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Building Powerful Learning Communities Online

Help your students connect digitally

Building a strong community is a key to success in many fields. Think of the overwhelming popularity of fitness systems like Crossfit and F45, which offer the opportunity for people to connect, compete, and feel like they belong. Wordle recently swept the globe, a simple word puzzle but one that harnessed the power of community. It gave everyone the same problem to solve at the same time, allowing it to become a point of connection both in-person and online.

A healthy learning community is crucial to student success. And as a lot of learning moves online for a variety of reasons, we must find ways to create that communal classroom feel where all involved can build trust, participate actively, and find shared focus on the learning objective.


The indicators of a healthy online learning community

What constitutes a healthy learning community? Academic results will not be the only yardstick for this, although ultimately a strong community should be reflected in successful learning.

Here are some other indicators you can look for:

  • Participants are engaged and posting regularly.

  • The community is meeting the needs of members.

  • Participants feel comfortable to express honest opinions.

  • Collaboration and teaching are evident. Spontaneous moderating occurs between participants.

  • Reasonable venting about difficulties with the content or medium is evident and acceptable.

  • Participants show care and concern for others in the community and the group as a whole.

Collison et al., Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators, p77

There may be other important signs specific to your course or content. However, the things listed above are a good indication that the community is being formed and functioning.

Building blocks for a strong community

Now we know what an effective community looks like, how do we achieve it? The following are simple pointers that can guide your online learning planning process.

Set clear expectations

You can’t control how your learners participate, but setting clear expectations can encourage engagement. You may request something like “at least one post and one response per week” to get the ball rolling. This may be tied to the assessment rubric.

Ask good questions

The questions you ask can have a significant effect on community engagement. This applies to an in-person environment too! Try to formulate questions that probe for clarifications, reason, and evidence, uncover assumptions, unpack viewpoints or perspectives, and draw out implications or consequences.

Engage… But not too much!

As the facilitator, over-engaging with the learners can be to the detriment of natural conversation within the community. Moderators should guide and serve the discourse rather than participate heavily in it.

Stay focused on whanaungatanga

Western structured approaches to building community are not always the best way, particularly in the context of Aotearoa—we highly recommend looking for guidance from te ao Māori. Information and guidance on whakawhanaungatanga (establishing relationships and relating well to others) should be sought from Māori thought leaders.


From the beginning of your online community, you should keep in mind a vision of the type of community you want to foster and allow that to guide you. Looking into the wānanga model or the talanoa model from the Pasifika world might help you to get started.

If you are interested in topics like this one and would like to arrange further training or resources for your team, get in touch with Think e-Learning! We love equipping leaders in the field to guide and nurture their teams as they ease into digital literacy and discover the full potential of online learning.


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