How to Build Learning Communities Online

giant open laptop with students studying on and around it
Online LearningStudent Success

Article Summary

  • Show students they are a priority and engage frequently through several forms of content.|Leverage forums and group work in order to establish community.|Understand the benefits of building community such as student confidence, support networks and more.|Set up different communities for various occasions and purposes.
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Sherri Singer is a Professor and Department Head for Social & Behavioral Sciences at Alamance Community College in North Carolina.


Learning communities have been a topic of discussion since the 1990s. Instructors know that engaged students are more likely to achieve success, as well as develop self-reliance and confidence. Quality online learning communities encourage students to connect with instructors and one another, as well as actively analyze course materials.

Creating an environment where instructors and students are engaged with each other, and the material, requires leveraging different methods to meet students’ needs. In a seated course, mini conversations occur before and after class and the value of hallway conversations is immeasurable. We have to be creative and use attention-grabbing techniques to replicate that in an online environment. Instructors need to establish their course presence, design interactive assignments and encourage students to assume leadership roles outside of class.

As instructors, we put a tremendous amount of time and effort into course development. By the time our courses begin we feel like we should be through. However, this is when the work truly begins.


Provide a Thoughtful Community from Day One

On the first day of class, we should proceed as if we have not prepared for class. In other words, online courses can’t be treated like Crock Pot meals, with that old “set it and forget” mentality. We can’t just prep beforehand, recycle an old course and not engage. Online courses aren’t all that different than face-to-face courses, in that we need to continuously devise ways to connect with our students. It’s critical to ask ourselves: “How can I build a bridge today between myself and my students?”

Establishing an online presence helps students acclimate to the course and the online learning platform. They need to feel as though they are part of our courses and that they are a priority, not an afterthought.

Day one for instructors should include a welcome announcement, an email and a video. Students need to see us front and center as we introduce ourselves and the course requirements. If nothing happens in that first week, students often assume the course will be a breeze. I establish course work on the first day/week to help set the stage for the rest of the semester. Doing this shows my students I care about them before the class even starts. “I care about you from day one” sends a better message than “I care about you because you haven’t really participated in my course yet.”

We then need to remain engaged throughout the semester: holding online office hours; regularly posting announcements, recorded lectures, funny cartoons or memes; and showing continuing concern for our students.

Creating an online learning community begins by showing students there is an instructor inside the computer who is willing to engage. The next step is delivering course content that captivates students from a group perspective.


Facilitate Activities that Build Connection

Course assessments, such as forums and group work, are a training ground for establishing learning communities.


Many instructors utilize discussion forums with open-ended prompts to encourage participation. The first forum in almost every course is the dreaded ice breaker, “Tell us something about yourself” forum.

Students who are new to online learning, or lack self-confidence, are often uncomfortable with open ended discussions. Faculty will have better results if they have students participate in an activity and report back to the group. These activities can revolve around topics such as:

“What five items could you not live without?”

“Do you agree with your historical figure quiz results?”

“Which famous businessperson would you eat lunch with and why?”

Topics like these are easy to answer and create fun discussions. In these discussions, everyone is equal and personal lives are left out of the equation.


Students also need guided prompts when they begin working in the material. A quality prompt connects the material to real-world experiences and provides a guide for their responses to classmates. Assigning students to discussion debate groups can be as simple as assigning topics to last names.

Each group must complete a prompt and then debate the issues with their classmates. Guiding students through those first few forums helps to build students’ self-confidence and sets an expectation for future assignments.

Group Assignments

Online learners need human interaction in real time. Group assignments are a perfect way to encourage students to interact with each other. Keeping groups to four students offers them a chance to participate, and even numbers provide a voting balance.

Creating breakout rooms in Zoom for five-minute breaks for students to talk to each other develops a sense of community. Topics can range from random support check-ins to content-driven discussions.  Those crucial minutes allow students time to talk with each other without any instructor expectations.

Once a rapport has been established, students will be more likely to work with their peers, answer questions or participate in group sessions. Setting the stage for discussions creates a foundation for your community.


See How Students Benefit from a Sense of Community

Students benefit from learning communities when they are involved and confident. Instructors can encourage students to support each other by establishing safe lines of communication.

Many universities are now using apps like Discord and Slack to create a safe place to ask questions or provide reminders. The apps are phone-driven since students are rarely separated from their devices.

Encouraging students to answer their classmates’ questions creates self-confidence for students who can answer, creating a safe place to ask questions and provide answers in real time.

Students who email faculty at night may not get a response until morning. Posting a question in an app might provide them the answer immediately. This new support network quickly increases interaction with peers, completion rates and time spent on tasks.


Set Up Communities for Any Occasion

Learning communities can be developed for a variety of groups such as courses, first-year students, honors students or special interests.

As faculty, our focus is course-driven with student success and retention goals. Our students, however, often need more interaction than the course or classroom provides. Utilizing clubs and student organizations, even if those events are online, provide students with additional opportunities.

The goal of online learning communities is to increase student interaction with their peers, establish support networks and encourage self-reliance, confidence and leadership abilities. The more options students have, the more likely they are to succeed.


To learn more about online learning communities and more, watch the recording of our webinar, “Oral Exams: The Secret to Assessing Students During COVID.”