Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Online Learning Communities

Online Learning Communities.

Drs. Pratt and Palloff (Laureate Education, 2010), outline the essential elements of online community building as people, purpose, process, method, and social presence.  Of these, I believe that social presence presents not only the most challenges, but also the most opportunities for creating effective online instruction.  

By IlkinZeferli (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
A student, alone.
Online learning communities increase student satisfaction and success through the lessening of isolation (Laureate Education) as well as through the building of a social presence.  In my own experiences as an online learner, the overwhelming sense of isolation was a major factor in my mental health as a student.  When I was discouraged by my progress, I felt there was no one to whom I could speak who would understand.  It is unfortunate that in many of my courses, interaction with other students was discouraged.  Not actively or explicitly discouraged, but subtly by the hiding of rosters, the lack of discussion, and the emphasis that collaboration could be construed as cheating.  
By Yumi Momoi (outono.) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
A student, isolated.
The maintenance of an online learning community will not be accomplished by the set and forget method of online instruction (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011).  One cannot merely turn on access to a course shell leaving the auto grader to do the work.  Dr. Palloff (Laureate Education discusses that community cannot be built without first setting a welcoming tone.  Learners entering into an online course need to be aware of the instructor’s presence and humanity.  Dr. Pratt (Laureate Education) emphasizes the need for an instructor to be in the online environment daily for the first two weeks.  This is a critical time where students may feel overwhelmed and stop participating. 

By Σ64 (Σ64) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
A part of a learning community.
In my own practice, I am met with resistance from other instructors who do not think that content that is based in scientific fact and physics cannot support a community idea.  I am not sure if this entirely true or more of a reluctance to move away from the set and forget method.  It takes work to maintain any community, and an online learning community is not any different.  Social presence, as mentioned earlier, presents challenges and opportunities.  It requires a facilitator who is knowledgeable and engaged.  Without the full engagement and skilled social presence of the facilitator, it is doubtful the learners will become engaged and develop their own social presences.


Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survial guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Franscisco: Jossey-Bass.
Laureate Education (Producer). (2010). Online learning communities [Video file]. Retrieved from

Attributions: all images via Wiki Commons, alt-text includes attributions.


  1. Rebecca,

    I agree with you after reviewing this week's resources it definitely takes work on behalf of the instructor to facilitate an open and engaging online learning environment. I was shock to learn that you have had courses where interaction was discouraged. Social interaction is such an important piece to the online learning community, so when an institution and/or instructor discourage this practice they are negating the foundation of an effective online learning community.

  2. Keisha,
    Thank you for your comments. I think that looking back over the concerns regarding academic integrity, I can see why student interaction was discouraged. There were not as many safeguards in place 15 years ago for online courses. I also think that part of it stems from instructors who were firmly entrenched in their traditional classroom methods and didn't really know of (or want to use) a different method!

  3. Hi Rebecca,
    Like you, I have experienced resistance as an instructor. Some have used their higher education and professional licenses as justification and other has just rebelled against the change. I have developed a statement that counteracts everything they throw at me. Theories, knowledge and books are great but without application, implementation and practicality you have just just wasted my time and yours. Don’t get me wrong, professional licenses, modalities, masters and doctoral degrees are great but when in the moment will you know how to apply those things to the situation. From there am I able to obtain that last little bit of buy-in required for fully learner engagement .
    Once we (yes we, because I learn just as much from the students/participants as I hope they are learning from me), establish a baseline we are able to grow from there. I believe that is when the people, purpose, process and social presence connect.

    1. Krystal,
      You have a great response to your students and it really sets the tone in a positive way.

  4. Hi Rebecca,

    I have had those same feelings of being isolated and overwhelmed, as I had to adjust to the online environment for the first time last year. Walden is my first actual online learning experience, and I must say the only reasons why I continued to move forward was the desire to change my career and because I didn’t want to give up. So, for me I had to find that motivation that would help me stay in the program. “Charles Wedemeyer (1981) asserted that learners must be highly self-motivated in order to be effective distance learners” (Conrad & Donaldson, 2012, p.6). I believe his theory is correct, but I also believe when the instructor has a presence by establishing a relationship and taking an interest in the students helps to further motivate them to stay in the class. What was the driving force that helped you get past the feeling of isolation to stay in an online class?

    Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction (Updated ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    1. Cherry,
      I epitomize the vision of the highly motivated adult learner. I think that having a sense of community would have made the experience much better, I did get out of the course what I set to accomplish.