Welcome aboard! Tips for building an online community of learners

Building an online learning community can help students form social bonds and boost their motivation, but requires specific efforts to be successful. Karin Avnit and Prasad Iyer show us how


9 Apr 2024
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Creating a welcoming and inclusive online learning community
Create a welcoming online learning community

Creating a thriving online learning community can combat social isolation and enhance engagement with course content, instructors and peers. Such an environment can increase student satisfaction and academic success, making it a crucial element in modern higher education. Unlike traditional communities that naturally form on campus through casual encounters, the online environment demands deliberate effort because of its structured nature. We have to consider tools and obstacles specific to the digital landscape.

Our experience showed that establishing an online learning community was integral to the success of a mass online, self-paced and adaptive bridging course, designed for newly matriculated students. Recognising the voluntary nature of the course and the students’ newness to the university, we aimed to foster a supportive community to enhance their learning experience. The objective was to instil a sense of belonging, encourage social bonds among peers and boost motivation to complete the online course in preparation for the upcoming academic year.

One key distinction between physical and online learning environments is the absence of spontaneous conversations. In traditional settings, students can chat when moving between classes or waiting in shared spaces. But the online setting lacks these chances for impromptu interactions. Instead,  it offers the advantage of persistent information, enabling students and instructors to engage asynchronously, transcending physical constraints.

To ensure active engagement, we had to demonstrate clear value for participants and design situations that encouraged both synchronous and asynchronous communication. The course staff curated a repository of useful information, scheduled for periodic release on the community noticeboard. Senior students were enlisted to facilitate live consultation sessions, allowing juniors to seek clarifications about course content while also engaging in informal conversations with their peers.

Lucky draws were conducted among students who contributed positively, whether by answering the queries of others, participating in discussions or reporting issues within the online system. Sharing “fun facts” related to the course content and acknowledging top contributors with weekly prizes further stimulated a sense of participation among students. While incorporating these practices into the online course was a relatively new idea, the feedback from students has been very positive. Students reported that the community space played a significant role in their course progress.

Here’s how we went about creating our online community space:

  1. Define clear objectives: Clearly outline the purpose and objectives of the online community. This could include fostering collaboration, providing academic support and promoting a sense of belonging.
  2. Encourage active participation: Implement strategies to encourage students to actively participate, such as rewarding contributions, recognising achievements and fostering camaraderie.
  3. Return on investment: Curate and share useful tips related to the course, or other information in which students find value. This not only enhances the learning experience but also encourages students to return to the community and engage by getting involved in conversations.
  4. Facilitate peer-to-peer interaction: Create opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction, as learning from and supporting each other enhances the overall educational experience. This can be achieved by acknowledging helpful behaviour and rewarding contributors.
  5. Incorporate fun elements: Where appropriate, inject a bit of fun into the community with light-hearted videos related to the content, challenges or informal sharing about each other’s hobbies and pastimes. This helps to create a positive and engaging atmosphere, fostering a sense of community.
  6. Use student leaders: Recruit experienced students as tutors or guides. They can help facilitate discussions, answer questions and share their insights, creating a more dynamic, informal and supportive environment.
  7. Respond to queries: Ensure that students receive a timely response for important questions related to the course, and have access to the necessary resources and support systems. This could involve dedicated staff or resources for technical assistance, academic advising and administrative matters.
  8. Recognition and rewards: Acknowledge and reward active contributors to the community. This can be through shout-outs, vouchers or even words of encouragement to motivate continued engagement.
  9. Feedback matters: Regularly seek feedback from community members to understand their needs and preferences. Use this information to continuously improve and adapt your community-building strategies.
  10. Evolve and adapt: The online learning landscape is dynamic. Be prepared to evolve and adapt your community strategies based on changing needs, technological advancements and feedback from participants.

By considering these approaches, educators can create a vibrant online learning community that enhances student engagement, satisfaction and success. Building a sense of community in the digital space requires effort, but the benefits in terms of student support and overall learning outcomes are well worth it.

Karin Avnit is associate professor in the Infocomm Technology cluster and deputy director of STLA, and Prasad Iyer is senior educational developer, both at Singapore Institute of Technology.

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