Creating Student Learning Communities Online

Online courses provide students flexibility in choosing the environment and schedule that works best for them. However, students might find online courses isolating when they aren’t interacting with their classmates or the teacher.

To engage learners and maximize their online learning experience, it is important to promote social interaction. There are three elements necessary to create student learning communities for online courses:

  1. Teaching presence is the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001).
  2. 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 individual personalities.” (Garrison, 2009)
  3. Cognitive presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

The key to successful online learning relies on an effective learning community as the vehicle through which learning occurs online. Collaborative activity can help alleviate feelings of isolation by purposefully connecting learners with one another through various learning activities and promoting interdependence.

How to Get Started

Step 1: Build a Personal Connection

Just as you might do in a face-to-face classroom, set up your course to encourage a learning community from the start. Building a personal connection is crucial for an active online learning community so make sure to take the time to get to know your students and encourage all students to get to know each other.

  • Include your bio and a photograph to give students a personal connection to you and to the course.
  • Create a welcome video describing the journey you will be taking together and your expectations and goals for the course.
  • Set up an introduction forum where everyone can break the ice and share their academic background and goals. Make sure to encourage learners to reply to comments and interact with each other in a meaningful way.

Step 2: Know Your Learners’ Needs

Students are more likely to participate in an online learning community if they can see a real value. Before you can create an online learning community that meets your students’ needs, you have to know what those needs are. You can conduct a quick survey the first week of class to determine each student’s goals and expectations for the course. 

Step 3: Formulate a Shared Goal for Learning

An important element of community, whether it is face-to-face or online, is the development of shared goals. In the online classroom, those goals should relate to the learning process. The following techniques can help move students in the direction of embracing a shared goal:

  • Create guidelines for student-to-student interactions and have students discuss them. By engaging in discussion of the guidelines posted by the instructor at the beginning of the course, group members form a contract for their learning.
  • Posting Introductions and Learning Expectations. Beginning the course with introductions allows students to get to know each other. You can have students share their expectations for the course to encourage interaction among the learners and to welcome each learner as they enter the class.
  • Encouraging Comment on Introductions. Respond to student introductions and encourage other participants to do the same. Not only does this practice enable students to begin opening up to each other but it also begins creating a safe space in which they can interact.
  • Forming Teams. Another means by which you can promote collaboration in the online classroom is to create teams for:
    • Small-group discussion or engagement in activities
    • Completion of short-term or semester-long group assignments

Step 4: Promote Feedback

An important element of an online course is the expectation that students will provide constructive and thoughtful feedback to each other. New online learners tend to not know how to give feedback that promotes collaboration. Therefore, the expectation of substantive feedback should be built into the course and delineated in the guidelines posted at the beginning of the course.

Step 5: Be Present

The key with establishing your online learning community is to create a sense of constant presence throughout the semester. Make sure you actively answer email, monitor discussions, post reminders, and hold office hours so your students get the help they need without delay.

Best Practices

Create an Environment of Trust

In order for participants to connect with each other in an online classroom, there must be a sense of safety and trust. Participants must feel comfortable that the others in the group will post messages that provide open, honest feedback. In addition, participants must feel that their posts will be received in an atmosphere of caring, connection, and trust. If all of this is to occur, members of the online group must be honest with each other, and with the instructor or facilitator as well. Although honest feedback is sometimes difficult to hear, when delivered respectfully, it is critical to the development of an online learning community and to the transformative nature of this type of learning.

Stimulate Responsiveness

Through interactions with each other, members of the group create an understanding of the material they are struggling with together. In addition, the importance of collaboration in achieving learning outcomes hinges on the group’s ability to work with and respond to each other. Dialogue between a given student and the instructor simply is not enough. The responsiveness of the instructor to the needs and concerns of the participants is also a key element. If participants are struggling with the reading material, the assignments, the technology, or with interacting with each other, the instructor should be prepared to quickly intervene.

Promote Respect

In order to promote a cohesive learning community, members need to feel that they are being respected as individuals. This begins with an initial welcome to the group and continues through the respectful receipt of their posts and the receipt of constructive and expansive feedback on the material they present. Members agree to maintain a code of ethics, including an agreement not to harass or stalk another member. Guidelines negotiated by the group need to include the requirement that everyone show respect for the other participants.

Establish Netiquette Rules

Anytime you get a group of people in one place, even if it is a virtual place, you are bound to have differences of opinion. Although not always the case, differences of opinion can turn into conflicts and these can be prevented by creating netiquette rules for online discussions. Netiquette rules should indicate how online learners are expected to participate and which behaviors are not allowed. It is also important to address how to resolve conflicts that arise in the online learning community and how violations will be handled.

Incorporate Real-Life Experiences into the Course

Relating the subject matter to students’ life experiences and encouraging them to seek out and share real-life examples to illustrate it enhances the learning outcome. Every participant has something relevant to share with the group, whether it is a story from their workplace or family life or a pertinent case example. Encouraging students to bring their experiences into the online classroom helps the entire group in the meaning-making process.


Creating Teaching Presence

Below are a few strategies that you can implement to maintain an online presence in your course, which will help you maintain a culture of engagement and participation among your students:

  • Make sure that your Learning Management System’s (LMS) notification settings are set appropriately to receive alerts when students send you email, private messages, or post a question to a forum.
  • Log in frequently and when you do, have an organized plan for what you want to do. 
  • Check the discussion boards to verify that students are working hard to be engaged; if so, you may want to offer feedback and appreciation for their contributions.
  • You may also want to monitor your discussion boards to see if there is any bad behavior that requires your attention. If you see negative behavior such as conflict, bullying, or anything of the sort, it’s your job to intervene and ensure a safe environment for participants.
  • Look to see if any assignments have been submitted and need grading. Students appreciate prompt feedback and grading, which also keeps them engaged and motivated throughout the course.
  • Set office hours or a specific time that you can commit to checking on your online course and be available for your students.  It’s also a good idea to reach out to students to see how they’re doing. Don’t always assume that they have the confidence to come to you with a question or issue that they may be having.
  • Provide students with consistency. Running a successful online course can be a difficult job. It does involve a lot of work and sustained online presence. However, if you are successful in creating a collaborative and engaging culture, it can be extremely rewarding.

Creating Social Presence

At the beginning of the semester, assign students to asynchronous discussion groups of four to five members each. Students will work within their particular group all semester long, using their own discussion forum or meeting via Zoom or Google Hangouts. To assign members to each group, look at the class roster and try to include a mix of different majors or areas of study within each group. This will bring unique and diverse perspectives to the group’s discussions.

For the group activities, each group can be asked to work on small group assignments or one semester-long group project that may involve presenting the project to the rest of the class at the end of the semester. Provide guidance for team members to evaluate each other’s work, participation, and contribution to their collaborative product. This can serve as an incentive to promote collaboration as well as to equalize the workload involved.

Creating Cognitive Presence

Collaboration and the ability to promote interdependence is a critical element in the formation of an online learning community. Consequently, it is important that the instructor in an online course pay close attention to ways collaboration can be incorporated and facilitated throughout the course. Consider these other forms of collaboration:

  • Blogs, or online journals, where students can reflect and invite comment on those reflections
  • Wikis or collaboratively created web pages
  • Jigsaw activities where students are either assigned or choose a piece of a research puzzle and collaborate to bring the information together
  • WebQuests, where teams of students are sent on an internet-based scavenger hunt, the result being a comprehensive presentation or solution to a problem
  • Learning cycles that allow students to progress through a series of activities resulting in increasing skill acquisition

Regardless of the way in which collaboration is used, it is critical for the instructor to set the stage for it through the formation of a solid learning community. Although collaboration helps shore up the foundation of that learning community, the presence of community certainly helps facilitate successful completion of collaborative work.