Online Community of Inquiry Syllabus Rubric

As more traditional college courses transition to online formats, educators need effective teaching practices for delivering content and building discourse to create an online community of inquiry (COI). A COI includes the social and cognitive interactions between students, instructors, and experts in the field, as well as the interaction with the content provided. Social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence are essential elements of the communication loop for an online COI (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000).

Dr. Van Haneghan and I (2016) developed a rubric to evaluate syllabi for the potential of engendering a COI through planned online activities.  It’s based on general concepts from Garrison, Anderson, and Archer’s (2000) Community of Inquiry Coding Template, Roblyer’s (2004) Rubric for Assessing Interactive Qualities in Distance Courses©, California State University-Chico’s (2009) Rubric for  Online Instruction, Johnson’s (2007) Ecological Assessment Tool, and the Quality Matters™ Rubric Standards Fifth Edition (2014), as well as significant findings from the literature.

Our rubric consists of the following integral elements for developing an online COI in a college course: instructional design for cognitive presence, technology tools for the COI, COI loop for social presence, support for learner characteristics, and instructor feedback for teaching presence. It’s a 5-point rubric with the following scales: low, basic, moderate, above average, and exemplary. The points awarded determine the course’s potential level of building an online COI: low, moderate, or high. (See link below.)

We adapted Cummins, Bonk, and Jacobs’ (2002) 3×3 matrix and coding categories into templates for the content analysis of syllabi to capture the interactions among students, student-teacher, and student-practitioner/experts. The third category was not specifically mentioned in the literature review as an interaction treatment; however, it can be included in the COI element of providing cognitive presence. The purpose of the coding template was to become familiar with the course syllabi and to search for specific interactions to base scores on. We created scoring instructions and provided a worked sample for raters to reference. Instructions ask the rater to use the coding template first to review the various interaction treatments and notate the type of tool used for it.

The Online Community of Inquiry Syllabus Rubric (c) is used to review the planned interaction treatments (ITs), not the actual behaviors that occurred in the courses. Its purpose is to determine the inclusion and strength of ITs in online course syllabi according to the triad of the COI. Our theoretical underlying premise was the more interactive the course, the higher the level of student satisfaction and course achievement.

Dr. Van Haneghan and I used this rubric to evaluate online course syllabi for a research study, and the raters obtained inter-rater reliability with it. See presentation posted on my blog. Additionally, at my current job, I use it to review online instructors’ syllabi prior to course design or redesign efforts, as a way to provide specific feedback. It serves as a great instructional design tool for the analysis phase.


Cummings, J. A., Bonk, C. J., & Jacobs, F. (2002). Twenty-first century college syllabi: Options for online communication and interactivity. Internet & Higher Education, 5(1), 1.

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.

Johnson, E. S. (2007). Promoting learner-learner interactions through ecological assessments of the online environment. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(2). Retrieved from

Roblyer, M., & Wiencke, W. (2004). Exploring the interaction equation: Validating a rubric to assess and encourage interaction in distance courses.  Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 8(4).

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, 349-357. Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Rubric for Online Instruction. (2009). Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. California State University-Chico. Retrieved from

Quality Matters™ Rubric Standards. (2014). Higher education rubric, fifth edition. Quality Matters Program (QM). MarylandOnline, Inc. Retrieved from

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