Practical Guide to Building an Effective Online Learning Community for Students

by - October 04, 2016

Learning is fast evolving, all thanks to technology. Studies have shown that through building online learning communities, educators have impacted enormously in the manner students learn and comprehend. Building online education community is one of the thriving learning strategies today. 

I have come to understand this and I wish to share some of my thoughts and, in my usual way, some practical guide to building a learning community that will be very effective and interesting for your students. I intentionally used the word ‘effective’ as a way to allude to the fact that although building a learning community online can yield enormous results, the majority of them have gone extinct, even at the very spot of conception.

Many teachers have set out to build an education community, only to end up frustrated and disappointed, which always results in the termination of such project. What could be the cause of this? What is there that they are not doing right? I could imagine how zealously they nurtured the idea of building online community and how convinced they were towards the realisationof such project. They have these grandiose design of having a platform where they could reach their students, interact and have a wonderful learning and teaching experience together – a shared educational harbour where their passion can grow and yield to new inventions and better the society.  Yes! These are great and awesome ideas, very rare to come by. Sadly, most end up being defeated.

It is a wonderful thing to envision and ruminate on an idea of building such community, but such ideas should not only be left in the realm of thought and wishful thinking; there are practical steps one should follow in order to build an online education community and to make it very much effective and successful.

The purpose of this post is to give you some practical insights towards the realisation of this. I may not exhaust all the approaches to building this kind of community, since learning keeps on evolving by the day, but I believe, from experience, that this basic guide will help you in building it to suit your online students and audience.

But before I go on, let me give someone an answer… what really is an online learning community? An online learningcommunity is, simply put, a gathering of people (maybe students, teachers or any group of people from any works of life), who cooperatively take part in deliberate critical discourse and reflection to build meaning and endorse common comprehension. To make it more academic, the Wikipedia defines it as “a public or private destination on the internet that addresses the learning needs of its members by facilitating peer-to-peer learning.”

Having said this, this education community has a great potential of giving students an enjoyable communal experience online; but how do one proceed in building such community or making it effective?



One thing you should consider is to know your audience, that is, your students. You should be able to model learning to befit your online audience, and so the other person’s approach may not really work for you. The work is left for you to study your audience, by so doing, you will find a better way to install these tips while building your online learning community. Now follow these tips…

Define Your Purpose Plainly: It can be very tasking and more work to get students to concentrate and lead them to a learning environment when they are online. At the start, try and define your purpose with clarity and distinctness. Be aware that while building online learning environment, it should be directed toward learning in a social environment, but not socialising per se.

Assign Students to Asynchronous Discussion Group: When you have a group of students to work on a particular subject or discussion topic, make sure that you divide them intogroups. By splitting them into groups, they are expected to create their own discussion group with the aim of bringing unique perspectives to the discussion on ground. This will help them to learn from each other since they will most probably be few and there will be an increased participation.

While splitting them in groups, you may have to give them a hint of what they are expected to do – whether they are to critique, examine or analyse the issue to be discussed. Allow the students have their privacy and learn from each other, this will help them come up with unique approaches from different groups, making learning fun and interesting.

Create Specific Case Examples:  Again, you may want to create a specific case study for your students. How do you do this? Present a situation and allow the students to discuss it. Depending on the number of case studies you’ve created, you may have to create a discussion for each case study. For instance, you may ask the students to examine and critique a decision made over a particular case study – allow the students to contribute and give their opinion/decision over a case study. Be careful not to tag right or wrong to any answer, as this may discourage some students to participate actively. Let them answer from their own conviction – remember, no right or wrong answer.

For you to be able to monitor the discussion board, it is advisable that you split the students in smaller numbers. By so doing, it will enable you (the instructor) to have full exposure to individual perspectives. It will reduce boredom and enhance participation. Try to remix the group at least twice a semester.

Maintain an Encouraging teaching Presence: Some educators are of the opinion that in building an online learning community, the teacher presence shouldn’t be felt, but I think such should be felt. It will give the students a sense that someone is keeping a record. So how do you make your presence felt? You should take care to design and organise discourse. You may also want to direct instructions and facilitate discourse.

Making your presence felt is somewhat like the traditional classroom teaching, you should be around to monitor and direct the students. In the case of online learning, you can be in the background and be modelling expected behaviours of the students, and enforce netiquettes. Sometimes, the students may be in need of help from the instructor or fellow students, you should, therefore, provide extra assistance to oversee that.

Build an Engaging Social Presence: Social presence is very important in building an online learning community. In building this social presence, you should consider these three avenues you can use – instructor-students, student-student, and content-students.

As an instructor, you should create an awareness of others in the course. Students love to have that feeling of being around real persons. And that has to start with you. You have to establish yourself as a real person. Think about your profile, how you present yourself to your students contributes a lot to building your online learning community. It is not always pleasant to students when they read your profile and all that is there are just litanies of your academic achievements. Such things can simply turn students off.

Drop the academic stuff and tell your students about your real life. Talk about things you do and things you like – things that make you tick. If I can give an idea – you may consider these questions, how many kids do you have? Do you like pets? Do you have one? These things make you a real person, someone they can truly trust and relate with. Someone that is no different from them, who understands ‘the life’. Students need all these stuffs you probably think that aren’t necessary.
This will really help you humanise the environment that can be really lonely and sterile.

Maintain a Group Size of not More than 15 Students: Scholars have not reached a consensus regarding the ideal number of students in a group, but all their analysis still revolves around 15-20 students. Having a limited, but sufficient number of students in a group can yield tremendous impact on building an onlinelearning community. The less they are, the more interactive the group will be. Students will get to know each other individually and even the instructor will know the students and the different nuances which they employ in group discussions.

One thing you should note in building an online learning community is that individual voices should not, in any way, disappear. People should not be swallowed up in the discussion. Try to manage the discussion by asking good and engaging questions. Correct and manage conflicts. And again, a lot of skills are needed from you, to be able to move the group discussion through the cognitive phases.

Last statement…

These methods will surely help you in building an online learning community, especially, enhancing and making learning fun. Students are fun lovers, and when you combine skillfully, learning and fun together, it will yield great fruits and progress. You may disagree with some tips, or maybe some are confusing, feel free to drop your comments. Sharing is caring, get this post across to your colleagues and those you care. They may need it.

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