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Author: Courtney Plotts

This article appears in The Best of the 2021 Leadership in Higher Education Conference, forthcoming from Magna Publications.

Post-pandemic teaching will ask us to focus on our classroom culture and how we connect with our students. Online learning culture is a specific culture found within the academic framework of higher education. Terms such as independent learning, self-efficacy, and self-identity are frequently associated with online learning culture. These terms align with individualistic cultural norms and the struggle of ethnically diverse learners who identify with communal cultural norms to find a place. Ethnic culture influences social and learning experiences (Aronson & Laughter, 2016; Booker et al., 2016; Campbell, 2015). This article presents a model of cultural presence to be used in conjunction with the community of inquiry (CoI) framework in online spaces.

CoI theory is widely applied to online teaching practices and course development. Available data suggests that CoI creates robust learning and social interactions in online spaces. It is often associated with online learning best practices and consists of three interconnected aspects of online learning: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence (Garrison, 2000; Garrison et al., 2010). Cognitive presence is one’s ability to make meaning of academic content (Garrison et al., 2010). Social presence is the psychological and social attribute of online spaces, and teaching presence is the skill of facilitation and delivery of curriculum and content in online spaces (Garrison et al., 2010). Although CoI is frequently referred to as a model of best teaching and learning practices, the influences of ethnicity and culture on social, psychological, and cognitive presence are not represented within the model, nor do any of the previous studies list this absence as a limitation. Communal cultural norms differ significantly from norms associated with online learning culture, such as independence and self-focus. Cultural differences increase acculturative stress among first-generation and diverse student populations (Cox-Davenport, 2014). By ignoring cultural differences, current best practices contribute to experiences of marginalization, isolation, and depression among underrepresented students taking online classes.

To bridge this gap in the research, I’ve developed a model of culture presence to increase the cultural scope of the CoI framework. I define cultural presence as “the intentional inclusion, use, and application of ethnic and cultural norms within the teaching and learning process that supports learning, student well-being, and meaningful outcomes. Cultural presence applies to teaching and learning, course design, and the student socialization in the online space” (Plotts, 2018, p. 2). There are five aspects of course design and teaching that construct cultural presence:

These five aspects of cultural presence are designed to work in tandem with the current model of CoI and are used to enhance learning experiences for underrepresented student populations.

Five rings around a center ring that reads "A Model of Cultural Presence." The outer rings read "Convergent vs Divergent Thinking," "Intentionality," "Collaborative and Contextual Learning," "Relational vs Transactional Design," and "Independent Learning and Outcomes."

Figure 1. Model of cultural presence

Intentionality is one’s ability to understand the how and why of what is occurring in their online space. Researchers noted that a specific and intentional focus from faculty is required for knowledge and skill regarding culturally responsive teaching (Soper & Ukot, 2016). To facilitate cultural presence in online spaces, faculty require specific training in areas such as collaborating effectively across culture, building and maintaining community, and fostering appropriate learning climates in virtual spaces with the use of culturally responsive models of teaching (Plotts, 2019).

Current design models of online teaching are transactional. These transactional models contribute to significant barriers to creating human connection. Transactional connections in online spaces are orchestrated and quantified (e.g., week one: post once, respond twice). Instead, faculty can focus on the relational nature of information delivery and exchanges by focusing on building a sense of community and course climate. This will help create more meaningful connections between students and their peers and students and the course content.

Independent learning is often associated with online learning outcomes. But the concept of independence is Eurocentric in nature. Instead, creating cultural presence focuses on the interdependence of learning for students in online spaces. Cultural presence applies opportunities such as social modeling, building peer support, and the increase of interconnectedness as cultural norms within the online course.

Online culture is often associated with one’s ability to think critically. Garrison et al. (2010) originally placed more value on cognitive presence (critical thinking) than on social and teaching presence, but they found that cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence were equivalent and contributed equally to learning outcomes in online spaces. Yet, communal cultures often support or show preference for divergent (creative and imaginative) thinking over convergent (critical) thinking. Applying the model of cultural presence within an online course increases opportunities for divergent thinking within the teaching and learning process.

Finally, collaborative and contextual learning are associated with online learning best practices. The current models of CoI and collaboration, however, rarely highlight the role culture plays in collaborative experiences. Current models omit the importance of how ethnic student groups use cultural norms to socially position themselves in collaborative experiences. This absence contributes to negative experiences for underrepresented populations. Social positioning via cultural norms is an important aspect for many minoritized students working collaboratively in online spaces (Maldonado Torres, 2014).

Cultural presence is an important facet of effective online teaching and learning. Community psychology, multicultural psychology, and learning and cognition research highlight the importance of effective culturally responsive teaching for minoritized student groups. The lack of culturally responsive teaching in online spaces contributes to the acculturative stress among various student populations. Using this model of cultural presence for online spaces can support faculty and instructional designers in creating robust learning experiences for students of various ethnic groups.


Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163–206. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654315582066

Booker, K. C., Merriweather, L., & Campbell-Whatley, G. (2016). The effects of diversity training on faculty and students’ classroom experiences. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.20429/ijsotl.2016.100103

Campbell, E. L. (2015). Transitioning from a model of cultural competency toward an inclusive pedagogy of “racial competency” using critical race theory. Journal of Social Welfare and Human Rights, 3(1), 9–27. https://doi.org/10.15640/jswhr.v3n1a2

Cox-Davenport, R. A. (2014). A grounded theory of faculty use of humanization to create online course climate. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 32(1), 16–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898010113499201

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2010). The first decade of the community of inquiry framework: A retrospective. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1–2), 5–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2009.10.003

Garrison, R. (2000). Theoretical challenges for distance education in the 21st century: A shift from structural to transactional issues. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v1i1.2

Maldonado Torres, S. (2014). The relationship between Latino students’ learning styles and their academic performance. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 38(4), 357–369. https://doi.org/10.1080/10668926.2012.761072

Plotts, C. (2018). Cultural presence: Applications for teaching and learning models in online spaces: Best practices (1st ed.). CASEPS National Certification Curriculum.

Plotts, C. (2019). The space between: Identifying cultural canyons in online spaces and the use of LatinX culture to bridge the divide. DCB Publishing.

Soper, T., & Ukot, E. (2016). Social presence and cultural competence in the online learning environment (OLE): A review of literature. American Journal of Health Sciences, 7(1), 9–13. https://doi.org/10.19030/ajhs.v7i1.9692

Courtney Plotts, PhD, is the national chair of the Council For At Risk Student Education and Professional Standards.