Distance learning has many advantages, but also has challenges that face the learners of today. A major factor, like physical separation of classroom community members, can affect the type of support learners receive as they complete their online courses. Building a sense of community through distance educational experiences will promote student retention, course completion rates, and even increase the flow of information within the community. Instructors that design distance education courses should examine not only the content creation, but the affective component of community building to increase learner participation and achievement.

Types of Interaction

  • Interaction with course content—Instructors acting as facilitators, variety of presentation styles, multiple exercises, hands-on problems, learner control of pacing, frequent testing, clear feedback, consistent layout, clear navigation, and available help screens.
  • Interaction with instructors—establishing social presence and student perceived interaction is critical. Instructors must establish the managerial cognitive and affective role in the classroom.
  • Interaction among students—asynchronous interaction among students and development of discussion and social presence.

Building a Learning Community

The key to building connections and a warm learning environment online is simple: make it personal. Students want to feel that the instructor notices them, cares about them, and is there to support them. Following are some key tactics in creating strong online communities with students:

  • First names: Every time you address a student, in the discussions, by email, anywhere online, always use first names.
  • Personal notes: At the start of the course note a few facts about each student (Mark, Colorado, likes parks, wants to manage a wildlife refuge). Then, when relevant, integrate a personal fact into a comment you make (Nice work, John, on your discussion review of this nature preserve, which I expected since you would like to work in managing such areas after you graduate.). This takes very little effort or time on the instructor’s part, and makes the student feel like an individual who is valued and respected and will encourage them to feel more connected to and motivated in the online classroom discussions.
  • Include everyone: Make an effort to respond to students whose posts still have no replies, so that they will feel included and more motivated to participate as well.
  • Make communication channels clear: The instructor should set regular office hours or give students multiple means of contacting them (phone, a special discussion forum, office hours, online chat-hours, email). At a minimum, an announcement of the week’s due dates and work should be sent out on the first day of the week. It is recommended to send at least two updates a week to keep students on track. A variety of regular communication methods with the students helps them to feel like they are part of a connected community.
  • Allow small talk: Sometimes some discussion threads will break down into irrelevant chit-chat. Do not discourage this, as this allows the students the time to build stronger social connections that are important in keeping them motivated to participate in the online course. The instructor can reply and note the topic (Happy Birthday Sue!), and then gently guide them back onto the course topic with an interesting resource, fact, or question.
  • Explain Netiquette: Some people have the wonderful knack for clear communication skills online while others do not. At the start of the course give students an outline of what netiquette is, and how to employ it. Here is a quick review of netiquette:
  1. Explain that disagreement is wonderful but should be done politely. Give the students examples of polite disagreement (I respect and understand your views Jane, but I have a different experience I would like to share. . . ).
  2. Outline what emoticons are and how to use them to exhibit body language, meaning, and tone in the online format.
  3. Explain that ALL CAPITALS is equivalent to YELLING at someone.
  4. Tell students to refrain from sarcasm and even some jokes, as it is too easily misunderstood online.
  • Manage the Personalities: Most blended and online courses will have the same array of student personalities that the face-to-face course will contain; the bully, the dominate, the timid, the unmotivated, the struggling, the high achiever, the demanding, and so on. How these personalities interplay online will be different from course to course. The timid may need to be encouraged less since it is online and they may feel less shy than in face-to-face sessions. On the other hand, a bully is less likely to be rude or inappropriate in the classroom where the instructor is present but may be more trouble in the online discussions. It is important to bring in the shy and struggling while managing the difficult so that bullies do not ruin the learning experience of other students.

Example: Rude, inappropriate or offensive comments should be addressed directly and quickly to stop the behaviour immediately. If a student posts something rude, never ignore it. It will only get worse if you do not put a stop to it. If necessary, delete the offending post. If the offended student emails you complaining, don’t commiserate (Yeah, that was rude of him!), and don’t say how you will deal with the other student (I will email and tell him to get his act together), as that could violate student privacy laws if you do this. Just explain that you have heard their concern, and will deal with the situation. Next, contact the rude student right away. Explain that you had to delete the post (if it was bad enough to delete).

  • Important: Do not be too harsh or judgmental on the first offense. Give the student a way to save face so that they will be motivated to stop the behaviour and so that the situation is less likely to escalate or get worse. In some cases they really did not realise how inappropriate or rude something was and will stop if given the chance to learn from their mistake. There may be something else going on in the student’s life to make them be rude in the forums (sick one at home, death in the family, financial or familial stress). In most instructors’ experience a personal, but polite and kind, email to them will put a stop to the behaviour. In rare cases it may not, and then a stricter email may be warranted.

Watch this video for more information on creating a learning community in your online course (watchtime: 2 mins).

By Digitallearning Designunit

Online learning community building principles

Robust learning communities are formed when they include the elements of learning, belonging, and connectedness. Students develop a sense of community when they feel connected to others in their environment.

Community of Inquiry (CoI) Framework

CoI is an online learning model that focuses on collaborative and constructivist principles. Constructivist principles “recognise that the learner has prior knowledge and experiences, which are often determined by their social and cultural environment. Learning is therefore done by students’ “constructing” knowledge out of their experiences” (Wikipedia, 2018). The framework is used to analyse online learning environments and consists of three interrelated domains: social presence, cognitive presence, and teacher presence.

By using this framework in your practice, you ensure you are addressing the three critical presences (explained below) that exemplify sound practice in online learning.

Social presence denotes the level to which learners identify and associate with one another. It refers to an online environment that establishes a safe space for learners to share their ideas, explore differences, and collaborate. Building trust is the key to helping learners navigate the online space effectively. By contributing to discourse, articulating their thought processes, and discovering misconceptions, learners can cultivate a community of practice (Anderson, 2004).

Cognitive presence is the process of learners constructing meaning through dialogue, discourse, and reflection. It is grounded in the “epistemological, cultural, and social expression” (Anderson, 2004, p. 274) of that particular content in a way that supports the advancement of critical thinking skills.

Teacher presence can be broken down into three critical elements: design and organisation of the learning environment, design of interactive learning activities, and design and delivery of multi-modal content. In addition to these responsibilities, teaching presence helps facilitate the creation of new knowledge by both instructor and student. When designing and organising the learning environment, instructors need to think about how to scaffold learning activities so that learners continuously grow in their autonomy. Learning activities that encourage interaction with the content, community building and self-directed learning exemplify good practice (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000).

Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are learning communities. CoPs are groups of practitioners who “share a passion for something they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better” (Wenger, 2015). They provide spaces for critical discussion, interdisciplinarity, learner-centred thinking, and social innovation to take place. Participants can share ideas and suggestions, and engage in dialogue relevant to their specific areas of academic interest.

There are three characteristics of a community of practice:

  1. Domain: Community members have a shared domain of interest, competence and commitment that distinguishes them from others. This shared domain creates common ground, inspires members to participate, guides their learning, and gives meaning to their actions.
  2. Community: Members pursue this interest through joint activities, discussions, problem-solving opportunities, information sharing and relationship building. The notion of a community creates the social fabric for enabling collective learning. A strong community fosters interaction and encourages a willingness to share ideas.
  3. Practice: Community members are actual practitioners in this domain of interest and build a shared repertoire of resources and ideas that they take back to their practice. While the domain provides the general area of interest for the community, the practice is the specific focus around which the community develops, shares and maintains its core of collective knowledge.

An example of a CoP in the Pacific region is the Wisdom Community of Pasifika Teachers (WCPT), with the vision of learning, sharing, connecting, and moving forward together. It is a growing network of teachers of all levels from the wider Pacific region, with a common goal and the will to recalibrate Pacific education to optimise students’ learning outcomes and empower our generations for global competency and well-being. Visit www.pasifikateachers.org to learn more about this CoP.

Why Communities of Practice are important

According to Wenger (1998), communities of practice provide five critical functions. They:

  • Educate by collecting and sharing information related to questions and issues of practice.
  • Support by organising interactions and collaboration among members.
  • Cultivate by assisting groups to start and sustain their learning.
  • Encourage by promoting the work of members through discussion and sharing.
  • Integrate by encouraging members to use their new knowledge for real change in their own work.

The professional learning needs of educators are changing. Communities of practice offer a robust strategy for professional learning. Here is why:

  • Complex problems require more implicit knowledge, which cannot be codified.
  • Implicit knowledge can only be shared through conversations and observation.
  • Collaborative and distributed work is becoming the norm.
  • Knowledge sharing and narration of work make implicit knowledge more visible.
  • New ideas come from diverse networks, often from outside the organisation.
  • Learning is part of work, not separate from it. Communities of practice enable the integration of work and learning.

Module 4 highlighted the roles of a facilitator in communicating learning outcomes and course expectations to the learners, conflict management in ODFL environment, weaving and moderating online discussions, and successfully forming online learning communities. Online learning communities enhance collaboration in learning and assist learners to connect to each other.
To sum up, the Communication Skills for ODFL (CS4ODFL) is an online course that empowers teachers to improve their communication skills in Open, Distance and Flexible Learning (ODFL) contexts. The course encompasses the key components of ODFL communication through its four modules and gives hands-on experience to participants through the various activities in each module. Upon successful completion of the course, teachers can confidently employ the best practices that they have learnt in facilitating their ODFL courses.


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