The Importance of Building Online Learning Communities

online learning communities

Taking an online course should be more than sitting in front of a computer — real engagement involves becoming a part of the community of learners.

The concept of peer learning recognizes that students are an important source of knowledge in addition to faculty and course material. Students are not passive receptacles to be filled with information, instead, they are active learners. Being a member of a learning community means engaging in reciprocal learning activities, soaking in new ideas and sharing perspectives and experiences to make meaning of the information. Learning happens through discussion, reflection, collaborative teamwork, and most importantly, taking initiative and responsibility to listen, question, and think critically within the community of fellow learners.

Online learning communities can be educationally and personally fulfilling when students approach their courses with a commitment to initiate, respect, value, and fully engage in the material, dialogues, and group work. Much has been written about the importance of the relationship between students and faculty in online courses, however limited attention has been given to the tremendous influence of the online peer community. The benefits of peer learning can be easily applied to the online environment:

Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers. They develop skills in organizing and planning learning activities, working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving feedback and evaluating their own learning. (Boud, 2002, np)

Collaborative learning strategies and “flipped” classes result in positive student learning and development (Hamdan, McKnight, Mcknight & Arfstrom, 2013). Moving to a student-centered learning experience places emphasis on student engagement rather than passively “receiving” information and knowledge. It is exciting to see the shift for faculty from the “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side” (King, 1993). Thus, students are given increased responsibility for their learning in and out of the classroom, while faculty facilitate learning opportunities.

In a previous article, I wrote about the characteristics of successful online students compared to those qualities needed for success in a residential classroom. Taking initiative to reach out to classmates in an online format may be one of the most important strategies for successfully building an online learning community. When I asked a number of online students to share their thoughts on the importance of peers in the online learning environment, and how they went about building these relationships, they provided terrific insights:

  • These relationships help me when I am struggling in courses. Having strong relationships with my classmates is an important support system — they can totally relate to my experience.
  • Building a few supportive relationships with my classmates is critical because as an online student, it would be easy to miss the camaraderie that often exists in a traditional classroom. That same camaraderie online motivates and keeps me engaged in classes.
  • It helps to talk to someone else who has taken a class before me and can tell me what to expect, or discuss assignments and share insights.
  • My first semester I didn’t “talk” (email, Facebook, etc…) to anyone outside of class and the work just seemed like work. It was interesting but it just didn’t mean as much as when I finally made a significant connection with a classmate. Once I made that connection, I started to make others and realized what a difference it made in helping me feel more like a part of a community rather than a solo student doing homework online.
  • Having these relationships impacted my learning by giving me a more well-rounded and diverse experience. If you learn online only in your own bubble, you risk missing out on what your classmates can share with you.  Additionally, it’s comforting to know others are balancing jobs, families, and school just like me. 

Encouraging students to reach out to classmates with similar life circumstances can be a first step to building relationships in the online environment. Modeling how to carefully read one another’s discussion posts and follow up with additional probing questions can lead to students sharing rich dialogues that enhance learning and relationships. One student explained that she built relationships by being honest in her own online posts, leading to opportunities for deeper dialogue with classmates. She advised challenging oneself to be vulnerable and open. I have found many online students share more and take more risks than in the residential classroom. Introverted students have time to think and reflect on the material and their classmates’ comments prior to constructing their own responses online.  Students may edit their comments before posting, as opposed to blurting out a response in a physical classroom that cannot be retrieved. The ideal learning community is a safe space for risk taking, vulnerability, and sharing diverse ideas. Faculty and students share responsibility for creating and maintaining this learning environment.

To facilitate students engaging with one another, I created a “coffee shop” for my online courses.  Students learn about one another, support each other through life stresses, and celebrate personal accomplishments. Over the years, I’ve heard stories of my online students traveling great distances to spend time together, attending one another’s weddings, supporting classmates who are serving as caregivers for aging parents, and lifting up those going through various marital/familial challenges.  Physically separated by distance, they are connected through their commitment to one another and to learning. Online learning communities can be academically and personally transformational when intentionally created, fostered, and sustained by all involved.

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References
Boud, D. (2002).  Introduction: Making the move to peer learning. In D. Boud, R. Cohen, & J.Sampson (eds.), Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning From & With Each Other. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, Inc.

Cuseo, J. B. (nd).  The role of college faculty in promoting student retention: Instructional strategies for reducing student attrition. Pdf from University of Wisconsin. Hamdan, N., McKnight, P. E., McKnight, K., & Arfstrom, K. M. (2013). A review of flipped learning. Sponsored by The Flipped Learning Network, Pearson, and George Mason University.

King, A. (1993). From sage on the stage to guide on the side.  College Teaching, 41(1). Taylor & Francis Ltd: URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27558571

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