Building Community in Online Learning Environments - JHU School of Education (2023)

By Andrea Harkins Parrish, Ed. D.

The Importance of Community-Building

Building Community in Online Learning Environments - JHU School of Education (1)Today’s teachers are navigating uncharted waters. There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us to the brink of our professional and personal capacities to serve children and their families. What we originally thought would impact one school year has now expanded into two and, perhaps, the unforeseeable future.

In response, teachers and school administrators have jumped into action. They have climbed Mount Everest in integrating technology! As a researcher, I have seen teachers quickly scale from using a web tool in their classroom to full adoption of their school system’s learning management system, virtual web conferencing tools, and a host of online tools to facilitate innovative instruction online.

I have watched my own children’s teachers and my many friends who are teachers attempt to master effective “classroom” management online, all while pressuring themselves to build routines, stick to the schedule, and jump into content instruction.

Building Community in Online Learning Environments - JHU School of Education (2)Understandably, teachers are pressuring themselves to teach content right away. As teachers, we feel an obligation to provide children with instruction they have missed. But what I would like to present here is a suggestion (and perhaps, permission) for us to take a step back. Let’s pump the brakes for a minute and make sure that we have first built a sense of community within our learning environments.

Whether students are online or in a physical classroom, long-lasting learning occurs when children feel that they’re a part of something great. Meaningful learning occurs when students first feel a sense of belonging. This is achieved by making all students feel welcomed and valued. So, first things first. Let’s achieve that sense of belonging for every student and their family.

Tips for Building a Strong Community in Your Online Classroom

Building Community in Online Learning Environments - JHU School of Education (3)There is a broad base of existing literature on ways educators can build a sense of community in an online learning environment (Austin & Hunter, 2013; Banas & Wartalski, 2019; Delen & Liew, 2016; Lee, 2018; Palloff & Pratt, 2007). While much of this research has focused on higher education, the onset of COVID-19 is responsible for recent growth in the K-12 literature on this topic. No matter the audience, creating a learning space where children feel safe to take risks is optimal for authentic learning. So, what can teachers do to build community online? Here are a few ideas, collated from a variety of readily available online sources:

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1. Design Regular Opportunities for Social Connectedness

Building Community in Online Learning Environments - JHU School of Education (4)Social connectedness isn’t an extracurricular activity; it’s a vital part of every school-based routine. Our goal should be to incorporate social connectedness in every subject, every day. This includes opportunities for student-to-student interactions and regular teacher-to-student interactions. These teacher-to-student social interactions can best be achieved in small group discussions or one-on-one teacher-student checkins. By regularly building these opportunities into a daily school schedule, we allow students the opportunity to establish meaningful relationships with teachers as well as their peers. For young children and those with disabilities, these social opportunities may require scaffolding through discussion prompts, formative check-ins, and visual supports to encourage full participation.

2. Include Parents in the Community-Building

Building Community in Online Learning Environments - JHU School of Education (5)If children are learning from home, it’s essential that educators also make parents feel welcomed and valued. Take steps to demonstrate to your students that their parents are vital and valued members of this learning community. Encourage parents to participate, to the extent that they are able. Allow children the flexibility they need to learn in the home environment, since this isn’t a traditional classroom. This means talking to students about this and acknowledging that their parents aren’t distractions or interruptions; they are part of the learning environment, and it’s okay for children to ask them questions and communicate about what they’re learning. Give parents options for meaningful participation and coach them about how they can support their children.

3. Scaffold Responsibility as You Build Routine

Building Community in Online Learning Environments - JHU School of Education (6)As you teach online, slowly phase in parts of your routine. Set a long-term goal for how you and your students will master all of the components of the school routine and then back map your expectations so that you can meet that goal together with your students. Demonstrate flexibility with both students and parents, particularly when it comes to the submission of online work. To create a risk-free learning environment, reinforce students’ early attempts to complete and submit academic work online. Remember that students’ academic skills may be rusty from a lack of practice and adjust your expectations accordingly, until students have reached the desired level of performance.

4. Consider Flexible Options for Online Participation

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There is a hot debate as to how we can reliably measure and encourage learners’ participation online. Those who most closely subscribe to the synchronous model of virtual learning tend to argue that students must have their cameras on at all times and document their full attention through evidence of a distraction-free environment. While an active webcam is helpful for the teacher to receive feedback from his or her audience, Dr. Torrey Trust, an educational researcher whom I respect, recently published the following infographic that helps us to take a step back and consider the complexities of requiring online camera usage. Dr. Trust also poses some alternatives that can be used to formatively assess students’ learning and ongoing participation in an online environment.

Building Community in Online Learning Environments - JHU School of Education (7)


Building Community in Online Learning Environments - JHU School of Education (8)Remember that learning right now, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, is about respect, relationships, and relevance. It is not about achieving absolute academic rigor. Only after we establish respect, relationships, and relevance can we attain rigorous content learning. At this time, teachers’ focus should be on establishing meaningful relationships with students, creating a culture of respect for and with students, and creating relevance again for content learning during an unsettling time. Due to the lack of instruction that occurred in the spring of 2020, we must also expect the need to re-teach skills and provide remedial instruction. To do so, we must be patient with ourselves and our students. If we do, the rigor will come.

Resources for Practitioners

If you are interested in learning more about ways to create a sense of community in your online learning environment, here are some readily available online resources that might be of use to you:

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5 Virtual Ways to Build a Classroom Community
This blog post by PBS outlines methods for building a sense of classroom community in online learning spaces for young children.

Fostering a Strong Community in a Virtual Classroom
This Edutopia article provides tips for creating community in a virtual community, with a focus on establishing cultural norms in your classroom.

Creative Ways Teachers are Building Classroom Community Online
This article provides examples of ways teachers across the country have used innovative methods, including the use of social media and multimedia, to create engaging online learning spaces.

A Place of (Remote) Belonging
This blog post by researchers at Harvard University outlines some practical tips for creating welcoming virtual learning environments for young children.

10 Strategies for Engaging Parents (Not Children?) During Tele-Intervention
This resource provides recommendations to engage families of young children with disabilities in online

Taking Care of Yourself
This infographic, developed by researchers at Vanderbilt University, provides strategies that educators can use to support their mental health during this transition to online learning.


Austin, R. & Hunter, B. (2013). Online learning and community cohesion: Linking schools. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis.

Banas, J. & Wartalski, R. (2019). Designing for community in online learning settings. Library Technology Reports, 55(4), 8-13.

Delen, E. & Liew, J. (2016). The use of interactive environments to promote self-regulated learning: A literature review. European Journal of Contemporary Education, 15(1), 24-33. doi: 10.13187/ejced.2016.15.24

Lee, K. (2018). Everyone already has their community beyond the screen: Reconceptualizing online learning and expanding boundaries. Educational Technology Research and Development, 66, 1255-1268. Retrieved from (0123456789().,-volV)(0123456789().,-volV)

Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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About the Author

Dr. Andrea Parrish is the Director of Development and Learning Systems and an Assistant Research Scientist at the IDEALS Institute. Prior to her work in higher education, she was a special educator and central office administrator, providing technical support in special education. Dr. Parrish conducts research in special education and technology integration and currently runs applied research projects for the IDEALS Institute which focus on creating systems change for vulnerable populations in school districts.

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How do you maintain a learning environment that is responsive to your community context? ›

Areas considered part of creating a culturally responsive learning environments are (1) understanding the cultural lifestyles of their students, such as which ethnic groups give priority to communal living and problem solving; (2) knowing differences in the modes of interaction between children and adults in different ...

How do you create a sense of community in an online classroom? ›

There are several strategies we can use to promote community in an online course.
  1. Create a Plan for Communication. ...
  2. Establish Social Presence. ...
  3. Meet in Real-Time. ...
  4. Create Opportunities for Information and Expertise Sharing. ...
  5. Use Collaborative Learning Techniques.

What are the biggest challenges facing online education today? ›

Let's take a look at the biggest challenges facing distance education today and review some specific tips for how to overcome them.
  • #1. Technical Issues.
  • #2. Lack of Motivation.
  • #3. Feelings of Isolation.
  • #4. Effective Time Management.
  • #5. Managing Distractions and Staying Focused.

How does the community affect the learning environment? ›

Children learn from the community members (such as adults, peers, etc). The behaviour of inhabitants of a community reflects the climate of that community. Therefore, the community environment is important for children's better learning. Environment of the community influences the children's learning.

What key elements build an effective learning community? ›

Learning Communities: Key Elements for Sustainability
  • Clear and well-understood mission, vision, and goals.
  • Committed leadership, wide connections, and solid volunteer workforce.
  • Purposeful and well-implemented curriculum, pedagogy, and structure.
  • Appropriate and ubiquitous assessment.
5 Nov 2009

Why is community important in online learning? ›

More benefits of an online learning community

The community helps to instill a sense of belonging and camaraderie which keeps students engaged and motivates them to persevere. Because of the community's discussion forums, students have the opportunity to develop relationships with fellow students.

How do you create an online positive community? ›

Step 5.3: Ten ways to encourage a positive online community
  1. Show gratitude and express thanks. ...
  2. Praise members. ...
  3. Use positive language and avoid complaining. ...
  4. Develop relationships with members. ...
  5. Encourage creativity and collaboration. ...
  6. Make people laugh and relax. ...
  7. Listen to your members. ...
  8. Think before responding when you're angry.
17 Jun 2019

What are the benefits of an online community of learning? ›

We've identified 10 of the top advantages of online learning communities here.
  • You'll find it easier to participate. ...
  • You'll be more at ease. ...
  • You'll benefit from geography ... ...
  • … ...
  • You'll enjoy a sense of community. ...
  • You'll brainstorm together. ...
  • You'll benefit from technology. ...
  • You'll get to know your classmates.

How can I make online learning more effective? ›

10 Tips for Success in Online Classes
  1. Establish a productive learning environment. ...
  2. Set a schedule for completing and reviewing assignments. ...
  3. Seek virtual interactions with your peers.
  4. Use the 'chunking' strategy to section out tasks.
  5. Try to increase your interest in the work.

What are the struggles of students in online learning? ›

What Are the Challenges of Online Learning for Students?
  • Ineffective Time Management.
  • Lack of Instant Communication.
  • Not Receiving Timely Feedback.
  • Not Receiving Clear Instructions or Expectations.
  • Share Time Management Apps and Resources for Students.
  • Utilize Educational Technology (“EdTech”)
  • Increase Peer Review.

What are the common problems for students in online learning? ›

Best online course platform
  • Problems faced by students in online classes.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Lack of in-person interaction.
  • Lack of discipline.
  • Lack of digital literacy.
  • Technical issues.
  • To sum it up:
25 May 2022

Why are learning communities important? ›

Communities share learning from both successful and unsuccessful experiences to deepen collective knowledge. It supports distributed leadership. The scope of a learning community allows it to offer a wide range of leadership roles and skill-building opportunities.

What is an example of a learning community? ›

An example of a professional learning community is jazz musicians who get together to share their work, provide critique and feedback and network with other musicians.

Why is community involvement important in education? ›

Community and family involvement in student learning has positive outcomes: lower absenteeism, positive student achievement, better civic engagement, fewer discipline issues and higher graduation rates. Developing community-family-school alliances can foster partnerships and opportunities to support students.

What makes a successful learning environment? ›

However, overall elements such as minimal distractions, a clear routine, a positive atmosphere and varied approaches and formats of teaching are all elements that have been proven to improve performance and facilitate effective learning.

How would you create a positive online learning environment? ›


By organising and conducting group projects for students, teachers can enable a positive learning environment even virtually. Additionally, teachers can hold small group sessions with students so that they can converse and work together in a more comfortable environment.

What are the examples of online communities of learning? ›

  • synchronous (such as instant messaging or language exchange websites and mobile applications.
  • asynchronous (such as message boards and Internet forums)
  • blogs.
  • course management.
  • collaborative (such as wikis)
  • social networking.
  • social learning.
  • online universities.

How do you keep an online community active? ›

In this list, we'll share a few creative online community engagement activities you can use to do just that.
9. Winner! Contests
  1. Trivia. ...
  2. Treasure Hunt. ...
  3. Riddles. ...
  4. Community Activity Promotion. ...
  5. Community Referrals – Invite someone to join the community.
10 Nov 2020

How do you maintain an online community? ›

If you are thinking about creating an online community site, you will find these five tips for building and maintaining an online community site valuable.
  1. Select the Right Platform. ...
  2. Types of Online Communities. ...
  3. Create Guidelines. ...
  4. Hold Live Webinars. ...
  5. Monitor the Online Community.
28 Nov 2017

How do you keep an online community engaged? ›

Follow Ted's tips on how to best engage your online community.
  1. Set up an interesting overriding topic. ...
  2. Discuss your personal life. ...
  3. Communicate consistently and regularly. ...
  4. Avoid using research language. ...
  5. Use surveys when you can. ...
  6. See where they stand. ...
  7. Encourage journaling.

What are 3 positive aspects of an online community? ›

With a community, you can:
  • Create real connections.
  • Stand out from the competition with a better customer experience.
  • Generate leads and acquire new members.
  • Improve your products and programs by gathering and addressing feedback.
  • Decrease support costs by crowdsourcing support.
16 Dec 2020

What is the purpose of online learning? ›

Online courses teach students how to manage their time better since the student bears the responsibility of engaging with the course instead of simply showing up to class on an assigned day and time. As a result, students not only gain knowledge from the coursework, but they also sharpen their time management skills.

What is the biggest key to success in online learning? ›

What Makes a Successful Online Learner?
  1. Persistence. Persistence is perhaps the biggest key to success in online learning. ...
  2. Effective Time-Management Skills. ...
  3. Effective and Appropriate Communication Skills. ...
  4. Basic Technical Skills. ...
  5. Reading and Writing Skills. ...
  6. Motivation and Independence. ...
  7. A Good Study Environment.

What is the ideal online learning environment? ›

A good learning environment may be a great attribute to the success of an online course. It is not only about creating a positive class atmosphere for students to feel engaged and motivated. An ideal course setting should encourage the instructor-learner connection and present a sense of support and communication.

How do you overcome online learning challenges? ›

5 Ways to Overcome the Challenges of Virtual Learning

What is the biggest challenge faced by students today pandemic? ›

(2020) found in their research that the lack of knowledge, skills and devices, internet connection, irrelevance and issues with system access were the problems experienced by teachers and students in the Covid-19 pandemic.

What is the impact of online learning to the academic performance of students? ›

Online teaching promotes learning by encouraging the students' use of various learning strategies at hand and increases the level of their commitment to studying their majors.

What is a positive learning community? ›

A positive learning environment is created when you value participatory teaching and learning and when there is trust and rapport among students and between yourself and students.

What are the 4 types of community? ›

Different Types Of Communities
  • Interest. Communities of people who share the same interest or passion.
  • Action. Communities of people trying to bring about change.
  • Place. Communities of people brought together by geographic boundaries.
  • Practice. ...
  • Circumstance.
23 Nov 2010

How do you define a community of learning? ›

A community of learners is a group of people who support each other in their collective and individual learning. They are cooperative and can work productively together. Individually, they are motivated and strive to do quality work.

What is the most important role in the community as a student? ›

For the prosperity and betterment of a society, the foremost role of student is to gather knowledge and wisdom and must not waste his/her precious time carelessly. He must submit himself to the rules of discipline to build a civilized society. They must realize their roles and duties towards a cultured society.

How can you encourage community involvement in schools? ›

Share leadership: Encourage families' contributions and leadership. Reach out: Meet families where they are. Don't ignore the elephant in room: Create a welcoming environment and have honest conversations. Tell your school's story: Be visible in the community.

How can you encourage community involvement and participation? ›

10 Tips to Encourage Community Engagement in Diverse Communities
  1. Plan to spend a lot of time in your engagement process – prepare, consult, and report. ...
  2. Research the culture. ...
  3. Don't take anything personally. ...
  4. Be patient. ...
  5. Be creative. ...
  6. Create an inclusive social group. ...
  7. Reach out to leaders. ...
  8. Provide a digital option.
9 Oct 2018

What are some ways for fostering community in a learning environment? ›

How to Build Community in the Classroom
  • Create human values for learning. ...
  • Co-construct behaviors around these values. ...
  • Build culture and climate with goals. ...
  • Develop a shared conflict-resolution language. ...
  • Establish SEL routines. ...
  • Play around with routines during SEL mini-lessons.
23 Jul 2021

How do you manage your classroom and maintain an environment for learning? ›

Universal classroom management strategies for educators
  1. Model ideal behavior. ...
  2. Let students help establish guidelines. ...
  3. Document rules. ...
  4. Avoid punishing the class. ...
  5. Encourage initiative. ...
  6. Offer praise. ...
  7. Use non-verbal communication. ...
  8. Hold parties.
23 Dec 2021

How do you effectively manage your learning environment? ›

  1. Get to know your students. ...
  2. Establish guidelines for interaction early and often. ...
  3. Provide choices. ...
  4. Encourage collaboration. ...
  5. Engage in collaboration. ...
  6. "The behaviors that support the development of an effective learning environment need to be determined collectively whenever possible” (Saunders, 2012).

How do we maintain an environment conducive to learning? ›

Creating a conducive learning environment
  1. Get to know the students by name as quickly as possible.
  2. Get to know some personal things about each student.
  3. Conduct a values analysis discussion about some current event or topic.
  4. Provide positive comments when appropriate.
  5. Be positive and enthusiastic when teaching.

Why is community building important? ›

Why are communities so important? Strong communities are critical because they're often an important source of social connection and a sense of belonging. Participating in a community bonded by attitudes, values, and goals is an essential ingredient to enjoying a fulfilling life.

What is another way to build community among students? ›

Engage with Students

Let students know how they can contact you. Chat with your students before/during/after class. Show your students you care. For an online class, consider using audiovisual interactions so students can see and hear you, rather than only reading your text.

What is an example of community building? ›

Community building activities are events and exercises that promote camaraderie and fellowship and between like minded individuals. For example, volunteering, newsletters, and group game nights.

What is an effective learning environment? ›

However, overall elements such as minimal distractions, a clear routine, a positive atmosphere and varied approaches and formats of teaching are all elements that have been proven to improve performance and facilitate effective learning.

Why is it important to create a positive learning environment? ›

Research tells us students learn better when they are part of a supportive community of learners. When you create a positive learning environment where students feel accepted, seen, and valued, they are more likely to persist in your course, in their majors, and at the university.

What are the 4 elements for creating a positive learning environment? ›

Four Elements for Creating a Positive Learning Environment
  • Safety. Before students can succeed academically, they must feel safe, both physically and mentally. ...
  • Engagement. ...
  • Connectedness. ...
  • Support.
7 Nov 2016


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