Building Community in an Online Class

Published: Tues., August 6, 2019

Students have been taking college courses remotely and away from campus for over 100 years. What began with mail-in/correspondence study has given way to courses being offered over the Internet using e-learning platforms. Regardless of your reason for taking an online class, you will find that there are many ways to connect with the other students in the class even if you don’t see them in person each week.

In mail-in/correspondence study format, the learner was isolated and interacted only with the instructor. In most cases, students could begin courses at any time, courses were self-paced and did not follow a regular schedule. There were no fellow classmates to interact with, no group projects, or sharing experiences with others who were in the same course. It was a one-on-one experience with the instructor who provided the content to be learned and who assessed the student’s grasp pf the material based on assignments and examination.

However, with the advent of online courses and the transition to leaning management systems such as Blackboard and Canvas, the learning environment has become much more active. Teaching methods, expectations for students, and course learning outcomes have changed. Today, the emphasis is on active and shared learning experience for students. The virtual classroom has become a community of learners with each other and the instructor.

The Online Learning Community

In the modern virtual classroom, students are not merely the passive recipients of the course material and instructor’s expertise. Student expectations include thinking critically about the course content, submitting responses to review questions, commenting on classmates’ postings, leading class discussions, participation in collaborative group projects, and receiving feedback from the instructor.

So, how is community of learners formed in an online course? What are the typical characteristics and practices? Taking an online course is more than sitting in front of a computer. Connecting with fellow students and the faculty member is crucial to get the most out of the experience (Rovai et al, 2004).

Instructors might encourage students to reach out to classmates with similar life circumstances as the first step to building relationships in the online environment. Fellow students could be cohorts in the same graduate degree program or students from a variety of other disciplines taking a required general course, e.g. statistics or research methods.

Students may also form their own communities from the online courses. If your instructor has asked you to introduce yourself to your classmates, your classmates may have provided information about shared interests or work experiences. Or perhaps you are in the same part of the country as someone else in the class and you could meet up in person. Just because you are taking an online class doesn’t mean you have to take it in isolation. Seek each other out and make connections. These relationships not only provide you with people to bounce ideas off of when working through the assignments, but you may also find that these people will be able to help you navigate the class or your program.

Most of the interactions within the learning community come via discussion boards. This may also be where you start to form relationships with classmates. Instructors can also model how to carefully read one another’s discussion posts and follow up with additional probing questions leading to a better discussion and conversation. Be open-minded and accepting of differing opinions or interpretations. When you disagree with someone, you should express your differing opinion in a respectful, non-critical way. Responding thoughtfully and critically to discussion posts can help build connections. A simple reply like “I agree” or “Good point” or “You don’t know what you are talking about” is adding nothing to the learning experience of the community. Leading class discussions and doing your part for group projects are also ways to enhance the community of learners.

Among the “netiquette” tips suggested by University of Florida’s Center for Teaching Excellence (2012) are:

  • Make posts that are on topic and relevant to the course material.
  • Review and edit your posts before sending.
  • Be as brief as possible while still making a thorough comment.
  • Always give proper credit when referencing or quoting another source.
  • Be sure to read all messages in a thread before replying.

The learning experience in an online community can be very enriching for both the students and faculty member. In addition to gaining valuable expertise in one’s academic area and engaging in scholarly discussion, it is an excellent opportunity to improve your relationships with others and communication skills, and help form your professional identity.


Rovai, A. P., Wighting, M. J., & Lucking, R. (2004). The classroom and school community inventory: Development, refinement, and validation of a self-report measure for educational research. Internet and Higher Education, 7 (4), 263280. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2004.09.001

University of Florida, Center for Teaching Excellence (2012). Netiquette Guide for Online Courses.