Build Course Community in an Online Environment

Take a strategic approach to create a course community that helps students work together and learn from each other.


Creating a course community in an online environment rarely happens on its own (unless you have a class full of extroverted students who love online discussions!). Typically, setting the stage for an engaging and effective course community requires focused attention. Much like putting on a play requires coordination beyond directing the actors, creating a course community requires behind the scenes planning too.


Basic elements of course community include the following.

Instructor Presence

An instructor's presence throughout the course is critical to building a course community. In many ways, the instructor is playing the roles of host, teacher, coordinator and tech support. From the beginning of the course, instructors will want to model the engagement and interactivity so that students can follow.

Here are a few ways to create instructor presence:

  • create and participate in introductory discussions,
  • compose "getting started" documents that help welcome and introduce your students to the online environment,
  • create an introductory video (or text entry with a fun picture of yourself),
  • post weekly announcements that show attention is being paid to work from the week before,
  • offer feedback throughout the course,
  • ask for feedback throughout the course, and
  • add picture and contact information on the front page of your course site.

Facilitating Collaborative Learning

Not all students are aware of what is expected in online environments. Being explicit, especially regarding collaborative learning, helps students plan for and engage with the content and other students. Setting a framework for collaboration includes clear information on how and when course interactions occur and how they will receive feedback. Other ways to facilitate collaborative learning include:

  • have students practice early and before high stakes assignments - help them build trust, build relationships and relish in the diversity of the class,
  • include introductions and a group scavenger hunt,
  • class discussions, including feedback on class discussions (ask questions that have more than one answer),
  • opportunities for peer interactions and peer review (link to peer review),
  • group assignments with initial low stake opportunities to learn how to interact, and
  • clear expectations about everything.

Signs of an Engaging Discussion

  • Students reflect thoughtfully on relevant content and refer to course concepts and materials.
  • Students participate early and adhere to deadlines and timelines.
  • Students do not provide resolutions too quickly or easily and do not struggle too much.
  • Students take responsibility for sustaining the discussion.