Q. How can a sense of community be developed among students in an online environment?


Updated: Jul 17, 2020

How a sense of community can be developed among students in an online environment: A review of literature

By Learning, Innovation & Research and the Learning Resource Centre at Michener Institute


In a classroom, a community is established through the development of a sense of belonging amongst members, a sense of agency, a sense of fulfilment of needs and the emotional connection amongst members (McMillan and Chavis 1986). However in the world of online or virtual education, the notion of community includes a) membership – a feeling of belonging to the virtual community, b) influence-individuals influencing others in the community, and c) immersion – the sense of flow during virtual community navigation.  influence of the people involved (Koh and Kim 2003). Development of a sense of trust and community is essential to maximize student involvement and engagement, and also is related to the perception of learning quality. Under the circumstances of COVID-19, education has been moved online to a large extent all over the world. To ensure that the quality of education and students experiences do not suffer due to the transition, it is critical to understand what factors influence the development of this sense of community.

This report briefly summarizes the recommendations discussed in current literature related to the development of a trust and community-building among students in an online educational environment.  This summary report is a position piece that is largely based on education literature over the past 5 years. The studies or articles centred around questions related to how the online learning environment is different from a face-to-face environment and what factors impact the experience of community and learning in the online environment.

Three overarching themes were prominent from this search about the online environment and its relationship with community and trust building. The first theme is one of difference: many articles discussed how there was a more ‘intellectual’ aspect to the online community. Another was the need for connectivity and structure, groups responded well to structured activities that forced them to engage with one another with ‘rules of engagement’. The final theme was that trust needed to develop in an open and respectful environment between fellow students as well as educators.


Key Takeaways:


Differences between online and in person environments

  • Small groups with focused discussion was perceived as better (Akcaoglu and Lee 2016; Chen et al. 2017)
  • Teachers role is far more complex and dynamic; the teacher must be a guide, conductor, participant (Haynes 2018)
  • A community must transcend mere sets of fragmented individuals through discourse that are more than just talk. Routines become more important; inviting others, allowing dissent, giving ownership, considering possibilities and a commitment to respect and openness become more important (Haynes 2018)
  • Create a warm and genuine atmosphere by offering help through message boards and online classrooms and follow through on these overtures creates a feeling of community and reciprocity (Garrison et al. 2010; Berry 2017)
  • Non verbals communication training for instructors may become more important as it is important to note what participants don’t say as much as what they do say (Arasaratnam-Smith and Northcote 2017).
  • In an online forum, as long as the individual is literate and able to articulate their ideas in written (typed) form, they have the opportunity to communicate ideas and interact with others without the hindrance of preconceptions based on appearance, smell, or mannerisms.
  • Unlike in face-to-face communication, each individual has a certain measure of control in how his/her self is presented to the rest of the group; even socially awkward individuals can vocalize and assert opinions. 
  • Students experience engagement connection and community when instructors use a wide variety of technical and pedagogical practices

Structured Engagement

  • Having prescribed engagements with students with clear expectations and deadlines is key (Chen et al 2017).
  • Use discussion boards with clear goals and due dates for responses, make engagement count for marks in order to give the discussion stakes (Chen et al. 2017)
  • Smaller group sizes that remained consistent through the semester were perceived as better for group assignments and discussions, for developing positive relationships (A et al. 2016)
  • Timeliness is extremely important, late participants can be extremely disruptive for group discussions or engagements (Akcaoglu and Lee 2016)
  • Giving the groups shared and specific goals and setting deadlines of relevant tasks and emphasizing the need to adhere to deadlines is important to build trust and community among members (Arasaratnam-Smith and Northcote 2017).
  • Using posting of comments or questions in a forum can be a useful way for students to engage but large volume of posts can be counterproductive as students perceive that their posts may remain unread (Akcaoglu and Lee 2016).
  • Providing opportunities for intellectual connection where students can exchange and express ideas without feeling under-stimulated or over challenged is important to establish a sense of affiliation (Arasaratnam-Smith and Northcote 2017).
  • Utilize technology to provide supportive feedback at every opportunity (Berry 2017)
  • Link the various aspects of the learning experience, draw connections between a students submitted work and their discussion posts for instance (Berry 2017)

Develop an open and respectful environment

  • You must engage with learners frequently, openly and with respect for their situations to develop a rapport and to help them connect with one another (all the citations basically agree on this)
  • Trust is developed through caring: caring means being receptive to what another has to say and allowing them to say it. Instructors should practice this in their interactions but also make sure to monitor online conversations to make sure this principle is followed in the online environment (Haynes 2018)
  • Allow students freedom, allow them to make mistakes but be there as a corrective support for when they don’t succeed (Haynes 2018). I see this as being in line with what Kerry and Nancy do – let the students have agency in a situation but be there for them when it does not go their way with feedback.
  • Create a personalized learning experience, use videos of yourself to give students feedback, use technology in innovative ways to give them a more intimate experience (Berry 2017)
  • Having a cognitive presence, along with social presence and teaching presence, is reported as being a required component of a community of inquiry, especially to ensure the community is purposeful and the learning is meaningful (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes 2005).



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Answered By: Melanie Anderson
Last Updated: Jul 17, 2020 Views: 90

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