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Connecting Legal Education #14 – reading group on Community of Inquiry

For our CLE #14 hangout (Tuesday 7 July) we aimed to do something a little bit different. In our hangouts we have heard some brilliant presentations, but the interactions and chat contributions have been just as insightful and useful. We wanted a run a session where everyone could contribute (and as it turned out it gave us some practice on running these sorts of interactive online seminars with students in 20-21). The session, and blog, was facilitated by the usual CLE team and also by our three moderators, Kim Silver (LSBU), Rebekah Marangon (Derby) and our own Emma Flint (Birmingham).

The topic

We selected a paper on building communities of inquiry. This concept, developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer in 2000 has become the dominant model for constructing online learning communities (though Gilly Salmon’s five step process is also very influential).

The paper we selected was;

Holly Fiock, Designing a Community of Inquiry in Online Courses [2020] 21 International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning

The article considers how to build an online community of inquiry (CoI) in order to improve the quality of student learning, engagement and motivation. The theory of communities of inquiry suggests that they consist of three overlapping presences; cognitive, social and teaching. The article summarises the relevant literature, using Sorensen and Baylen’s seven principles of good practice[1] to produce a very useful and extensive table of ideas that are derived from the pedagogic research on applications of the CoI model.

The seven principles of good practice are:

  1. Student-teacher contact, focusing on the interaction between a student and instructor in an online environment;
  2. Cooperation among students, for collaborative and social learning;
  3. Active learning, emphasizing the importance of students to engage in meaningful learning activities and reflection on the process;
  4. Prompt feedback, giving guidance and feedback to ensure students are on the right track in terms of meeting course learning objectives;
  5. Time on task, concentrating on giving students assistance and guidance for managing their time in an online environment;
  6. Communicate high expectations, based on the theory that when instructors communicate high expectations to their students, they will aim to meet these expectations; and
  7. Respect diverse ways of learning, ensuring instructors are developing and implementing a wide variety of instructional strategies to meet the diverse population of students.

Participants had contributed beforehand to a Padlet board divided into the three presences. The following is a brief summary of some of the practical ideas which emerged from the board under each heading. There is a significant overlap between the three presences.


Social presence – is ‘the ability of people to present themselves as ‘real people’ through a communication medium’,[2] and involves building an environment where there can be open communication leading to students building and sustaining a commitment to the learning group.

  • Participants noted that social presence seems the most difficult to create within an online environment. Social presence can be difficult to ensure in face-to-face teaching, with online remote learning presenting an additional barrier. There was also some suggestion that a lot of the ‘suggested fixes’ may be most effective for new students, and not for already-settled returning students who might see less of a requirement to add further relationships to those they already have.
  • The article lists some recommendations for using short introductory videos of staff, but participants noted that other literature suggests that ‘on-going low-tech strategies like one-on-one emails and detailed feedback might be more effective than one-time high-tech strategies’ (Dunlap & Lowenthal 2014). Another participant suggested a ‘meet the team’ video, particularly to involve HPLs, new staff etc.
  • Links to external videos and documentaries that are engaging for students – particularly as a precursor to introducing academic articles on the same themes or as a basis for a constructivist approach linking abstract legal principles with easy to understand and familiar sources. Multiple perspectives and valuing the opinions of others is important but difficult to mediate online, and resources from the Heterodoxy Academy may be of use. The Kialo app also looks interesting.
  • Student:student interactions could be enhanced by creating a ‘meet your classmates’ section of the course. We identified Flipgrid as a useful tool for encouraging this sort of activity where students would post short videos, share some information about themselves and start to build trust with their classmates.
  • As you would expect, the careful design of initial course activities, such as ice breakers, was identified in the article as a crucial element in establishing social presence. We had an interesting discussion on how to make them authentic and credible. Some argued that our use of icebreakers in the past had felt contrived and awkward. Some intriguing possibilities where posted in the Chat such as getting students to pick a gif, or a household item, that had particular meaning for them and explaining that to the group.
  • The importance of these activities to building a sense of community and trust generated a particularly rich thread of discussions. We identified a range of relatively elaborate activities and tools that could be a lot of fun. These included ideas for a murder mystery, treasure hunts, online OneNote escape rooms and co-creating visuals in Genially. Other community building activities could be far simpler, such as online coffee mornings and chat sessions. We discussed best practices in getting engagement with these informal events and agreed that they worked best when they combined subject-specific and social elements. More purely social events could include ‘pub’ quizzes, games such as Pictionary, and film or book clubs.
  • The article suggested that teachers be explicit about the unique nature and learning potential of online discussion. We agreed that this was necessary but was also difficult to get student buy-in and explored the potential of student-led sessions with current students or professionals discussing the importance of working together. It would be useful to enlist ‘allies and influencers’ from the student body
  • Since a big part of social presence involves staff setting up the appropriate environment and facilitating interactions we emphasised the role of staff in coaching and mentoring, and in supporting students who find engaging in online social interactions harder than others. Some participants suggested ideas on facilitating group dynamics such as allowing students to create their own group rules, and having some control of how materials are organised. We discussed the Enneagram and Belbin models on mixing groups according to their characteristics.
  • An overarching strategy for social (and other forms of) presence was suggested involving a) Tell (clearly set out the expectations for engagement), b) Explain (be explicit as to why this is important and what we are trying to achieve) and c) Show (have video and text explainers and examples, including from staff modelling the sort of behaviour and information-sharing that we want students to adopt).

Cognitive presence – involves ‘the ability to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection’ (Fiock), i.e. how students engage with the course content to build their knowledge and understanding.

  • Our discussions focussed on ideas from the article for facilitating student contributions to discussion forums, blogs, online seminars and other activities in which they could reflect on the programme substantive content and construct meaning together. We were able to draw on a range of (sometimes negative) experience of using discussion forums, to identify some of the challenges and the need for lecturers to be active at the right points to keep the discussion going, whilst giving students the space to develop their own conversations. A part of this may involve establishing spaces, such as blogs, wikis, virtual cafés and journals for students to hear each others’ ideas without the lecturer being present.
  • We also discussed how some of the reasoning skills that we try to develop in our standard on-campus activities might be moved to the online environment. This can involve modelling diverse points of view or using role play to improve critical analysis, e.g. ‘you have advised the claimant, now think about how you would act for the defendant’. Reflection can also play an important role in ‘learning how to learn’ in online settings. This could be applied to individual sessions (‘what was the one big thing that I took from today’s session and how am I going to use that going forwards?’), or used in peer feedback and reflection in assessment
  • Some of the freedom from the physical constraints of the campus might open up opportunities for cross-discipline projects, e.g. computing project management for design and development, and application of innovative (at least for law) methods such as Agile or Scrum.

Teaching presence – involves both course design issues of setting pathways through the learning materials and towards the learning outcomes and the regular interventions of teachers to guide and encourage learning along these pathways.

  • The overarching message on teaching presence was the need for clarity and good organisation and to be explicit about the nature and potential of online learning. We should highlight the differences, good practice and benefits. We discussed the different ways of organising material on a VLE and a consensus emerged in favour of structuring material by topic or by week, rather than by type of learning materials. This would enhance the opportunities to provide clear pathways through the learning materials and exercises. Consistency of approach across a law school was identified as a challenge.
  • The design of the materials, pedagogic approaches, learning platforms is really important. This is not in the sense of their visual attractiveness, but rather their effectiveness in communicating clear learning paths, encouraging students to have social presence and to bring their authentic selves to the learning process and requiring cognitive presence of engagement with the programme content and reflection (with others) on its meaning. We are no longer in an immediate emergency response mode and a more considered approach to the similarities and differences of (largely) online delivery is required. The view was that the Community of Inquiry model was a very useful framework for thinking about the requirements of effective online learning and for accessing and generating concrete and practical teaching ideas.

Reflections on the process

This reading group activity was an experiment for the Connecting Legal Education community. We invited all members of the community to read the article, to allocate themselves to one of the three sections (social, cognitive, teaching) and to post ideas or comments in the relevant section of a Padlet page. Each section had a moderator who, in the one-hour session, explained the meaning of each presence and summarised the contributions on the Padlet page. They sometimes called on participants to come in and to expand on the points they had written. We had a lively ongoing dialogue via both the Padlet and the Teams chat function, involving over 40 participants.

Our first reflection was that the process worked. The technology functioned well and participants were able to be actively engaged in the session. We can see how we could take this approach with live Teams/Zoom seminars with groups of students (perhaps not with 40 but certainly a typical seminar group size of 15-20) in the coming academic year.

A second reflection concerns social presence. Some community members know each other in real life but many do not. Our sessions are informal and we often start with some very casual chit-chat with weather reports from various parts of the country and the world, discussions on lock-down hair-dos, etc. Far from being a trivial, if pleasant, part of the week, these cheery conversations helped us to establish social presence with each other. We brought our authentic selves to the sessions. We were in a trusted environment. When we were called on to share serious thoughts on serious teaching issues we were in a place where we felt able to do so.

Finally, this was a great way of crowd-sourcing ideas. Unlike a typical conference presentation (or a typical seminar) where there is one person presenting and perhaps one person asking a question at any one time, there was a web of dialogue going on with ideas being evaluated, applied (in thought) to one’s own teaching practice, shared, encouraged and developed. As CLE members we think that we will be returning to our co-created Padlet repeatedly in the coming weeks and months and contacting each other for more details on particular tools or methods.

There were so many innovative and exciting ideas that would be invidious to pick out one, but here goes anyway. Kallie Noble (Cardiff Metropolitan) described one induction activity of “…adapting a newsletter task I have done previously on a post grad course. Day 1 they get a ‘brief’ and it is to create a newsletter by the end of the week, they must work in groups, they select the editors (2) who design the front, rear and layout / style. The groups then work on articles (max 1000 words) and must incorporate Augmented Reality (HP Reveal) for which they produce the video and embed the AR code etc. We have IT help across the week and help desk. They are out of their comfort zone but by the end they know each other, have developed friendships and taken a role in the learning community. The newsletter is printed and copies available in the building, posters on walls, and naturally available on line. This enhances their IT skills, and they become by necessity familiar with the printshop / design studio, IT, and library teams, Uni email and Moodle / VLE.”

Next events

Our 16th Connecting Legal Education session – taking place on 21st July at 1100 (BST) – will focus upon wellbeing within legal education (both students and staff) and the professions. We will hear from Caroline Strevens, Emma Jones, Richard Collier and Lydia Bleasdale about the launch of a new UK Wellness network; followed by Stella Coyle, who will be talking about engaging law students in wellbeing through Mentimeter – another jam-packed session! Please do join us: as ever, if you wish to join the Teams space for this or other #ConnectLegalEd hangouts, please drop Michael Doherty (, Lydia Bleasdale (, or Emma Flint ( a line.


[1] Sorensen, C. K., & Baylen, D. M. (2009). Learning online: Adapting the seven principles of good practice to a Web-based instructional environment. In A. Orellana, T. L. Hudgins, & M. Samonson (Eds.), The perfect online course: Best practices for designing and teaching (pp. 69-86). Charlotte, NY: Information Age Publishing.

[2] D Lowenthal and P Lowenthal, 2010. A mixed methods examination of instructor social presence in accelerated online courses. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Denver, CO. doi: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9582-5.ch006

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