Building online academic communities

Credit: unsplash, Brooke Cagle, CC0

In this post, Celeste McLaughlin, Head of Academic Development for Digital Education, at the Institute for Academic Development, shares some simple and highly effective tips on how to build and support academic communities for students studying online…

The recent focus of the Teaching Matters blog on building academic communities led to a discussion with colleagues about how important building these communities are during online courses. Building online communities can help with student engagement and satisfaction (Lui et al, 2007). Online students can feel a sense of isolation, and a well-designed online course can help overcome this by designing activities and opportunities for them to participate in and contribute to online communities. Building communities is an important aspect of many course design models. For example the 5 Stage Model (Salmon, 2002) places emphasis on online socialisation and encourages course designers to build in activities to do this at the early stages of the course.

Starting to build a community

There are many ways to begin building online communities and one of the simplest ways to do this is to include ice-breaker activities designed to encourage students to begin using some of the tools and technologies used during the course in a low-stakes and enjoyable way. One of my favourite ice-breakers is asking students to take a picture of their study space and share this on a digital pin board (I use Padlet, but there are others). I always add a picture of my own desk and a sentence or two about my working environment, and this encourages others to do the same, whilst also giving me a tangible way to contribute to the community at an early stage of the course. I find students engage well with this activity, and are happy to share a bit of detail about themselves, and so we begin to see the development of a community within the course.

Supporting and developing a community

This embryonic community needs to be supported and developed throughout the course. To help with this, for larger cohorts of students, it can be useful to include some group activities during the course. To encourage participation in group activities it can be useful to start with a low-stakes activity, and I often ask groups to develop their own guidelines or ‘netiquette’ for the group. This is done via a group discussion forum and, again, the tool is introduced through a low-stakes activity and students are given the opportunity to agree ground rules for future group activities. I ask groups to agree on three guidelines and then share these with the entire cohort through a class discussion forum. I find these small activities are good building blocks for the development of online academic communities; they give students the confidence to engage with the collaborative and peer activities which follow.

Supporting staff to engage online students

Building academic communities is an important aspect of online learning and contributing to these communities is important for those who teach or support learners in online courses. The Online Learning Network is an academic community offering staff at the University the opportunity to share ideas and practice about online teaching. This network is facilitated by IAD and hosts themed events. The November 2018 event was a joint event with another university academic community – the ENGAGE network – and focused on the theme of engaging students online. Staff who participated in this event shared their thoughts on what they considered a good online experience for students to be. We got a range of responses, and building a sense of community during online courses was very evident during the discussions:

Sense of belonging to the learning community.

Got to feel included – part of a course.

Humanise the contact.

Establishing a personal link/relationship.

Staff members were asked how they engaged students online, and they gave the following suggestions:

  • Giving students a sense of ownership.
  • Encouraging collaboration through group activities.
  • Ensuring the course team are visible.

The presentations and discussions during this event all highlighted the importance of academic communities for online learning.  I was pleased to see the importance of community being recognised through Near Future Teaching project. The project has developed a values-based vision for the future of digital education at the university. One of the project aims has a community focus which includes an action to:

Invest in technologies which offer new ways for remote and off-campus students to be part of the community. 

I look forward to watching our online communities grow as we continue to invest in innovative and useful ways to engage our online students.


Liu, X., Magjuka, R.J., Bonk, C.J. and Lee, S. (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), pp. 9-24,87-88.

Salmon, G. ( 2002). e-Tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning. 2nd Edition. London: RoutledgeFarmer.

Celeste McLaughlin

Celeste McLaughlin is Head of Academic Development for Digital Education, based at the Institute for Academic Development (IAD). She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and is course director for the Digital Education course, an optional course of the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice programme. Her remit includes supporting the Online and Distance Learning community by convening the Online Learning Network. Her interests include open education, and digital assessment practices.

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