metacognition by both the instructor and the students.  Paz and Pereira (2015) found several categories within Regulating Learning including

  • Confirming understanding of tasks
  • Assessing learning strategies and work processes and/or proposing corrections to those processes
  • Reminding others of tasks and encouraging them to focus on or contribute to tasks, resources, and activities
  • Helping with tasks, processes, or products of learning
  • Managing the movement through learning phases or tasks

Students also exhibit some of these aspects as self-regulation and as co-regulation in groups.  

Depending on the course and the instructor, the amount of learning regulation will vary.  More self-directed graduate students will need less co-regulation than first year undergraduate students. For example, effectively moderating online discussion is an important strategy for supporting cognitive presence. Moderating and modeling the way in which a beginner in the field should be thinking through a question, problem, or case may occur more often in undergraduate classes as the students begin to learn how to learn in the field.  It is important to realize that simply interacting with others or with the content does not automatically translate into critical discourse or the integration of ideas into meaningful constructs (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). 


D. Randy Garrison & Martha Cleveland-Innes (2005) Facilitating Cognitive Presence in Online Learning: Interaction Is Not Enough, American Journal of Distance Education, 19:3, 133-148, DOI: 10.1207/s15389286ajde1903_2

Paz, J., & Pereira, A. (2015). Regulation of learning as Distributed Teaching Presence in the Community of Inquiry framework.

Social Presence

Social presence is important especially at the beginning of the semester when students are getting to know and trust both you and other students. If students can make interpersonal connections with others, they are more likely to engage with the course and the content. Indicators of Social Presence include

  • Affective responses such as expressing emotion and using humor.
  • Interactive responses such as continuing a discussion thread, referring to other students in a message or post, asking questions, and expressing agreement or appreciations.
  • Cohesive responses such as using other students' names, using inclusive pronouns to refer to their group or class, and engaging in small talk.

The overlap of social and teaching presence includes critical aspects of building a positive learning environment. Parker and Harrington's (2015) research indicates four main aspects:

  • Creating a usable learning environment.
  • Building positive rapport by using open, friendly communication, being approachable, and showing respect, courtesy, and patience.
  • Engendering a sense of belonging by addressing students by name, encouraging participation, and publicly or privately recognizing progress and achievement.
  • Promoting a sense of purpose by regularly monitoring student performance, providing constructive and timely feedback, and clearly articulating course goals. 

Students also exhibit some of these aspects when working in groups. Behaviors such as monitoring each other's progress and holding each other accountable for work quality and deadlines in groups sets the climate for their group. Effective group work also hinges on trust and comfort level with other students so building positive rapport and a sense of belonging is vital to setting group norms and participating in efficient collaboration. Providing a space for students to introduce themselves to the class within Canvas, preferably with video, is a good start to help students see each other as a "real people" and not just a name on a screen. Students can embed video of themselves into Canvas Discussions or you can use VoiceThread for an alternative approach.


Parker, J; Herrington, J. (2015) Setting the Climate in an Authentic Online Community of Learning: Australian Association for Research in Education, Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) (Freemantle, Western Australia, Nov 29-Dec 3, 2015)

Using Presence to Enhance Your Course

Being Present from the Beginning: Introducing yourself to your class

While being present throughout the course is critical, starting as you mean to go on is also important. Providing a personal video introduction at the start of the course allows students to see you as a human being which can mitigate the anonymity of text-based conversation and encourage human connections.

One of the first things you normally do in your class is introduce yourself. In an online class, introductions are even more important, as they are one of the first points of contact with you as an instructor and likely the first one where they see you visually. Video introductions help your students feel more connected to you and lets them know there is a real, live faculty member behind the course. They support teaching presence, which is essential to online success. Research on video introductions indicates that they can improve student engagement at the beginning of the course and encourage positive student perceptions of you as the instructor.

By beginning the semester by personally introducing yourself and sharing your background, expertise, and interests in a welcoming manner, you can show your students that you are approachable and interested in their learning. Creating a basic introduction video is also a great way to start thinking about using video and audio more generally, which diversifies the methods of communication and information delivery in your course. Simple webcam recordings are fine as long as you make sure your lighting and audio are good.  

Consider the Experience

While there are obviously arguments to be made in favor of some tools over others, it is more effective to first consider the experience you are trying to create for the student.

  • What do you want the student to know and be able to do at the end of this activity?
  • What is an appropriate and logical way to provide the student with an opportunity to practice this?
  • In what ways can you add dynamic elements to the experience?

Consider leveraging the tools built into Canvas such as Discussions (including recording video/audio directly into a discussion post), Collaborations, or Collaborate Ultra. A great student learning experience can be designed within a simple environment and there is something to be said for not over-thinking or over-developing.  

Being Present in Discussion Forums

Class discussion, either as a whole or in small groups, is a great way to get students to interact with one another and with the content. In Canvas, the discussion forums are often the main means of whole class communication. Whether you use formal discussion prompts or provide informal opportunities for collaboration or topical discussion, moderating these forums is different than moderating a whole class discussion in an in-person classroom.

Despite rumors to the contrary, it is not necessary to reply to every post every student makes in your discussion forum. Excessive faculty posting can preemptively close down conversations. The question becomes "how much is too much and how much is not enough?" The answer to that question can vary based on the course content, the level of the students, and the interest of the instructor, but commenting on around  1/3 of all substantive posts is a reasonable place to begin. Making sure to spread your comments over the course of the week is also important to encourage students to actively and consistently participate over time. As the expert in the subject, you will surely have additional thoughts, further data, or reflective questions to add to any discussion. You can also pull together threads of ideas or themes that you see across several students' posts and make connections back to the course text or primary concepts.

When discussion goes bad: Conflict in the discussion forum

Conflict, whether overt or covert, is something no one enjoys dealing with in the classroom. To avoid conflict that stems from incivility, beginning with Core Rules of Netiquette is a good place to start. Reminding everyone that there is another human being on the receiving end of each message can help students calibrate their reactions to the context. Asking students to participate in discussions by posting video comments also reinforces the reality that they are talking to other real people. Providing a visual such as the one below assists students to remember the social norms when engaging from behind the screen.

Image about online code of conduct

When conflict occurs, Horton (2006) recommends some options for instructors:

  • If you have taught the course before, you may be able to anticipate problems and have a consistent, thought-out response ready.
  • Include netiquette requirements in the syllabus and course introduction. Many learners may not know the conventions and expectations for online learning. Enforce policies consistently.
  • When you come across unacceptable behavior, do not respond without taking a moment to think about the behavior in context. For example, if students are experiencing frustration with the course or the tools, respond to both the usability issue and the way they expressed it.
  • Differentiate between first-time violators and serious or repeat offenders. What can be used as a learning experience versus what requires disciplinary action?
  • Help students learn to disagree professionally and politely. If they are used to the sort of disagreement and "debate" that occurs on Facebook, instructions and modeling appropriate ways to give and respond to legitimate criticism may be helpful.

Other Interactive Tools

If you find that Canvas-native tools are not sufficient to create a robust active learning experience for your students, you can explore third-party tools. When considering adding tools, please remember that while bells and whistles can deliver a better learning experience, they don’t automatically deliver a better learning experience.  Always ask yourself, how is this tool supporting the student's learning experience?  

You'll see a lack of LTI support as a drawback on several tools listed. Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) is a standard that allows a sort of “plug-and-play” integration of learning tools with learning management systems. It provides standard ways of launching a 3rd-party learning tool from inside Canvas, providing information to the learning tool about which student from which course is accessing it, and, where appropriate, allowing the learning tool to send a grade back to the Canvas Gradebook. The main thing to remember is that tools without LTI support can't pass grades back to Canvas, so if you want to count work your students did in that tool as part of their grade, you'll need to add the grades to the Gradebook. If you have a larger class, these tools may be better suited to practice activities and other ungraded exploration. (videoconferencing, video capture, and screen capture)

  • Pros
    • Already integrated with Canvas
    • HD quality video; allows up to 100 simultaneous video participants in normal mode, up to 1000 in webinar mode
    • full-featured apps for iOS and Android; ability to mix computers, mobile devices, and video conferencing rooms in one meeting; simple recording of sessions
    • full-featured collaborative whiteboards and screen sharing; breakout rooms
  • Cons
    • Accessibility – still some issues with color contrast and video user interface

Quizlet (flash cards)

  • Pros
    • Make matching-style study aids
    • easy to make your own or search for pre-existing
    • integrates with Canvas through the rich text editor
    • mobile friendly, free basic account
  • Cons
    • Only one kind of question (presented multiple ways)
    • Not accessible

Recording Lectures in PowerPoint

  • Pros
    • Can mimic in-person lecture styles
    • Can draw/write/interact with the presentation
    • Easy to create with material you likely already use
  • Cons
    • Not very mobile-friendly
    • Cannot be completed "live"
    • Potential accessibility concerns

What about social media services?

Social media services such as Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter provide a wide array of tools that faculty can leverage for student activities and interactions. Before you incorporate social media into your course, there are some things you need to consider. 

  • Are you prepared to support students if they have technology issues?  
  • If you want students to post publicly as part of an assignment, do you have a way for them to post under an alias or anonymously if they prefer?  FERPA rules govern the release of student information to third parties, which include social media sites. For more information, see Is Your Use of Social Media FERPA Compliant?
  • Copyright and intellectual property policies may also need to be considered depending on the content of the assignment.