Creating  Community

  • Student-to-Student Interaction
  • Faculty-to-Student Interaction
  • Tone

When learners interact with one another, with an instructor, and with ideas, new information is acquired, interpreted, and made meaningful. Such interactions form the foundation of a community of learners. If students feel they are part of a community if learners, they are more apt to be motivated to seek solutions to their problems and succeed. The challenge for distance educators is to develop strategies and techniques for establishing and maintaining ‘learning communities’ among learners separated by space and/or time.

– An Emerging Set of Guiding Principles and Practices for the Design and Development of Distance Education. Available at

In an environment where instructors do not necessarily meet students face-to-face and where students may never have an opportunity to meet their peers in a physical classroom, developing a sense of community can be particularly challenging. At the same time, a sense of a community–where students are able to work cooperatively with peers on course material, have the opportunity for positive interaction with the instructor, and where the learning environment is respectful and motivates students to do their best–is key to a positive and successful learning experience.

This section provides a number of solutions for creating community in the online classroom. The Online Fellows are quick to point out, however, that creating community is a challenge, and classroom dynamics must be monitored throughout the semester to ensure that students continue to engage thoughtfully in course content and continue to work together productively.

Student-to-Student  Interaction

As the Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education make clear, student learning in any classroom is enhanced when students have the opportunity to connect with each other about their academic work. For the online instructor, facilitating student-to-student interaction is made particularly challenging because students do not naturally have a chance to get to know each other before class or in face-to-face conversations. Therefore, it is important to structure opportunities where students “have” to interact with each other. It is also important, however, that the instructor develop methods for monitoring the success of these interactions. The Online Fellows offer the following recommendations:

Limit the size of discussion groups

Rather than having an entire class talk in one large group, break the class into smaller discussion groups of four or five students. That way, students can get to know each other in a more intimate way.

Allow students to post student-to-student communication (as well as student-to-teacher) to get answers to questions

Encourage students to discuss among themselves. Do not respond to every comment—interject and guide the discussion. Encourage students to introduce themselves to the group at the beginning of the semester.

Pair each student with a “buddy” in the course

The buddy system gives students a source of support in the online classroom. Some instructors match students with varying technological experience. Other instructors prefer to match students who possess similar technological skills. Pair students according to the goals of your course or the assignment.

Encourage peer response

Post student papers online and ask each student to select a partner to critique each other’s work. Be sure that students know their paper will be posted.

Opportunities for personal interaction

Incorporate opportunities for students to tell you something about themselves in a “student lounge” or meeting place. A “student lounge” can also be a place where students can share with each other, meet each other virtually, and learn more about each other without your presence. See the “Student Conference Center” at the end of this chapter for an example of how to set up such a location on your course website.

Faculty-to-Student  Interaction

The Principles of Good Practice highlight the importance of faculty-student interaction in promoting learning. The online environment is not necessarily conducive to this goal, because neither the instructor nor the student can rely on regular face-to-face interactions to reinforce one’s willingness to be helpful and approachable. Experienced online instructors, however, have identified the following ways to help enhance faculty- student interactions:

  • In your written communication, present yourself as accessible to students Students in an online course must feel that you are approachable. Often the demands on teachers are greater in online courses, so it is important to explore the variety of ways you can send a message of One way to bridge the distance between faculty and student is to address students by name. Praise student-initiated contact.
    • Tip: To make yourself seem approachable to students, try using a more informal tone. For example, “Today, as you all are well aware, our class officially begins. Please begin working on the assignments for July 15-21. You have a couple of assignments due tonight (and kudos to those of you who have already posted!)”

·       Schedule an in-person meeting of the entire class

If possible, meet with students in person for one session at the beginning of the semester. Meeting in person helps students associate names with faces and can be an effective, timely way to accomplish many of the administrative tasks central to your course.

·       Generate frequent communication

Students need to have a sense the instructor is really “there,” not “missing in action.” This means responding in a timely manner to individual questions or issues that are raised in discussion groups. It also means making your presence known by participating in online discussions, giving students regular feedback on their work and their comments, and being flexible enough to make changes to the course mid-stream based on student feedback.

·       Assign discussion group leaders or project team leaders to facilitate group work

Assigning team leaders is one way to ensure that students receive ample feedback. Make sure that the team leader disseminates information to every member of the team. Part of the responsibility of the team leader should be to report to you frequently on the progress of the team.


Remember that in the virtual classroom, neither the instructor nor the student has the visual cues of face-to-face communication. This also means students have fewer methods for determining whether their efforts are comparable to those of their peers and for assessing how they are doing in the class. Students will use the cues that are available (virtually all of them in writing) to help them understand the classroom climate. Therefore, how the instructor shapes the course climate through written comments and the tone of communications to students is particularly important.

·       “Humanize” the course

Remember that although you are teaching online, you are still teaching real people, so it helps if you and students can put names with faces. Develop a  portion of the course website to post pictures and brief bios of students.

  • Avoid general broadcast questions

An online course is not a collective but many individuals all reading messages separately. So, a broadcast message like “Are you doing the reading?” is hard for a student sitting at his/her own computer to interpret.

·       Consider the tone of your own responses to students

Attitude comes through in writing. Are you sounding impatient? Supportive? Praise and model appropriate tone.

·       Use private email for sensitive communications

Use threaded discussions for group conversations. Use private emails to comment on individual student contributions and criticism.

FROM:  Teaching and Learning Online: Communication, Community and Assessment – A Handbook for UMass Faculty

NOTE from John Gerber

The biggest mistake made by online instructors is to disengage from the students during the semester.  They know when we are not paying attention and resent it!  Even if you are engaged, if you don’t let the know they think you are taking a vacation!  Stay visible and engaged by posting on your own Discussion Board.  Send occasional emails.  Respond to inquiries within 24 hours!  Give meaningful feedback (not just a numerical grade).  If you can’t do these simple tasks, you should not be teaching online.

As the UMass Handbook on Teaching and Learning Online states, tone is important.  Try to approach your course as a “whole person” – not just an expert in your subject matter.  For example, a few years ago I was teaching Botany for Gardeners while on a bicycle trip in the Rockies.  I kept the student up to date on my progress and sent them pictures of my wife and I in the mountains.  They appreciated knowing I was both engaged in the class and living my life.  I encourage them to do the same!

Here are a few examples of ways that I try to “humanize” the course.  There is a folder of “fun stuff” on the main page of STOCKSCH 100 – Botany for Gardeners.

Here are a few of the items in the “fun stuff” folder!

  • Here is a short video clip that many students will remember from a Harry Potter movie that shows us how NOT to transplant a plant!


Have you ever been frustrated by students who ask questions that are covered in the syllabus?   To remind students to read the syllabus before contacting the instructor, this photo is included on the main page of the class.  You are welcome to use this. I found it here: