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Building Community

While faculty members traditionally work to create a learning community in face-to-face classes, a common mistake in translating educational work online is to see the process as individualistic.  Earlier in this decade, nearly 80 percent of elearning was designed for solo work, which in effect made it little different from correspondence courses (Galvin, 2001).  Research has shown that learning:

“…is enhanced when it is more like a team effort than a solo race. Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one's own ideas and responding to others' reactions improves thinking and deepens understanding” (Chickering and Gamson, 1987, p. 1).

We tend to agree with Palloff and Pratt (2007), who suggest that community is the central feature of online courses.  They noted that the interaction and presence of the people in a community, coupled with processes that are reflective, constructivist, and social, and guided by articulated purpose, leads to the types of outcomes one desires in education – co-created knowledge, increased self-direction and transformed self-learning.

Palloff and Pratt (2007) go on to suggest that community is developed online by:

  • Active interaction involving both course content and personal communication
  • Collaborative learning evidenced by comments directed primarily student to student rather than student to faculty
  • Socially constructed meaning evidenced by questioning, reflection and agreement
  • Sharing of resources among students
  • Expressions of support and encouragement exchanged between students as well as from faculty, including willingness to critically evaluate the work of others

For community to develop, your students need to sense the presence of you and each other in order to begin to build trust.  Palloff and Pratt suggest that the keys to creating a successful learning community revolve around “honesty, responsiveness, relevance, respect, openness, and empowerment” (p. 22).

Building this community starts in the first week of an online course.  We have used online ice breakers during the first week to humanize the individuals in the community, illustrating both the similarities of the members and their individual uniquenesses.   E-Tivities by Gilly Salmon (2001) has a variety of activities that can be used online to build community.  Additional suggestions from practitioners are exchanged in a social networking site run by and for faculty – College 2.0.

Book Review of Building Online Learning Communities, Palloff and Pratt (2007)

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 09/22/2009
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