Six Blind Men and an Elephant: Why we need learning communities

blind_menIn a parable, six blind men were challenged to accurately describe an elephant.  To add to the challenge, each man was taken to the elephant alone and allowed to touch only one area of the animal.  When they were asked to describe the elephant they each have a completely different perspective:

  • One blind man grabs the tusk and says, “An elephant is like a spear!”
  • Another feels the trunk and concludes, “An elephant is like a snake!”
  • The third blind man hugging the leg thinks, “An elephant is like a tree!”
  • The one holding the tail claims, “An elephant is like a rope!”
  • Another feeling the ear believes, “An elephant is like a fan!”
  • The last blind man leaning on the elephant’s side exclaims, “An elephant is like a wall!”

Because each man was trapped in his own limited perception, none of the six were able to form a clear mental picture of the elephant.  If instead they combined their individual knowledge and openly shared their understanding, the blind men would arrive at a more accurate conclusion.  What the six blind men need is a learning community—a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding.

Community of Inquiry Model

COIWithout quality instruction and interaction, online learners are like the blind men—struggling in isolation to make sense of a new learning environment. Garrison’s Community of Inquiry Model (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007 ) provides a systematic framework to enhance online learning.  The COI Model identifies three components of online learning:  Social, Cognitive, and Teaching presence.  When all three are evident, online learning will be effective.  Social presence is when online learners feel a social and emotional connection to each other; cognitive presence is evident when learners are able to construct meaning through sustained reflection and discourse; and teaching presence is defined as the design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes to support learning (Swan, Garrison, & Richardson, 2009).

So how do we create communities of inquiry?

Let’s start with some operation definitions of the three components of the CoI model.


  • Online instructors can create social presence by establishing open communication, developing cohesive teams, and allowing students to express their personal beliefs.
  • Cognitive presence is the result of creating interest and excitement about new ideas and helping learners identify ways to apply the new ideas to their personal lives.
  • Finally teaching presence consists of two components–solid course design and facilitation.

Let’s expand this list together by identifying ways that online instructors can apply the three components of the COI model.  Let’s create a community of inquiry for online teaching.

Add a comment to this post and identify at least one method you might use as an online instructor to address each component of the model.  Your comment should include:  The idea or method, why you chose it, a description of how it might be used in an online course, and a link to a website or article that provides additional detail. You’ll want to include three different methods—one for social, one for cognitive, and one for teaching presence.  

About Kathleen Iverson

Chair Graduate Program in Training & Development Roosevelt University
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One Response to Six Blind Men and an Elephant: Why we need learning communities

  1. Fascinating and insightful parable. Reminds me of the picture of a monkey, penguin, elephant, fish in a bowl, seal and dog standing in front of a man sitting at a desk. The man then says, “for fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” (

    I especially found the COI model informative demonstrated in a Venn diagram, which demonstrates where each element overlaps, effecting the learner. The maximizing the learning environment to facilitate the most effective learning possible is essential. Figure 1 – The Definitions of Presence explains how this is accomplished.

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