Mar 06, 2017

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How to build an engaged online learning community

By Olivia Molteno


Whether completing a degree, or taking a short course online, the process of learning should consist of more than merely absorbing information from a screen. Learning in an unconnected environment can cause motivation – and consequently performance – to plummet. True learning and engagement involves learners becoming a part of a learning community, and having a sense of community makes the experience of learning online feel more real, more human, and ultimately, more achievable. The online facilitator has a crucial role to play in establishing this sense of community.

An online learning community can be defined as:

“a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct meaning and confirm mutual understanding.” (Garrison, 2007:61)

Developing a learning community shouldn’t only be built into the design of an online course, but should be actively fostered by the facilitators and instructors. In fact, students rank instructor modelling and facilitation as the most important element in building an online community (Bloom et al., 2007).

The development of the learning community has two core benefits worth highlighting:

  1. Students’ learning improves and is made more meaningful through interaction with other students.
  2. Students who feel more a part of their learning community are less likely to disengage or drop out from their course.

In a healthy, active learning community, ideas and experiences are shared, and perspectives shaped, through learner engagement and interaction.

Real learning happens in spaces that promote discussion, reflection, and collaborative teamwork

Spaces like these can exist in discussion forums, tutorial discussions, group work, and live tutorials. Platforms for engagement, however, can also extend to more social environments. For example, students might create groups on Facebook where they can share course material and engage socially.

The relationships developed between students can be beneficial in a multitude of ways. When a student is struggling with their coursework, the strong relationship built with their classmates is vital. Not only can students share their insights and motivate one another, but they might also relate to one another’s experience.

The difficulty in learning online is that students can feel isolated, and the learning process can be an incredibly alienating experience. MOOCs were expected to revolutionise education, and arguably they have. However, students who have enrolled in MOOCs complain of feeling as if they were “learning in a void,” and as if “there was no sense of community”. Students note that they want “a human connection beyond the streamed lecture” (Westervelt, 2013). When students have the added sense that there are others listening and that they are seen by their peers, the learning journey becomes a far more gratifying and rewarding experience. Students should gain value from grappling with the course content with peers in a comfortable and safe social space rather than just using the virtual learning environment as a space to socialise.

By developing learning communities, we move away from the model where the facilitator is the “sage on stage”, to one where the facilitator acts as a guide (Donovan, 2015). This shifts the mode of responsibility; students have a sense of increased accountability for their learning, while course design and facilitators enable learning opportunities.

In facilitating opportunities to learn, it’s important to consider the social complexities of interactions

There are three elements of a learning community to consider (Garrison, 2007):

  1. Teaching presence relates to how the course is designed and facilitated. The objective is to direct students to meaningful and educationally-worthwhile learning outcomes. The teacher is always present throughout the presentation of the course, coordinating almost the entire process. The facilitation function is critical to creating the sense of community. Blau and Gorsky (2009) highlight various studies that demonstrate the importance of teaching presence, and emphasise that “the consensus is that teaching presence is a significant determinant of perceived learning, student satisfaction, and sense of community.”
  2. Social presence is the capacity for students to relate to the group, and the ability to engage in a trusting and safe environment. Within the learning environment, students should feel as though they are able to develop relationships and express their individuality. Facilitators need to foster an environment that promotes interactivity, participation, dialogue, and reciprocity.
  3. Cognitive presence relates to the process of how students move towards a common understanding. Once a question or task is posed to students, it is important to consider how they draw their conclusions. The facilitator is required to create a space where students can correct misconceptions. The facilitator also needs to ask probing questions (and provide additional information) to generate students’ critical thinking. Therefore, progression to the solution requires facilitator direction.

In the above three phases, it is part of the facilitator’s responsibility to establish the appropriate climate for social learning. Conditions need to be created that aim to increase levels of student comfort, and create spaces where students can openly express their opinions and engage with one another. Student engagement, nonetheless, naturally evolves through the weeks of a course’s presentation.

What does the evolution of a learning community look like?

If we consider an 8-10 week course, according to Wilcoxon (2011), there is an evolution of the online learning community. From the beginning of a course, it’s the instructor’s role to be a social negotiator to newcomers. Student collaboration and interaction are not instinctive to those who have been educationally socialised in a lecture-based system. Students will need guidance. In weeks 3-4, students should become more cooperative, while the facilitator engineers conversation and engagement. During these first weeks, the facilitator develops relationships with the students where trust is earned. Moving into weeks 5-6, the instructor moves away from engineering conversations, to facilitating conversation. It is in this phase that students are a part of the process and act as collaborators. In the final 7-10 weeks, the instructor becomes more of a challenger, attempting to cognitively stretch students’ thinking, in light of what they have learnt. Students in the last phases of their course should become initiators, and partners of the instructors in their learning journey.

Online interactions need to be managed effectively

Considering the complexities involved in the evolution of a learning community, management of discussions is vital in achieving smooth transition between phases. Wilcoxon (2011) suggests that instructors need to note how issues arise during the phases of development. Instructors are encouraged to:

  • Ask good questions that provide complete initial instructions;
  • Monitor group interaction consistently;
  • Redirect, clarify, or provide additional information if discussions go off topic;
  • Summarise content at key points within the course, promoting the movement towards closure of the topic;
  • Privately engage with students who participate too much, do not participate enough, or are netiquette offenders;
  • Attempt to manage conflict when it arises, and consider taking those disputes offline; and
  • Make the evolution of expectation clear, as they move through the phases of learner engagement.

In developing an online learning community, the facilitator plays a crucial role. Skill is required in recognising when to play the part of reassuring guide, helpful teacher, or challenger who pushes their students to operate outside of their comfort zones. At every step, the facilitator should be focused on building an online learning community that provides support, access to knowledge, and a space to be stretched academically, thereby enhancing the student’s learning experience.

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Further reading:

Donovan, J. 2015. The Importance of Building Online Learning Communities. Available:

Garrison, D. 2007. Online Community of Inquiry Review: Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence Issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 11(1):61-72. Available:

Blau, I. & Gorsky, P. 2009. Online Teaching Effectiveness: A Tale of Two Instructors. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 10(3). Available :

Bloom, L., Sherlock, J. & Vesely, P. 2007. Key Elements of Building Online Community: Comparing Faculty and Student Perceptions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 3(3):234-246. Available:

Westervelt, E. 2013. The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course. Available:

Wilcoxon, K. 2011. Building An Online Learning Community. Available:

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