Redesigning Online Discussions for Social Presence

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A community of inquiry (COI) includes the social, cognitive, and teaching interactions among students, instructors, and experts in the field, as well as their interaction with the content provided. The presence of all three types of interactions are essential to the communication loop for an online COI (Garrison, 2000). Cognitive presence is the engagement in learning activities that demand higher-order thinking skills. Teaching presence refers to feedback and instruction and can be presented through the instructor, expert, or student-led activities.

Social Presence Defined

The following excerpt from our book chapter provides a definition and research bases for social presence (SP): (Rogers & Khalsa, 2021)

SP is the co-construction of meaning through shared learning experiences to engender student agency through connectedness with other students and their instructor. Tu (2002) defined SP broadly as context, communication, and interaction. Research advocating social interactions in distance education includes SP’s potential for predicting student persistence in college (Boston et al., 2010), as online students are more likely to respond well when they have a participatory voice in their learning for self-determination (Chen & Jang, 2010). SP in distance education is strongly correlated to student satisfaction (Richardson & Swan, 2003). Conversely, online courses devoid of student-student interactions approximate independent study and are subsequently transmissive in nature.

Student-led Online Discussion Formats

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Basically, the format of your existing discussions stay the same (e.g., points, post/reply dates, netiquette). What changes is the way in which students interact with each other in a more purposeful way within it. My peer, Dr. Angela Rand, did her dissertation on the use of student roles in online discussions and found that they increased student participation and satisfaction. The following is my take on it.


Provide structure and student agency to discussions by assigning roles (e.g., starter, responder, wrapper) and rotating them during the course to add novelty and subsequent interest. Student-moderated discussions provide social presence to the online Community of Inquiry (COI). Social presence is a construct that has been researched in conjunction with the online application of the COI Framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). In my research studies on this topic, I found that online courses often lack plans for engendering social presence through student-student, student-instructor, and student-expert/practitioner interactions (Rogers & Van Haneghan, 2016; Rogers & Khoury, 2018).


The Starter Role rotation prevents the same students from posting first, which will provide different opportunities to lead the discussion. The Responder Role grants students the opportunity to include those who have not yet received a response, as an inclusionary practice to teach empathy. The Wrapper Role requires students to read several responses and write a simple summary, which creates a cognitive challenge that other students will benefit from reading. Rotating roles provides variety and structure to generic discussion formats. Of course, you can rename these roles to capture your course content, school spirit, or diversity, equity, and inclusionary practices on campus.

Instructor Prep

The beginning (introductions) and final week (wrap-up, reflections, feedback) discussions should be normal, teacher-led ones. Introduce this novel idea during Week 1 via an Announcement toward the end of the week. Add the information to your course page for weekly instructions, the syllabus, and discussion descriptions for second through penultimate weeks. Assign at least 2-3 students one of the following roles: Starter, Responder, Wrapper. By assigning several students to the same role, they’ll have back up in case they are unable to do it, and different voices will provide different lenses on the topics covered. Let them know that you and your graduate student instructor will still be moderating the discussion to provide guidance and feedback. (Of note, the Canvas learning management system has the option in the Discussion tool to anonymously select a student leader.)

Directions for Students

To build a sense of community online in the Discussion threads, you’ll be given one of three roles (i.e., Starter, Responder, Wrapper) in addition to the basic post-and-respond mode during Weeks 2-14. These roles add an extra layer of structure for meaningful student-student interactions. Roles rotate weekly through alphabetical designation and are posted in the Discussion description. Please note that you can post and reply at any time during the week as your schedule and course parameters apply.

  • Starter Role – Post a response to your instructor’s prompt early in the week (e.g., Tuesday or Wednesday) to begin the conversation.
  • Responder Role – Monitor student postings to address anyone who doesn’t have a reply and respond to them by Friday.
  • Wrapper Role – Summarize the main points of the discussion in a few sentences by Sunday.

Sample Student List of Assigned Roles Based on Last Names:

Akbar, Baker, Chen – Starter Week 2

Garcia, Geoffrey, Feingold – Responder Week 2

Hernandez, Heinz, Hills – Wrapper Role Week 2

Instructors, if you attempt to use student roles for your discussions, let me know how it goes and please provide any recommendations.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 2(2-3), 87-105. doi:10.1016/s1096-7516(00)00016-6

Rogers, S. A., & Khalsa, G. K. (2022). Analysis of online course syllabi for planned interactions and learner support. Innovations in Higher Education Teaching and Learning, 40, 125-141.

Rogers, S., & Khoury, S. (2018, October). Rubric to evaluate online course syllabi plans for engendering a community of inquiry: Round II. [Paper presentation]. Association of Educational Communications and Technology, Kansas City, MO, United States

Rogers, S., & Van Haneghan, J. (2016). Rubric to evaluate online course syllabi plans for engendering a community of inquiry. Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference, USA, 349-357.

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