Student Perceptions of Quality in Online Courses using the Community of Inquiry (CoI) Framework

California is in an educational drought and is facing a “college deficit” of college graduates. By 2030, it is anticipated that California will have a 1.1 million shortage of college-educated workers (Diaz, 2015). The struggle is real for people who want to get into college and for those who are in college trying to complete their higher education degree. As learners progress through the higher education system, various obstacles may happen in their lives to derail and divert their path to degree completion. To fulfill that desire, an increasing number of students are taking online courses and/or participating in online degree programs. The number of students taking online courses has increased for the 13th consecutive year (Allen & Seamans, 2016). This puts tremendous pressure on higher education faculty and administrators to demonstrate that online courses are equal to or better than face-to-face courses in terms of quality and student success due to the scrutiny about the quality of online courses by faculty, students, administrators, accrediting bodies, and legislatures. One of the ways to examine the quality of instruction is to evaluate levels of social, teaching, and cognitive presence in online courses. Using the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, this study looked at the perceptions of quality from the student viewpoint. The literature review revealed there is little research that looks at quality through the lens of a student. This is the first study to investigate all three elements of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework operationalized through the California State University (CSU) Quality Online Learning and Teaching (QOLT) instrument. The survey instrument measures undergraduate student perceptions of social, teaching, and cognitive presence in addition to accessibility, technology, and user support elements. The data from the 113 participants matriculating at a mid-sized, four-year university indicate that undergraduate students perceived the courses with all three elements of social, teaching, and cognitive presence to be high quality courses. The data from a single undergraduate instructor illustrates the importance of developing student-focused courses with social, teaching, and cognitive presence. Limitations, implications, and areas for future research are presented. Keywords: cognitive presence, community of inquiry, quality assurance, quality online learning and teaching, social presence, student perceptions, teaching presence