2013. Vol.4, No.5, 463-471
Published Online May 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/psych) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2013.45066
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 463
Self-Learning Skills Perceived in Communities of Inquiry of
Portuguese Higher Education Students
José António Moreira1, António Gomes Ferreira2, Ana Cristina Almeida2
1Department of Education and Distan c e Teaching, Open Un i ve rsity, Lisbon, Portugal
2Faculty of Psychology a nd Educational Sciences , University of Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Received December 16th, 2012; revised January 19th, 2013; accepted February 1 8th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 José António Moreira et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
The purpose of this study was to report evidence obtained in Communities of Inquiry (CoI) as framed by
the work of Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) that was carried out in different groups, and identify
the emergent learning skills of its students. The study comprised 510 undergraduate students enrolled in
blended online courses offered through Moodle platform during one semester. It considered students from
different Portuguese schools, of University and Polytechnic in Health, Education and Psychology Courses.
Moreira and Almeida (2011) have suggested that CoI framework is a valid, reliable, and efficient measure
of its dimensions within the Portuguese population. Assuming the CoI survey as a useful evaluation tool
for providing feedback about the effectiveness of online courses in the construction of effective learning
communities, we’ve studied the skills students recognize they acquire in virtual environments of learning,
using the adapted Self-Learning Competence Scale (Lima-Santos, Rurato, & Faria, 2000). We’ve con-
cluded that in both institutions, University and Polytechnic, relevant learning experiences have been fos-
tered, towards the emergence of communities of inquiry, in which the students perceived that they have
developed self-learning competences.
Keywords: Higher-Education; Self-Learning Skills; Community of Inquiry; Online Learning
Nowadays, the large number of students per class and the
traditional methods of teaching are hardly compatible with one
of the most fundamental requirements of higher education
which is the skills training. This indicates that the current me-
thods of teaching and the role of both teachers and students
must be reframed. Students are expected to acquire knowledge,
gain practice and develop their competences. More and more
the usage of technological tools as a support to the teaching
presence begins to flourish as a source of continued cognitive,
social and dialogical presence in the learning process. Teachers
may guide the instructional process by being present and cop-
ing with the pedagogical relationship in a blended web-based
learning. However, such helpful resources must convey a para-
digm that settles a relational climate to an effective educational
experience. So, the need for a community is imperious, specifi-
cally one of inquiry, in order to promote learning skills and
knowledge in a constructivist and collaborative ambience. Such
an atmosphere is convenient for the groundwork of profession-
als that are expected to be autonomous, active and effective in
performing their functions (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer,
The CoI framework is a process model that provides a co-
mprehensive theoretical frame that can support both the re-
search on online learning and the practice of online instruction.
It assumes that effective online learning requires the develop-
ment of a community (Thompson & MacDonald, 2005; Shea,
2006; cf. Swan et al., 2008) that supports meaningful inquiry
and deep learning. The importance of this matter is revealed by
the fact that it will be the young people of today that will as-
sume in the future important roles in the political, social and
cultural life of the world community.
In this context, the study we have developed aims to under-
stand the workability of the CoI model, while examining its
effects in self-learning skills. To this end, we aim to explore
possible relationships between face-to-face instructions, foster-
ing a valuable pedagogical relationship providing key elements
central to a collaborative learning environment, and an online
teaching model enabling the creation of learning communities.
Self-Learning Skills and the CoI Model
The concept of learning skills under analysis is a predictive
variable of the academic relation, associated to openness to-
wards the learning opportunities, made possible by day-to-day
experiences, and the ability to effectively use these formal and
informal experiences. So, to engage in learning is to awaken
within the self such skills as self-reliance, self-responsibility,
self-confidence in pursuing goals and active participation in
various social contexts, qualities that are required in all walks
of life (Nyhan, 1996).
As we know, the ability to learn by oneself is now an essen-
tial requirement for school achievement. An independent stu-
dent is one who can identify a need for learning and uses its
personal resources effectively, using cognitive, social and crea-
J. A. MOREIRA ET AL.
tivity skills in a systematic and flexible way (Faria, Rurato, &
Lima Santos, 2000).
The Recommendation of the European Parliament and
Council of the European Union (2006) on key competences for
lifelong learning states that the ability to learn is the basis of all
learning. Along with seven others, viewed as the combination
of knowledge, aptitudes and attitudes suited to the context, they
are needed for the achievement and development of all people,
for the exercise of active citizenship, social inclusion and em-
ployment. The remaining core compe ten ces identified ar e : co m-
munication in mother-tongue, knowledge of foreign languages,
mathematical competence and basic competences in science
and technologies, digital competence, social and civic compe-
tence, sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, cultural aware-
ness and expression. Now, students who learn to learn indepen-
dently, in a community and using IT tools are able to activate
core competences while dealing with school contents, while ex-
pressing themselves and applying knowledge to problem situa-
tions with which they are confronted.
Still following the Recommendation text, on the explanation
of learning to learn as being the “ability to pursue and persist in
learning, including through effective management of time and
information, both individually and in groups. (…) including
also the awareness of one’s learning process and needs, identi-
fying available opportunities, and the ability to overcome ob-
stacles in order to learn successfully… (Official Journal of the
European Union, 2006, L394/16).
This notion is close to the competence that authors such as
Rurato (2008) calls self-learning, i.e., key and core qualification
that implies that each individual has its own awareness, motiva-
tion, confidence and ability to learn continuously. In order to
learn to learn, student have to know the strengths and weak-
nesses of their skills and qualifications, know and understand
their preferred learning strategies and be able to seek available
formative and support opportunities. The individual should be
able to dedicate time to learn independently and be self-disci-
plined, but also to learn as a team, taking advantage of the
benefit of working with a heterogeneous group and sharing
knowledge acquired in a group (European Parliament and
Council of the European Union, 2006).
Indeed, the ability to learn by oneself is a basic human ca-
pacity, which becomes an essential requirement for living in
today’s world, self-learning becoming a way of life. However,
it should be noted that learning to learn requires intention, ef-
fort, discipline and responsibility, not to be confused with sim-
plicity, laid-back attitude or shallowness of the learning process
(Lima Santos & Gomes, 2009).
More than learning, learning to learn is an important means
to progress, for enrichment and personal and social well-being.
This regulatory and controlled dimension to promote the ability
to compete, cooperate and act is more and more decisive for the
individual and society, due to the knowledge that they have
accessed, built and mobilised (Lima Santos, Rurato, & Faria,
2000). The Recommendation in the Official Journal of the Eu-
ropean Union (2006) further states that this competence im-
plies not only that an individual should be able to access, proc-
ess and assimilate new knowledge and skills, but also know
how to seek guidance or advice. Learning to learn requires the
acquisition of basic core competences, such as literacy and
numeracy, scientific thought, command of the mother-tongue
and other languages; but the management of knowledge, skills
and attitudes also requires self-control and monitoring of proc-
esses to achieve expected results. However, this learning
“style” is often prior to and continued after formal learning con-
texts. Rurato (2008) corroborates the idea that the self-learning
competence applies to both traditional and formal learning si-
tuations and informal learning experiences provided by day-
to-day situations. The author points out that individuals who
have this competence view learning as a natural, everyday ex-
perience and are able to explore opportunities by effectively us-
ing formal and structured teaching experiences, while benefit-
ing from multimedia transmission systems and open learning
Currently, the term self-learning appears in online learning
environments often associated to an educational philosophy of
student-centred learning. In other words, the relationship be-
tween self-learning and the educational model proposed is vast
and flexible, enabling various ways of conducting the process,
either face-to-face or distance (Alonso, Manrique & Viñes, 2005).
The focus on self-learning places the student, the learning goals
and contents in direct relation, and separates the student at the
center of the process of the external educational agents.
To engage in self-learning is to awaken the capacity of self-
sufficiency, self-responsibility, self-confidence in the ability to
achieve goals and participate actively in various contexts (Lima
Santos, Rurato, & Faria, 2000).
Magalhães (2011) also states that self-learning must be de-
fined as the ability to learn in a pro-active, responsible and
independent way, in the sense that the student (re)builds its own
learning pathway, chooses the contents to be acquired and self-
regulates the learning process (although not necessarily alone).
More than a process through which students can gain know-
ledge, be educated and study independently based on the avail-
able contents, self-learning can allow learners to learn in an
active, independent and responsible way, learning at their own
pace and development; learn at their own initiative, steering
their own learning process; update and renew their knowledge
and skills according to their needs; build their knowledge that
will enable them to deal with future challenges, and value and
complement their training (Rurato, 2008).
So, based on these assumptions, we believe it is crucial to in-
vest in strategies that promote the sense of learning competence.
The study of the sense of competence in higher education stu-
dents is particularly relevant in this phase, and mostly in the
early years, because young adults face various personal and ex-
ternal challenges that test their internal resources and the ability
to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Being a less structured
learning context and showing less constraints than other learn-
ing contexts, higher education requires students to have a grea-
ter degree of self-regulation that enhances the expression of dif-
ferences in motivation and self-learning. In fact, in this period
there seem to be more chances of exploring alternatives, mak-
ing investments and increasing knowledge of oneself and one’s
abilities. The goal is, therefore, to learn to use personal resources
effectively and maximize them, using cognitive, social and cre-
ativity abilities in a flexible way.
In the pedagogical relationship, guidelines provided by the
teacher-tutor facilitate personal constructs and shared learning.
As such, our reference conceptual framework is th e already men-
tioned Community of Inquiry (CoI).
The Community Inquiry framework (Arbaugh et al., 2008;
Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Swan et al., 2008) is considered
one of the most promising schemes of modeling online teaching.
As a broad and integrated model, it explains successful teaching,
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
J. A. MOREIRA ET AL.
allowing the research and the monitoring of learning processes
in a collaborative, interactive and constructivist approach. The
underlying idea of the model is that an educational Community
of Inquiry is a group of individuals who collaboratively engage
in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct per-
sonal meaning and confirm mutual understanding (Garrison &
Anderson, 2003). In this sense, successful learning stems from
three critical elements which interact with each other and are
mutually influenced: the cognitive presence, the social presence
and the presence of teaching. Taking into account the vast lit-
erature defining these elements (e.g., Swan et al., 2008), we are
interested in testing our own educational experience. In other
words, to verify if in the teaching process we designed such a
structure and organization that encourages a diversity of per-
spectives that promote research, criticism and creativity in a
collaborative environment of learning.
In the end, we wish to foster learning communities of inquiry ,
preparing our students to be responsible and to look for the
meaning of their own educational experience, by self-regulation
and conscientious control through negotiation of meanings with
the communit y.
Context of Study
Participants and Pedagogical Models Principles
Based on the assumptions of the theoretical model and on
previous exploratory work on the CoI framework (cf. Garrison,
Anderson, & Archer, 2000), we expect that for all the groups of
students surveyed, the three presences—cognitive, social and
teaching—arise distinctly but are overlapping or related to each
The participants in this study are undergraduate students (n =
510) enrolled in blended online courses during the school year
of 2010/2011, offered through Moodle platform during one se-
mester at different Portuguese schools (polytechnic private in-
stitute and public university). It involved students of a Higher
School of Education, a Higher School of Health and a Faculty
of Psychology and Educational Sciences, in courses such as
Physical Education, Music Education, Basic Education, Physi-
otherapy, Radiology, Pharmacy, Clinical Analysis, and Psycho-
In Portugal, both University and Higher Schools enable high-
er education, but they differ somewhat. The goal of training at
polytechnic institutes is the creation, transmission and disse-
mination of culture, but mainly professional knowledge and
practice. Universities are high-level institutions oriented to the
creation, transmission and dissemination of culture, knowledge,
science and technology through study, teaching, research, ex-
perimental development and provision of specialized services
to the community. Thus, in universities the curricula is more
theoretical, and the experimental stage of professional initiation
is introduced in the last year of school.
Based mainly on the principles of constructivism, autonomy
and interaction, we sought to develop a model taking as refer-
ence the view of Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) based
on the development of skills and on student-centred learning.
These were the principles that guided the organisation of edu-
cation, the shaping of student and teacher's roles, the planning,
design and management of learning activities, the definition of
the types of materials to be developed and the nature of the as-
sessment of skills acquired.
Student-centred degree programmes must be designed in
such a way that learners will develop the particular mix of
competences considered useful and necessary for the academic,
professional and/ or vocational area (European Network of In-
formation Centres in the European Region and National Aca-
demic Recognition and Information Centres in the European
Union, 2010). The essential components of a degree are based
on inter-related dimensions described by the following Dublin
Descriptors: acquiring knowledge and understanding; applying
knowledge and understanding; making informed judgments and
choices; communicating knowledge and understanding; and ca-
pacities to cont i n ue learning.
In general, the skills to be developed by the end of first cycle
involve the “capacity to learn; commu nication skills; team work-
ing skills; information technology skills; problem solving; au-
tonomy; reflection skills; interpersonal skills; planning and time
management; problem solving; decision-making; appreciation
of diversity and multi-culturality; ethical commitment; critical
and self-critical abilities; capacity to improve their own learn-
ing and performance, including the development of study and
research skills; ability to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, to iden-
tify problems and work out solutions; firm knowledge of the
profession in practice” (cf. Tuning Project, European Network
of Information, 2010).
Thus, the student lies at the centre of this pedagogical model
and is an active element who builds his knowledge, committed
and engaged in the learning process and integrated in a com-
munity of learning. Overcoming the methods and instructional
tasks, the different teaching situations, present in this model,
are outlined according to the student and to a learning process
that seeks to lead to the acquisition of skills necessary to live in
the society of knowledge and to the specific skills related to the
field chosen by the student.
In this model, learning takes place using either individual
learning or using dialogue and interaction among peers and tea-
chers through cooperative and collaborative learning strategies.
Individual learning emerges from autonomous work completed
by the student, based on activities, learning objectives, biblio-
graphy and guidelines provided by the teacher. On the other
hand, collaborative learning emerges from joint work, sharing
experiences and perspectives, based on common goals and
work methods negotiated within the group. The creation and
organisation of student groups serve to interpret the view that
the construction of knowledge must be socially contextualized
(Garrison & Anderson, 2003). This model also defined a new
role for the teacher, to the extent that more than being a source
of information, the teacher becomes a guide, a facilitator of
learning who encourages students to interact in the learning
community. The teacher now becomes someone who encour-
ages and accepts student autonomy and initiative; encourages
students to talk with the teacher and to each other; encourages
them to solve problems and ask each other the solution; stimu-
lates them to take responsibility and stimulates discussion and
keeps up the curiosity of students (Moreira & Monteiro, 2010).
Another principle of the model is based on the rule of inte-
raction. In the first generations of distance learning, interaction
was essentially seen as student-content interaction and stu-
dent-teacher interaction. On the other hand, this model extends
those dynamics into a student-student interaction through the
creation of discussion groups within each class, and each virtual
classroom. This implies their previous planning and activation
strategies of learning, in order to stimulate initiative and in-
volvement of students, and to ensure their commitment, as well
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 465
J. A. MOREIRA ET AL.
as to guide the nature of their work. Based on the ideals of Per-
ret Clermont (1996), who states that the cognitive conflict cre-
ated by social interaction is the locus in which the power that
leads to intellectual development is generated, we sought to
develop a model that promotes this social interaction and the
consequent creation of learning communities or Communities of
Inquiry (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000).
Interactions are therefore shaped in this model as the practi-
cal basis of learning and are based on constructivist and socio-
interactionist theories, as they require the negotiation of con-
flicts and sharing of meanings (Monteiro, 2011).
Educational Envir on me nt Design
Development and Impl e m entation of the Online
Prior to the educational environment design of the curricular
units Dynamics of the Contemporary World and the Evolution
of the Portuguese Space and Theories and Models of Problem
Solving, it was necessary to take into account some principles
which may be generalized to the design of any curricular unit in
an online environment, namely: 1) the design must focus on
learning, aiming to achieve specific objectives, achievable and
measurable; 2) it should focus on performance or meaningful
achievements; 3) it must allow the results to be reliably and
validly measured by developing the necessary performance eva-
luation instruments and 4) it must be empirical and self-cor-
There were some structural components which were present
in all the above mentioned curricular units. First, every curricu-
lar unit produced a Semester Teaching Guide (STG), which
acted as the main reference to the student concerning the con-
tents, structure and activities. In its design, we tried to establish
a correct horizontal articulation among all its elements and a
vertical intelligible articulation. A clear description of the lear-
ning purposes and objectives was also required, defined accor-
ding to the students’ expected achievements and not just con-
tent-focused. The STG also includes the learning resources that
students should use (e.g. chapters, books and articles they
should read and those they should refer to in order to deepen
their knowledge; videos, images and websites related to the
study topics), the activities to be carried out and the evaluation
criteria. It is important to note that despite the specific guide-
lines of the STG, its implementation was never too strict. On
the contrary, the principles of flexibility and adaptability, con-
sidered by Garrison and Anderson (2003) to be indispensable in
constructivist e nvironments were always present.
Secondly, resources/learning objects referring to diverse and
attractive learning objectives were made available in the LMS.
Current articles related to the themes discussed and online mul-
timedia contents (in audio and video) were put at the students’
disposal, aiming to motivate them and to create a bond between
students and the teacher.
Thirdly, there was a great concern about the development of
tasks to be undertaken by students, i.e., focusing the whole pro-
cess on problems students must solve and, consequently, deve-
loping learning experiences (individual and collaborative).
Fourthly, the structuring element of the whole educational
process: the stimulation of virtual classrooms (forums) through
asynchronous communication. We consider this as a determi-
nant and structuring element of the whole process. As a result,
in all topics of the curricular units, it was our concern to pro-
mote ongoing asynchronous communication in the virtual class-
rooms, through three types of communicational standards: 1)
student(s)-content interaction, 2) student(s)-teacher interaction
and 3) student(s)-student(s) interaction. The forum was the pri-
vileged mean of communication to allow the debates to take
place between students and the senior e-teacher.
Finally, and not necessarily in this order, we have selected
the theories and models that we considered the most appropri-
ate ones. From the pedagogical point of view, we based our-
selves on the conceptual models congruent with the construc-
tivist learning models we stand for. Thus, among these models
we have selected, for its up-to-datedness, adaptability and per-
tinence, the problem solving models of Jonassen (1999) Con-
structivist Learning Environments, and the Community of In-
quiry model developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer
The subjects of this study were 510 undergraduate students,
338 (66.3%) female and 172 (33.7%) male students, enrolled in
higher schools and universities, public and private, taking blen-
ded online courses offered through Moodle platform during one
semester of the 2010/2011 school year. This study involved
Portuguese Health, Education and Psychology students. Among
this universe, 150 (29.4%) were Psychology students, 182
(357%) students of Health courses and 178 (349%) students of
Education. 150 (294%) of those students attended public Uni-
versity, 162 (318%) private University and 198 (38.8%) private
Higher Schools of Polytechnic Institutes. The students are aged
between 17 and 60 years old, but mostly between 17 and 34
years old (59.8% of the responde nts are in t he 17 - 24 age g roup,
and 248% in the 25 - 34 age group).
The instrument used to study the learning community in all
three teaching environments was the Community of Inquiry
Survey of Garrison et al. (2000) properly translated and adapted.
Like the original, the survey instrument contains a random se-
quence of 34 items of the ten categories of factors combining
combine the three elements that need to be present in any de-
sirable learning context, as they are distributed in the coding
template (Table 1, cf. Garrison & Anderson, 2003). Students
were asked to indicate their degree of agreement with each item
(from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree) on a five-point Li-
The 34 item instrument was implemented in three institutions
in the school year of 2010-2011, with singularities (e.g., public
vs. private school institution) and common features such as the
lecturing of identical courses. The sample criterion was to re-
cruit students whose teachers were tutoring online learning set-
tings through the Moodle platform.
In turn, the instrument used to assess the skills of self-lear-
ning was the Self-Learning Competence Scale (Lima Santos,
Rurato & Faria, 2000), with its 24 items adapted to online en-
vironments, for which the autho rs have granted their permission,
given the relevance of self-learning studies in these “new” en-
The Self-Learning Competence Scale—SLCS consists of 24
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
J. A. MOREIRA ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 467
Community of inquiry coding template.
Elements Categories Indicators (examples)
Triggering event Sense of puzzlement
Exploration Information exchange
Integration Connectin g i deas
Resolution Apply new id eas
Affective expression Emotions
Open communication Risk-free expression
Group cohe sion Encouraging c ollaboratio n
Design & org anization Defining/initiating discussion topics
Facilitation Sharing pers onal meaning
Direct instruc t ion Focusing discussion
items, each rated on a 5-point Likert-like scale in which “1-
Totally Disagree” indicates low competence and “5-Totally
Agree” indicates high competence, showing the degree of each
individual’s self-characterisation in each field of competence.
The SCLS items are organised in three general dimensions: 1)
Active Learning or Accepting Personal Responsibility through
Learning; 2) Learning Initiative and Guidance to Experience;
and 3) Learning Autonomy.
What the CoI Survey Reveals about the Communities
of Inquiry Instituted
Each student answered the survey questionnaire at the end of
the course. During the courses, each teacher created his/her
own dynamics, fostering knowledge and pedagogical relation-
ships through web mediation, particularly online forums. Or-
dinal responses were scored using a 1 - 5 point-scale (from
Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree). After statistic data pro-
cessing, we observed that mean responses for all the 34 items
ranged from 3.74 to 4.24, with a global median of 3.98 and a
variance of 0.016. Standard deviation ranged from 0.66 to 0.89.
The Shapiro-Wilk test of normality showed that none of the
analyzed variables presented a normal distribution along the 34
items, all of them with a negative skewness. Looking at the
descriptive statistics we can situate the central measures around
point 4, which reveals that, in general, students agreed that they
belong to a community of inquiry in all the indicators consi-
In order to understand if the three groups, taking into consi-
deration their different fields of study, differed about the way
they perceive themselves in the process and environment of
learning, we used the non-parametric Kruscall-Wallis test.
Through an analysis “of variance” by ranks, we found the ag-
gregate degree to which the groups differ. The Psychology stu-
dents’ group was the highest, ranking only in 5 items that have
in common a social dimension of learning in the community
(e.g., “I was able to form distinct impressions of some course
participants”, “I utilized a variety of information sources to ex-
plore problems posed in this course”, “I felt comfortable inter-
acting with other course participants”, “I felt that my point of
view was acknowledged by other course par ticipants”, “The
instructor encouraged course participants to explore new con-
cepts in this course”).
The group formed by Health students highlighted their sense
of participation in the inquiry community in other 5 items. All
of them dealt with instruction supported by communication: (“I
felt comfortable conversing through the online me dium”, “Brain-
storming and finding relevant information helped me resolve
content related questions”, “The instructor clearly communi-
cated important course topics”, “… clearly communicated im-
portant course goals”, “… provided feedback in a timely fash-
In all the other items, the group of Education students scored
the highest, differing significantly in measures assembling most
of the items. Since they are studying to become teachers, we
may speculate that perhaps they are more aware of the impor-
tance of a learning community. At the same time, they are
learning to be teachers following a model (White & Frederiksen,
1998) to implement and guide the teaching procedures with an
We also used non-parametric tests to study how variables of
the theoretical model of learning communities intended for on-
line or blended learning behave in terms of cognitive, teaching
and social presences and how often they occur. This way, we
expected to infer the probability that a particular event may
occur again. In that sense, on-line teaching allows the students
to better learn, equate and discuss subject matters aiming to
construct their academic development.
After we verified that all the 34 items were highly and sig-
nificantly correlated, conditions were in place to produce a mo-
del so that the various items share common factors.
The Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin Measure of Sampling Adequacy
test with KMO = 0.968, indicates a very good measure of the
adequacy of the variables to enter the model. And Bartlett’s
sphericity tests the hypothesis that the correlation matrix is not
the identity matrix (χ2 = 10,758,380, df 561, p < 0.001).
Taken together, these tests provide a minimum standard
which should be addressed before a principal components ana-
lysis (or a factor analysis) is conducted. Principal components
analysis is a method of data reduction, aiming to reduce the 34
J. A. MOREIRA ET AL.
measures to a few principal components. The purpose of the
exploratory factor analysis was to assess the underlying struc-
ture of the CoI instrument used to measure the three elements
after an online learning experience.
There were four factors with Eigen values greater than one.
The exploration of the underlying structure of the variables ro-
tating the four factor solutions obtained revealed the interpret-
ability of a simple structure evidenced by the intertwining of
the factors. Therefore, looking for the best correspondence to
the theoretica l model, we chose a three-factor oblimin sol ution.
We expect it to be the best solution since the three factors of the
community of inquiry are seen to be overlapping. Neither the
cognitive nor the social or the teaching elements could exist
without the others in an accurate experience of learning, even if
it is partially online web learning. So, taking into account the
assumptions of the theoretical model and previous exploratory
work, we used principal component analysis with oblimin rota-
tion to confirm the three elements. We expect them to be con-
sidered distinct but overlapping.
The three components extracted accounted for 55.6% of the
Hence, we can see that the relevance of principal components
analysis is to redistribute the variance in the correlation matrix
(using the method of Eigen value decomposition) in order to re-
distribute the variance to the first components extracted.
These results reflect the Pattern Matrix generated by the pre-
viously described principal component analysis. In support of
this analysis, loadings for the Structure Matrix differed slightly,
however both output matrices support the 3-factor model. There
are 18 items loading most heavily on Factor 1, 9 items loading
most heavily on Factor 2, which is consistent with the Teacher
Presence and, finally, 4 items loaded most heavily on Factor 3.
The interpretability of those factors in line with the frame-
work and design of the instrument, as to how student perceive
the cognitive presence concerning the construction of meaning
and understanding subject matters, encompasses the ability of
participants to come together for a common purpose. Addi-
tionally, the asynchronous virtual community in which students
interact may demand a significant teaching presence to manage
and monitor the cognitive and social dynamic and to create a
purposeful community of inquiry. This requires recognizing the
unique features to achieve educational experiences through the
three overlapping areas as the extraction procedures show, pro-
ducing 8 iterations.
Reliability of the factors (Cronbach’s alpha) was high and
acceptable, yielding internal consistencies equal to 0.93 for
Teaching Presence, 0.91 for Cognitive Presence, and 0.89 for
Social Presence (see Table 2).
In addition to the fact that Cronbach’s alpha measures high
internal consistency for each presence of a set of items, en-
forcing substantive arguments that the respective items measure
the underlying (or latent) construct, we have checked the uni-
dimensionality for each Presence assumed under the educa-
tional purpose of the courses through exploratory factor analy-
sis. We verified that for each Presence only one component was
For the Cognitive Presence factor, loadings in the component
matrix ranged from 0.632 to 0.769 and the Eigen value for the
first factor is larger than the Eigen value for the next factor (6.1
vs. 0.91). Additionally, the first factor accounts for 51.3% of
the total variance. This suggests that the scale items are unidi-
For the Teaching Presence factor, loadings in the component
matrix ranged from 0.677 to 0.796. The initial Eigen value for
the first factor is 7.1 versus 0.91, accounting for 55.2% of the
For the Social Presence, 53.4% of the total variance was ex-
plained by the first component with an Eigen value of 4.8, also
greater than the subsequent one, with an initial Eigen value of
0.8. So, Teaching and Social Presences are also uni-dimensio-
Being the reliable scale made up of items measuring au-
tonomous Presences, the next step was to observe the scores in
each presence (responsive to the framework) and to compare
the students by group. This rega rded how they assumed the cog-
nitive, social and teaching presence, when they learn from a
web platform resource.
Considering the total sample of 510 students, Cognitive Pre-
sence items yielded a mean score of 3.93 (s.d. = 0.52), and
ranged from 1.7 to 5 points in the agreement scale. Teaching
Presence items yielded a mean score of 4.11 (s.d. = 0.56), with
a minimum score of 2 and a maximum score of 5. Social Pre-
sence items collectively yielded a mean score of 3.86 (s.d. =
0.58), ranging from 1.1 to 5 points.
On average, all the groups of students score Presences near
point 4 of the scale (see Table 3). This suggests that all the
three Presences, both individually and jointly, reveal that stu-
dents group themselves in communities, in order to perceive
themselves as being cognitive and socially present in the lear-
However, there were differences in the scores obtained that
suggest the usage of Kruskal-Wallis one-way analysis of va-
riance by ranks. Using this non-parametric method we tested
whether samples of students from different courses and dif-
ferent Higher Education institutions originate from the same
distribution. The factual null hypothesis is that the populations
from which the samples originate have the same median.
Test statistics K-M taking as grouping variable the institution
presents χ2 = 7.886 (p < 0.05) in respect to the global CoI. Tak-
ing into account the respective mean ranks, we can read this da-
ta as indicating that the public University is a less consistent
community of inquiry. Looking for differences among the Pre-
sences, we found that only at the Teaching Presence level do
those institutional origins differ (χ2 = 10.898, p < 0.01). This
result is confirmed after comparing Public vs. Private polytech-
nic institutions using the Mann-Whitney test.
Using the course as the grouping variable in the K-M test, we
observed that Psychology students were the lowest ranked ones.
They revealed significant differences from the students of the
other courses in the global CoI (χ2 = 9.22, p = 0.01), in the
Reliability coefficients (Cronbach’s alpha) of each factor and of total CoI
Factors Alpha No. of items
Cognitive presence 0.913 12
Social presence 0.890 9
Teaching presence 0.932 13
Total CoI 0.964 34
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
J. A. MOREIRA ET AL.
Descriptives for each presence of the CoI survey by group of students.
N = 150
N = 182
N = 178
presence Min 2 2 2
Max 5 5 5
Mean 3.83 3.94 4.00
0.54 0.52 0.49
presence Min 2 2 2
Max 5 5 5
Mean 3.98 4.14 4.20
0.59 0.56 0.53
presence Min 1 2 2
Max 5 5 5
Mean 3.78 3.85 3.94
Std.D 0.59 0.57 0.58
CoI Min 2 2 2
Max 5 5 5
Mean 3.87 3.99 4.06
0.53 0.50 0.49
Teaching Presence (χ2 = 11.176, p < 0.01), in the Cognitive
Presence (χ2 = 6.898, p < 0.05), but did not differ from the oth-
ers in the Social Presence.
Oddly, when we compare students by gender through the
Mann-Whitney U test, only in Teaching Presence did the girls
exceed their male colleges (U = 25502.500, p < 0.05), similarly
to the Cognitive and Social Presences.
In order to portray the frequency and typology of the discus-
sion developed in the curricular units previously referred, we
present, by means of a social network analysis diagram, a brief
description of the forum interactions.
What the SLCS Reveals about the Self-L ea rni ng
As can be seen in Table 4, the Self-Learning Competence
Scale (SLCS) showed good internal consistency with a value of
0.948, while the various dimensions: 1) Active Learning or
Accepting Personal Responsibility through Learning; 2) Learn-
ing Initiative and Guidance to Experience; and 3) Learning
Autonomy, show values of 0.902, 0.814 and 0.818, respect
tively. Assuming that an instrument with an internal consis-
tency of 0.70 (Cronbach, 1984; Nunnally, 1978) can be consid-
ered fit to evaluate the variable to be measured (although, de-
sirably, the alpha should be above 0.80), we believed that the
instrument showed coefficients with very adequate internal
The correlation between the different sub-scales is also sig-
nificant (p < 0.01), which shows the consistency of the scale in
its entirety (see Table 5).
Analysis of internal consisten c y—Cronbach’s Alpha.
Cronbach’s Alpha No. of Items
ECAA 0.948 24
1 0.902 12
2 0.814 6
3 0.818 6
In the descriptive analysis, we have highlighted the central
tendency (mean) and the mean deviation as a measure of dis-
persion, the minimum a nd maximum scale va lue in the answers
given. Table 6 shows these values for each sub-scale.
The results show that the study participants used all points on
the scale, clearly expressing positive views on their learning com-
petences, with central values very close to 4, showing a positive
impact of online environments on the promotion of compe-
tences in terms of active learning, initiative or learning auto-
For the comparative analysis of the sub-cohort of participants
as regards gender and institutional origin of the training institu-
tion, we used a non-parametric statistics using the Mann-Whit-
ney test (Marôco, 2007). Despite the robustness of parametric
tests and the size of the cohort (N > 30), distributions are not
symmetrical or mesocurtical. On the other hand, no previous
studies were found in online environments to allow us to as-
sume that the variables under analysis would meet the require-
ments of normality in the population in question.
In the hypothesis tests for the differences, we found that, ac-
cording to gender, the distribution of results in any of the sub-
scales did not differ, and the perception of self-learning is com-
mon for both boys and girls.
However, when groups were compared on the basis of their
institutional origin, on all three sub-scales, students from poly-
technic institutions show more favourable means, and they dif-
fer significant ly from the university part icipants in the study as
regards all three s ub -scales (see Table 7).
Considering the axiomatic paradigm of education as a rela-
tionship, the proximity between teacher and students and among
students, jeopardized by the loss of the status quo of each of the
participants in the classroom open to everyone, seems to be re-
covered by the online learning process. In fact, the results ob-
tained in this study show the relevance of the community of
inquiry and their invaluable potential to promote competences
in terms of active learning, initiative or learning autonomy.
Indeed, regardless of the course and type of institution, we
have found that either group is constituted as a community in
all indicators. However, although they all perceive a strong so-
cial presence when the learning process is guided by web me-
diation, the study showed that he groups under analysis differ in
how they view the cognitive effects and the presence of teach-
ing. In particular, we found that polytechnic students attending
health and education courses, in the current context, are posi-
tively different when compared to university students attending
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 469
J. A. MOREIRA ET AL.
Correlations between SLCS s ub -scales.
Mean 1) 1 12
Mean 2) 0.869** 1
Mean 3) 0.846** 0.842** 1
Descriptives statistics for each SLCS dimension.
SLCS Min. Max. Mean Standard
1) 1 5 3.9143 0.53486
2) 1 5 3.9110 0.53791
3) 1 5 3.7575 0.62576
the psychology courses, which emerge as a less robust online
Since we wanted to understand why they differed, we mon-
itored some virtual classrooms using the SNAPP software and
the Netdraw to analyze the data, we concluded that the differ-
ences could be related to how teachers assumed different roles
in online discussions. Whereas in the virtual classrooms of po-
lytechnic students the discussions were teacher-centered, in the
university student group the discussions were shared by all
network members, and the teacher assumed a more peripheral
stance. This enabled university students to create small interac-
tion networks between its members and to be more autonomous.
That is, it appears that the teacher in this group assumed a me-
diating role, encouraging students to look for information,
helping them to reflect on the processes needed to grasp formal
concepts. More than imparting knowledge, this teacher sought
to guide the learning process by helping students to develop
their ability to learn single handedly. While bearing in mind
these principles, it seems also the teachers of other groups as-
sumed a more interventive attitude in virtual classroom discus-
sions, controlling the process through dialogue and systematic
mediation, which fostered a positive human interaction between
the teacher and the learners, not only in terms of cognition but
also in terms of emotions.
It is also interesting to note that the results of girls were
higher than those of boys in all presences considered, and that
their sense of community is significantly superior in the tea-
cher’s presence. In order to understand these results, we also
monitored some virtual classrooms with the SNAPP software
and found that the girls participated more effectively in the
discussions, which shows the decisive role they had in the con-
solidation of social-communicative and social-educational rela-
tions that were established in these communities. In this respect,
we believe that the variables of social-psychological circum
stances and the emotional aspects, related to their motivation,
satisfaction, imagination and creativity may explain these re-
We, also, concluded that the strategies and methods adopted
in the different schools, favoring work attitudes and collabora-
Mann-Whitney’s U test on the basis of training institution.
SLCS 1) SLCS 2) SLCS 3)
University 3.8 (0.60) 3.8 (0.58) 3.6 (0.65)
Polytechnic 4.0 (0.44) 4.0 (0.45) 3.8 (0.57)
U 7757.5 7511.5 7487.5
P 0.006 0.002 0.001
tive learning, clearly showed that the online environment,
whose design focuses on the development of competences had
very positive effects on how students view learning compe-
tences, according to the three considered dimensions: Active
Learning and Accepting Personal Responsibility through Le-
arning, Learning initiative and Guidance to Experience, and
Learning Autonomy. Regarding the differences between public
and private education, we concluded that there are significant
differences in perceiving the ability to learn actively and ac-
cepting responsibility through learning, as well as in the learn-
ing initiative and guidance to experience, where private educa-
tion students are at a clear vantage point. These more favour-
able results for private education students may be related to the
greater experience of their teacher, who is clearly more at ease
in these environments, while the public education teacher is less
experienced in e-learning modalities. Besides the influence of
teachers, we have to take into consideration the different train-
ing culture of both types of institutions.
Based on this data, we can conclude that it is increasingly
important to structure balanced relationships between social,
cognitive and teaching presences in order to provide significant
educational exp e riences.
In this sense, each community of inquiry of Portuguese
higher education students must be structured focusing specifi-
cally on what must be learned and the learning outcomes.
Moreover, teachers as tutors must explain how students will
learn to learn, directing the instruction to heuristic procedures,
including self-assessment, so that students are aware of their
sustained and systematic cognitive construction. The opportu-
nities of online learning are of paramount importance to allow
for convergence and provide benefits for all, so that the supply
of higher education can be an ongoing construction of all for all,
safe and with quality.
We need to emphasize that given their limitations these re-
sults should be interpreted with caution. Like any other work,
ours also has limitations, some of which we recognize imme-
diately, for e.g., external validity, since the results cannot be
understood as final and overall applicable. Indeed, note that the
empirical component of research is quantitative, resulting from
the quasi-experimental plan, because we our study consists of
about 500 public and private, polytechnic and university higher
education, already placed in classrooms, but not randomly,
drawn from what Moore (1983) called experimentally acces-
Our intention is to do justice to the theme, due to its rel-
evance and the impact it deserves in practical terms. In our
opinion, this work cannot be seen as completed, but it should
rather assume an instrumental nature, useful for those who want
to make use of it as a consultation or critique instrument, or
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
J. A. MOREIRA ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 471
even as a starting point for other pragmatically valid work, in
order to enrich the range of contributions to understand the is-
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