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Transitioning to the online environment

Transitioning to the online environment

Transitioning to online teaching and learning is becoming increasingly common in higher education. While it might initially seem straightforward, this transition involves several key considerations and recommended guidelines to create a quality online course for students seeking flexibility in where and how they complete their education. “What kind of transitions are needed?” and “What training should complement these transitions?” are just some questions to ask during this process. 

Why is it important?

Compared to the face-to-face learning environment, the online environment requires different strategies for teaching and learning. Some new elements might seem intuitive, but others might not be as obvious. For example, a fully online course lacks a physical teaching space and thus requires digital communication and transmission of materials and assessments; however, it also requires the knowledge and practice of online etiquette, or “netiquette,” as well as the up-front establishment of performance and behavior expectations within the online environment. Prospective online instructors must be aware of these key differences and deliberate as they transition their course to the online environment.

Information to consider

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) theoretical framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001) is perhaps the best-known and most researched approach to designing learning experiences for the online environment. It represents a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience by developing three interdependent elements: social, cognitive, and teaching presence (depicted in the figure to the right). Transitioning to teaching online requires planning how these three presences can be accomplished online.

Source (used with permission) Click the figure to explore an interactive version. (Requires Flash: click here for Flash Player Help.)


Social presence

Social presence is “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop interpersonal relationships by way of projecting their personalities” (Garrison, 2009). Learners want to get to know their instructors as people and in their roles as mentors and content experts. Online students require the instructor's and other students' social presence to feel like they are part of the online learning community, reduce feelings of isolation, and build trust and community.

Tips for developing social presence:

  • Create a discussion forum for participants to introduce themselves and model expectations by posting your self-introduction and providing personal information. Notify students that they should do so only to the extent they feel comfortable.
  • Address class participants in the discussion by name.
  • Include personal information you feel comfortable sharing (e.g., hobbies, work experience, family, pets, etc.) in your instructor profile on the course website.
  • Create a “water cooler” or “internet cafe” forum where participants can discuss topics unrelated to the course material or post personal or anecdotal information.
  • Use humor and the smiley emoticon to signal that you are trying to be humorous.
  • Personalize your course introductions and announcements with audio or video.

A strong social presence builds a climate of trust, an environment of comfort, and safe risk-taking. This foundation prepares the learners for your teaching and cognitive presence.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7–23.

Teaching presence

Teaching presence is the “design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes to realize personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes” (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001). Teaching presence includes designing and developing the course and guiding and supporting the learners during the course delivery.

Tips for developing teaching presence:

  • Set clear expectations for students.
  • Be visibly present in the course every weekday if possible, or be substantively present at least four days a week.
  • Coach learners to keep pace with their learning and think deeply about what they know and why.
  • Answer questions regarding activities and assignments.
  • Encourage and acknowledge student contributions.
  • Use announcements to ensure students know responsibilities, due dates, and other activities.
  • Communicate via email or phone to privately provide gentle but firm guidance as needed.
  • Inject knowledge from diverse sources.
  • Diagnose misperceptions, confirm understandings, and summarize discussions.

Teaching presence is manifested in everything the instructor does to guide, support, and shape the learners’ experiences.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7–23.

Cognitive presence

Cognitive presence is “the extent to which learners can construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse” (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001). The primary focus of cognitive presence is to develop a higher-order thinking process (i.e., critical thinking or practical inquiry) that integrates existing learning with new learning through reflection, discussion, and feedback.

Tips for developing cognitive presence:

  • Set high expectations for student inquiry and expectations.
  • Ask learners to identify their learning goal(s) for the course.
  • Examine, challenge, and probe student responses, thereby encouraging the analysis of ideas.
  • Use discussion summaries to focus on core concepts and learning outcomes.
  • Develop relevant, challenging, collaborative, engaging learning activities that require deep thinking.
  • Coach learners in reflective discussions while sharing thoughts and questions with their peers.
  • Encourage learners to make thoughtful decisions and apply what they are learning, whenever possible, to real-world situations.
  • When appropriate, utilize a group and team-based learning approach to build collaborative knowledge and solve in-depth problems.

Cognitive presence includes activities developed and actions taken to facilitate learning and encourage learners to explore their ideas, thoughts, and beliefs, forming meaningful connections to the content.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7–23.

Keywordsmoving, starting, transition, online, course, social, presence, cognitive, teachingDoc ID121267
OwnerKaren S.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2022-09-13 08:43:14Updated2024-04-24 12:22:31
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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