Skip to content

How Building Community in an Online Course Skyrockets Learner Success – Part 1

Building community in an online course is hard work but worth every bit.

Building community in an online course is no easy feat. But it’s so important.

A sense of belonging to a community has a strong positive impact on learning. It affects motivation, task persistence, course success, and perception of the instructor. It has what we can call a skyrocketing effect on student learning.

Building community in an online course gives you a huge return on investment. A sense of community has the ability to positively affect several key factors in learning, including motivation and task persistence.
Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

If building community in an online course can affect all those things, it has to happen. You owe it to your students to give them every chance for success. This series is designed to help you leverage the magic that is online community.

Over the course of four weeks, we’re going to

  • learn about building community in asynchronous and synchronous courses
  • uncover the power of teamwork in an online course
  • and puzzle out how to build strong teacher/student relationships in the online world.

That’s a lot, I know. But it’s going to be so worth it. Stick with me.

What about those words, though?

First, let’s talk about those um… yucky… words: asynchronous and synchronous. Ugh. There’s got to be better words for this. Chronos is time. Syn means same. A means opposite. So synchronous is literally ‘same time’ and asynchronous is ‘not same time’.

In online-class-speak that means everyone moves through the course together, synchronously, or people move at their own pace, asynchronously.

For this series, I will call asynchronous courses self-paced courses. Synchronous courses will be paced courses. Those are much easier to spell. Thank you.  

What does it take to build community in an in-person class?

Think about what it takes to build community in a face-to-face class. If you’ve taken an in-person class you enjoyed, chances are it had many of these elements:

  • An enthusiastic and personable instructor
  • Friendly and cooperative students
  • Great class discussion
  • A sense of accomplishment
  • Some laughter or playfulness

Doesn’t that sound like a class you want to be in? Your students think so, too.

What does it take to build community in a class of scattered learners?

How do you accomplish all that in an online course?

Start with high expectations. Be clear that you expect students to participate in community-centered assignments. Be consistent in giving them those assignments. You’re not being harsh or asking too much. You know the value of community and it will take consistent effort to pull them along until they are moving under their own speed. Think of yourself as a tugboat.

There are a number of strategies you can use to start building community. You don’t have to do them all, but you may find that many are intertwined.

Strategies that Work in Both Self-Paced and Paced Courses

Several elements of community-building work well in both types of courses. I’ll mention those in this first post. We can refer to them as needed throughout the series.

Blogging/online journaling

Have students post responses to their assignments in a blog or online journal. This gives students the opportunity to reflect on their learning or explain their thinking to an authentic audience. It also allows them the opportunity to catch errors in their thinking as they write and revise.

Blogging gives online learners a chance to reflect on their thinking and write for a public audience. This creates a sense of connection with someone other than the instructor. It provides the sense that there is someone else out there reading this. They are not alone.

Personal photos

Personal photos can build a sense of community. Have students introduce themselves in the discussion board and include a photo of themselves. This allows students to feel like they have ‘met’ if they can recognize each other by face. Whenever possible, use photos as avatars rather than other images.

Photos give students a chance to put faces with names. Visual memory is our strongest type of memory, so this helps students get to know each other faster. This helps build community in the online course.


Video is powerful stuff. It allows us to feel like we are in the same room with someone. Even if the video is recorded and not live, we feel a sense of connection. Have students present something in video and post it where others can see it. Seeing other students present information in video connects the class. It increases the sense of presence and lessens isolation.

Video also gives students a chance to practice presentation skills. The more students get in front of the camera, the more relaxed they will become. Consider requiring some assignments to be answered in video. How Student Video Presentations Can Build Community in an Online Course by Robert Talbert is an excellent example of the value of student video presentations.

Video allows students to practice presentation and speaking skills. It also gives students the opportunity to see their classmates in action, strengthening their presence in the class and building a stronger community.

Showcase students

Have someplace you can showcase students. You can use this as a place to share successes or just as a place to spotlight and let students get to know one another. A showcase of successful students inspires other students and gives them something to aspire to.

A showcase also allows students to get to know another student better and feel less isolated in class. Kind of like having coffee one-on-one.

Showcasing students is an excellent way for students to get to know each other. It builds community and gives students expert resources to call on if they have a question.

Discussion boards

Conversation is critical in building community. Discussion boards give students a place for academic and social discussion. Have a social discussion board where students introduce themselves. You can post questions there that are light and entertaining. The more students learn about each other, the more they will grow together as a group and support each other.

Discussion boards have the potential to take on a life of their own. With the right initial energy and enthusiasm, the discussion board has the biggest potential to build community in an online class. It does require active maintenance and participation by the instructor.

Another community builder is to post a quote and ask students how this applies to their lives. The personal connections students make to the quote give insight into their classmates and help reduce isolation.

You can use the discussion board to get a sense of student goals. It also helps students find other students at their level. You can ask questions specific to your course topic to help students get a sense of their place in the class community. Ask things like “Rate your confidence level on the concept of ___” or “Rate your knowledge about ___”. This allows students to reflect on their own knowledge levels. It also shows students that they are not expected to know everything already. And you get valuable insight about your learners.

Create open-ended discussion questions. These encourage longer answers and invite discussion more than closed questions which only require a yes or a no.

Open-ended questions give students the opportunity to think deeply about a topic. The instructor should encourage students to refute or extend each other's thinking. This connects students and encourages them to rely on each other to deepen their learning.

Take part in the discussion. When the instructor is participating the learner is more active. Try not to answer all the questions, though. Encourage students to respond to each other or expand on each other’s statements.

Discussion boards, unlike live chats, allow students the time to reflect and write thoughtful responses. It’s a good place to ask students for feedback or ideas.

The list above isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good foundation. We will be diving deeper into some of those topics as they apply to self-paced and paced courses.

Strategies for self-paced (asynchronous) courses

Since students aren’t entering and exiting the class at the same time, you will need to make some adjustments to account for that.

Discussion boards in a self-paced course

The discussion board in a self-paced class will be a rolling discussion board. If you can leave the past posts available to students, it allows them to see they are not alone. They are walking with others. Some a little ahead and some a little behind.

In a self-paced class, leave the past discussion board open so that students can get to know the students who came before them. This reduces the sense of isolation, increasing the sense of community.

Some online courses use a single Facebook group for their course discussion board. This is an excellent way to build community in a self-paced course as it allows past learners to remain and support current learners.

Successful Facebook groups are active and the learners enjoy helping each other. New students to a course and Facebook group will have a ready-made support group of students who have completed the course or are ahead of them. Interactivity is generally higher than a regular in-course discussion board.

The more active a discussion board is, the more students are likely to engage and learn from it. In a self-paced course, using an outside group board that include past class members provides more activity than a closed discussion board within a learning management system if the class enrollment is currently low. Since discussion is such a strong part of building community in an online course, you need to give your students every opportunity for rich discussion.

Ask students to share their purpose for taking the course and what they hope to get out of it. Also ask something fun. These types of questions humanize their classmates and help build community. Don’t forget to include photos and videos.

Reduce overwhelm

When you’re using a discussion board, whether in a learning management system or on Facebook or some other group, it’s important to stay organized. Students can get overwhelmed trying to find the information they need. If possible, you post the question and students can only comment. This will keep the group page from becoming cluttered.

Set regular challenges

Another nifty way to get students moving forward through the course and connect them to other students is to set regular challenges. This could be something simple like ‘write 5,000 words this week’ in a writing class. It could be ‘take 500 pictures this week’ in a photography class. Have the students post their results, in text, photo, or video, to the group. Make sure students can access all past successes so they can feel part of a community.  

Set challenges that are doable but also move the student forward. Have them post the results on the discussion board each week. They can compare their results to other students past and present.

Building Community Takes Work

I’m sure you’ve noticed that each of the strategies I talked about in this post take some thought and planning. If you’re just starting to work on building community, choose one or two strategies to work on first. As you get comfortable with them, incorporate a new strategy. I see four strategies being a good solid toolset to help you build your community. You choose your four and work up to them.

There are two pieces that are non-negotiable for this community-building to work, though. You have to start with high expectations and maintain them. And you need to be an active participant in the course. Those two things have to be in place or nothing else will work.

Next week we’ll cover some strategies for building community in a paced (synchronous) course.

Like what you read?

* indicates required

If you’d like to read some related content, check out:

Verified by MonsterInsights