Online Learning and Building a Sense of Community

Higher education as well as K-12  is moving increasingly online and educators need to quickly learn how to effectively teach in this new digital environment. Students tend to be less satisfied with completely online courses when compared to traditional courses and fully online courses also experience higher attrition rates. In 2001, Hara and Kling conducted a study of online courses and found that feelings of isolation were an important stress factor for online students. Students were frustrated due to the lack of prompt and clear feedback from their instructor. It can be difficult to create a sense of community online and a lack of community only increases feelings of isolation. There are several ways to help promote a feeling of community in online classes.

1. Be Present – One way to make yourself more present and build a sense of community is to hold online office hours. This can be done several ways, such as having a set time for a course room to be open or an online chat session. This dedicated time and availability will help alleviate stress because your students know they can talk to you and get their questions answered without waiting for an email reply. You can also be present in your course by participating in discussion boards and synchronous class discussions.

2. Ask for feedback – Check in with the students and ask them how they think the course is going, be open to suggestions. One way to do this is to setup a feedback form that can be anonymous so students feel more comfortable sharing their concerns and suggestions. You can also post questions and answers in an open forum so that students can check there first to see if their question has already been answered. It is also critical that you use the information and make adjustments right away, this will make your students feel heard and valuable. Simply asking for feedback in a post-course evaluation and implementing changes in future classes is not good enough.

3. Get the students involved with each other – Simply posting discussion board questions and requiring students reply to two classmates is not enough to create a sense of community. Assign group projects so students are required to make contact with each other, hold synchronous class meetings and include break out groups as a part of those class sessions, pose engaging discussion board questions that encourage discussion and debate. Remember to stay involved yourself and ask questions along the way too.

With these three methods you will be well on your way to designing online courses that feel more personal and aren’t isolating for students. There are lots of ways to promote a sense of community, have another great idea? Share it in the comments below. Want to learn more about how to design online courses? Contact PRIMED today.



Hara, N., and Kling, R. (2001). Student distress in web-based distance education. Educause Quarterly, 3, 68 – 69.

Rovai, A., and Jordan, H. (2004). Blended learning and sense of community: A comparative analysis with traditional and fully online gradate courses. IRRODL, 5(2).


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