an image of a community of learners

Building Community in Online Discussion-Based Courses

The article “Instructor Perspectives on Building Community in Online Discussion-Based Courses: Issues of Pedagogy and Functionality” by MacKinnon et al (2020) was written in recognition of the growing numbers of online courses and a desire to identify those characteristics of courses that enhance “collective meaning-making”.  That term is not defined within the article but appears to reflect a term of art used in the field of educational psychology as well as psychology and psychotherapy.  Wikipedia provides a definition of “meaning-making” from Ignelzi (2000) as “Meaning-making – the process of how individuals make sense of knowledge, experience, relationships, and the self, must be considered in designing college curricular environments supportive of learning and development.”

With that term in mind, their focus is on courses in which collective meaning-making is an intentional goal.  This approach appears to be in alignment with Eric Mazur’s reflections on Peer Instruction presented earlier this year as it suggests that by exchanging ideas and information with their peers and instructors, students could develop a deeper understanding of key concepts. 

The article builds on the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework discussed by Garrison (2009) which relies on a framework of teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence.  The abstract suggests that different forms of modalities, strategies, and LMS customization are discussed as a means to enhance learning within an online community as well as reflections on pedagogical design, communication, and evaluation. 

Review of Analytical Methods

The authors’ analysis leverages the use of a tool called PeppeR, which is a web-based collaborative workspace designed to promote learning within an online community.  The authors are clear that they are using their own Learning Management System as both a way to collect data as well as inform continuous improvement on the tool. It was designed both as an online teaching platform as well as a research tool for exploring how to build online communities.  Therefore, this paper reflects a more applied than theoretical approach with the intent of identifying best practices in support of the CoI model. 

The authors suggest that the results can be used as a comparison for other online teaching contexts in which the CoI framework is intentionally applied. In order to develop these data, they identified three researcher-practitioners to lead a series of focus group discussions that centered around three key questions – essentially how to design for greater opportunities for social, teacher, and cognitive presence in online courses?  The three instructors had collectively taught more than 100 graduate-level online courses over the last ten years using the PeppeR platform.  The method appears to be a conversation among these three instructors without input from students. 


The results of these focus group conversations identified the following strategies for instructional design in each of the three types of presence:

Social presence:

Teacher Presence:

  • Setting a pace for online courses
  • The instructor is present online – through announcements or generating feedback based on student contributions
  • Course orientation
  • Setting communication expectations
    • Giving everyone a little space
    • Capturing the essence
  • Using multiple modalities for instruction
  • Planned redundancies
  • Integration of multimedia artifacts
  • Virtual Office Hours/Drops-ins

Cognitive Presence

  • Evaluation Spaces
  • Providing opportunities to co-construct knowledge
  • Linking, author citing, and use of hashtags
  • Integration of multimedia artifacts
  • Encouraging reading and revisiting – the premise that reading and rereading material enhances learning. 


The concurrent use of a new LMS with data collection methods may not have been the best way to control for bias in the analysis, but then this article was less analytical than previous ones that I’ve reviewed.  And thankfully, there was not a lot of discussion on the LMS itself.  The authors also acknowledge that these suggestions are not an exhaustive list of practices.  They suggest that these discussions are a necessary component of linking pedagogical and technical strategies.   Therefore, the article reads more like a brainstorming document that one can use if they are designing their online courses to be reflective of the CoI model. 

I also found this article to be supportive of the Quality Matters guidelines that focus on the integration of student-teacher, student-student, and student-content interactions. I recently learned that the student-teacher relationship is required in order to be considered for federal funding, which is what can differentiate a course with a teacher and a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC).  And I appreciated the student-centered learning focus – something that I am continually trying to enhance in my own teaching practice. 


I did feel that the title overstated the intended analysis since the only pedagogical approach discussed within the paper focused on constructivism.  This is an unsurprising connection since the CoI framework is described in the literature as a social constructivist model that emphasizes the importance of learning within social contexts.  Perhaps the title should have reflected more of the best practices used in an online CoI framework.    

I selected this article because I currently teach on-line and wanted to expand my understanding of the integration among pedagogical design, communication, and evaluation as well as gain a better understanding of the CoI model as shared during our F655 Orientation.  I believe that the course that I teach on the subject of all-hazards risk analysis has key components of “meaning-making” given that it is an inexact science at best and relies on an individual’s ability to make a best guess based on the data one has available at the time.  I leave this article having a better understanding of the concepts of meaning-making, the CoI model, as well as a few more suggestions and resources for me to consider as I continue to improve my course. 

I also believe that in order to have a more robust understanding of the various tools suggested here that we need to find a better way to incorporate the student perspective.  Having participated in a project about “teaching at scale”, I find that most of those conversations focus on what is good for the teacher.  We lack data on how class size impacts the student’s ability to learn.  It will be an interesting opportunity to consider that aspect in my future course evaluations. 


Garrison, D. R. (2009). Communities of inquiry in online learning. In Rogers, P. L., Berg, G. A., Boettcher, J. V., Howard, C., Justice, L., & Schenk, K. D. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of distance learning, Second Edition (p. 352–355). IGI Global.

Ignelzi, Michael (Summer 2000). “Meaning-making in the learning and teaching process”. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 2000 (82): 5–14. doi:10.1002/tl.8201.

MacKinnon, K., Makos, A., Wilton, L., Brett, C., Malhotra, T., Avery, T., & Raman, P. (2020). Instructor Perspectives on Building Community in Online Discussion-Based Courses: Issues of Pedagogy and Functionality. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, 35(1), 1–31.

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