“Educational institutions are spaces for learning, but more specifically, they are spaces for social learning. And so our role as educators and administrators of educational institutions has to be focused on building community in addition to offering courses, designing curriculum, and credentialing.” Jesse Stommel, How to Build an Online Learning Community: 6 Theses
When we do not intentionally weave opportunities for social learning and community building into the design of our online learning spaces, participants may feel siloed and alone, making it difficult to engage with learning content or peers. Research has shown that online learning succeeds best when participants feel part of a trusted community, supported by their instructors, programs, and peers.
While it can be challenging to virtually capture the spontaneity of community-building that occurs in face-to-face classrooms and on a physical campus, there are numerous online avenues for cultivating community spirit. Examples include providing time and space for participants to get to know one another on a personal level, scheduling extracurricular activities like virtual game nights and coffee chats, and offering real-time communication channels that facilitate informal conversations, to name a few.
Inclusive design is another important consideration in community-building online. If learners feel left out of discussions or can’t access vital materials to participate in a course or online activity, they will likely experience frustration and disengagement. Providing learners with multiple avenues and opportunities for participating in online courses and activities can go a long way toward strengthening community-building online.
Below, we outline suggestions for building community online at the course, program/department, and co-curricular or campus levels. Many thanks to Middlebury faculty and staff who shared examples of how they put virtual community-building into practice at Middlebury this spring.