Principles behind community building in online teaching and learning


In this section we take a closer look at some of the principles behind community building in online teaching and learning. You will be introduced to some theory that will ensure you have some familiarity with key concepts before moving on to the activities in the module options on the next page.


Time: Depending on your level of engagement, this page should take you about 45min – 1 hour.

Guiding questions:

  • Why is community building important in online teaching and learning contexts? 
  • What are the theoretical frameworks that underlie community building in online teaching and learning? 


Before considering the question of why community building is important in online teaching and learning contexts, we need to define what we mean by learning community. We generally feel that we’re a part of a community when we feel connected to others who share some of our interests or values. In higher education, robust learning communities are formed when they include the elements of learning, belonging, and connectedness. Scholars have defined learning communities as including the following characteristics:


“…spirit, trust, mutual interdependence among members, interactivity, shared values and beliefs, and common expectations” (Rovai, 2002, p. 198)

“a) membership, the feeling that one belongs to a group; (b) influence, the feeling that one can influence a group and that the group is important for its members; (c) fulfillment of needs, the feeling that one’s needs can be satisfied with help from the group; and (d) shared emotional connection, the sense of being connected with others in the group” [Yuan & Kim (2014) summarizing McMillan & Chavis (1986)]


As these scholars note, students develop a sense of community when they feel connected to others in their environment. But why should professors care about creating this sense of community in their classrooms? There are certainly those who may argue that community building is unrelated to their role as educators. However, research shows that a classroom that fosters community does more than make students feel good. Indeed, creating community in the university classroom has multiple positive impacts, from increasing student retention (Tinto, 1997), to improving student learning and satisfaction (Liu et al., 2007; Yuan & Kim, 2014). Online teaching and learning is not the same as face-to-face teaching and learning. The possibility for students to feel disengaged or unmotivated in the online classroom is a significant concern (Wladis et al., 2017), and building community is a vital part of keeping these learners engaged (Di Ramio & Wolverton, 2006; Liu et al., 2007; Vesley, et al., 2007; Anderson, 2017).


Take a look at this short video (1.5 minutes) that summarizes some of the reasons we should consider community building in the online environment. Although this video is geared towards the online learner, it informs our thinking as instructors.


*Note that this interactive video was made using H5P. Learn more about H5P here.

Now that we’ve established why instructors should consider community building in online environments,  it’s useful to familiarize ourselves with some key theories behind online community building.

One the most influential frameworks for considering community building in online teaching and learning is the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework. Take a look at the infographic below to learn about each presence. Click on the + signs for more information:

1. Community of Inquiry


For a succinct summary of the CoI three presences, see the Community of Inquiry Framework in Module 2.

Because they relate more directly to our discussion about online community building, the next section invites you to take a closer look at two of the three presences in the CoI framework:

a) Teaching presence

b) Social presence

Time: Approximately 20-40 minutes

a) Teaching Presence

Watch this interactive video (10-15 minutes) of online educator Dr. Mark Kassel discuss the strategies for having a strong teaching presence in online courses. As you watch, consider how a teaching presence may help students reach their learning goals in your course.



b) Social Presence

Read this article (15-20 minutes) in which Aimee Whiteside discusses the importance of using social presence to ensure that teaching and learning is guided by compassion and connectedness.



2. Humanizing Education

The call for university faculty to humanize their approach to teaching and learning is nothing new. Indeed, decades have passed since scholar-educators as influential as Nell Noddings (1992) and Parker Palmer (1998) called for a commitment to pedagogy that is grounded in compassion. With the recent rapid pivot to online teaching, there has been a renewed call for faculty to prioritize humanizing their approach to online pedagogy (Schmidt, 2017; Denial, 2019).


1. Read the following short blog post (5-10 minutes) by Nicole Schmidt on humanizing online teaching and learning.

2. Read the suggestions for humanizing online teaching in this collaborative document (10-15 minutes).




Next steps

  • After reading through this material, take a minute to reflect on which ones resonate with your own teaching style. If you wish, please share your reflections in the module forum here before moving on to the next Your Module Options.


Anderson, T. (2017, September). How communities of inquiry drive teaching and learning in the digital age. Contact North Nord. Retrieved from

DiRamio, D., & Wolverton, M. (2006). Integrating learning communities and distance education: Possibility or pipedream? Innovative Higher Education -New York-, 31(2), 99-113.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Liu, X., Magjuka, R.J., Bonk, C.J. & Lee, S.h. (2007). Does sense of community matter? An examination of participants’ perceptions of building learning communities in online courses. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 8(1), 9-24.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: an alternative approach to education, New York: Teachers College Press.

Palmer, P. J. (1998). The Courage to Teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Raygoza, M., León, R., & Norris, A. (2020). Humanizing online teaching.

Rovai, A. P. (2002). Sense of community, perceived cognitive learning, and persistence in asynchronous learning networks. Internet and Higher Education, 5, 319-332.

Schmidt, N. (2017, March 16). Humanizing online teaching and learning: The quest for authenticity. Educause.

Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599-623. doi:10.1080/00221546.1997.11779003

Vesely, P., Bloom, L., & Sherlock, J. (2007). Key elements of building online community: Comparing faculty and student perceptions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(3), 234-246.

Wladis, C., Conway, K., Hachey, A. C. (2017). Using course-level factors as predictors of online course outcomes: a multi-level analysis at a US urban community college. Studies in Higher Education, 42(1). 184-200.

Whiteside, A. (2018). Continuing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Returning Compassion, Connection, and Social Presence to Teaching and Learning. Educause Review. Retrieved on April 6, 2020:

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Fit for Online Learning Copyright © 2020 by U of L Teaching Centre: Jördis Weilandt, Erin Reid, Kristi Thomas, Brandy Old, and Jeff Meadows is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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