Community Conversations: Online Learning Communities

Community of PracticeRecently, I attended a party which included other graduate students who were in traditional programs at brick and mortar institutions. In part of the discussion, they alluded to some online universities as being substandard and that the graduates from those kinds of institutions were not adequately educated. Both parties professed that learning online lacked classroom discussion and, therefore, missed a major component to the learning experience. While I acknowledge there are some for-profit universities that have come under fire recently in the news, such as Ashford University and Phoenix University, (“Accreditation news,” 2014), but I think some of the misperception has to do with a common misunderstanding about distance education: that online education is a shortcut and therefore degrees earned are questionable products from a “PO Box University”. Having completed the main coursework for my master’s degree in Instructional Design, my experience has been anything but a “short-cut” or mass-produced degree. On the contrary, my experience has be rewarding and challenging, and I believe I have completed each class with a deep understanding of the content and a strong connection to the teacher and students I have learned with. I discovered that when attention has been paid to creating strong online learning communities, the experience is rich and contributes to the success of the course.

Online learning communities are essential to the success of a distance learning program. An online course, by its nature is solitary in that the learner does not meet in a classroom of fellow students, but rather accesses the information online, and connects via computer to the course. That is why, the development of the learning community is critical, not only to break the isolation, but to expand the learning opportunities. Palloff and Pratt, describe the learning community as a “People, purpose, and process: a community of students and faculty who explore content together to construct meaning and knowledge about that content” (Laureate Education, 2010). The community works together to construct meaning, challenge each other, and share insights into the content material. With a strong community, online learners can learn successfully and develop a sense of pride and satisfaction at achieving success through a team effort. Conrad and Donaldson, (2011) point out that a successful online program is based on an Engaged Learning Model: one rooted in constructivist learning principles with problem-based learning outcomes.

I thought Dr. Palloff’s comment that the creation of the learning community starts even before the class begins was important. With an understanding of how essential the learning community is to a successful distance program, the foundation needs to be established from the outset. Palloff recommends that the exteriors of the learning management system (LMS) and the diction used in the communication sent to the students communicate a feeling that is warm and inviting for the learners. She also states that the instructor’s presence be strong and accessible (Laureate Education, 2010). While both presenters discuss the benefits of student biographies and class icebreakers to facilitate connections among all members of the course, they also encourage instructors to respond to the initial postings quickly in order to model proper discussions responses and to communicate how important everyone’s presence is.

As the course progresses, the continued participation of the members is the lifeblood of the community. The instructor supports the process, but the students are the center; their questions, their input, and their contributions maintain the growth of the community. I have found it comforting that as I progressed from class to class that most of the students who were in my previous classes were in the subsequent ones. I have made friends, enjoyed comments and ideas from my peers just as much as I would have had I been in a physical classroom. I felt comfortable learning with people whom I was familiar with. In addition to learning with an established community, Pratt and Palloff also noted that students stay with a program when they perceive they are learning, they have a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment and feel they are not isolated but a part of something larger (Laureate Education, 2010).

Constructivism is rooted in the belief that learning is a community process and distance learning often uses constructivist theory at the foundation of the design (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). Therefore, building a strong community is paramount to designing a course that students want to attend and can succeed in. Whether working as a designer, or as an instructor, I learned that being present, being human, and connecting with students through an easy-to-use interface, and communicating what the expectations for the course are upfront, will help build the community that is so critical for not just a successful experience, but an experience rich in learning and discovery. As Dr. Pratt stated, building a safe environment for dynamic interaction and a strong learning community is key to creating a successful online learning course. (Laureate Education, 2010).


Accreditation news. (2014). Higher education press. [Web Page]. Retrieved from

Boettcher, J., & Conrad, R.-M. (2010). Teaching online: The big picture. In The Online Teaching Survival Guide (pp. 3–17). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Conrad, R.-M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Learning in an online environment. In Engaging the Online Learner (pp. 1–14). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Laureate Education (Producer). (2010). Online learning communities. Retrieved from


3 thoughts on “Community Conversations: Online Learning Communities

  1. Hello Mary,
    As I read your blog, I find it very interesting and you have made some key points. One thing that is consistent among individuals who have researched the success of online community is that first you have to have participants. “Fundamental for any community is the need to have members, meaning that you need to find ways to engage your audience and get them involved. Simply put, if nobody joins the community it will no longer exist” (Little, 2013). Second is safety. “Another key element to successful online communities is that members all feel safe and unthreatened while interacting within the community. Just like in real-world villages, towns, cities and countries, there are rules to ensure everyone can feel safe and secure – the same should be true for your online community” (Little, 2013). I believe that once educators have develop the purpose of putting together an online course and what it’s objectives are, its important to get the members and ensure that they will feel safe when participating.

    Little, K. (2013, July 5). Keys to Developing a Successful Online Community – Minneapolis Social Media Marketing. Retrieved November 2, 2014, from

  2. What a wonderful post, Mary! I hope you can recognise me in my Halloween costume and under my English surname 🙂

    When I am asked about online education I say it has so far been my best learning experience. I suppose both you and I find it rewarding, enjoyable and effective because it suits our learning styles, I thrive on being autonomous but I am also a proponent of Connectivism theory and as you know from our discussion have been trying to conduct experiments of social learning on my students 🙂

    Most people I talk to about Walden have only been able to experience a traditional setting but every person has agreed (!) that learning how to create online learning programs is better done online. I get exasperated sometimes when people express their distrust in using technology for learning though. Their most used argument is that they cannot touch other people! As if they go around touching people in a classroom anyways. I love technology, love, love, love it! I have met most of my boyfriends online, the first job I got after graduation was online and I built a successful online business from my chair by the age I was 27. I am also sure that most people would change their opinion of distance education if they experienced an online classroom where all the principles we are talking about were realized,

    I also can see now how huge was the shift between my ‘before’ and ‘after’ Walden education. My college and University training back in Russia were defined by behaviorism and cognitivism that ‘view knowledge as external to the learner and the learning process as the act of internalizing knowledge’. Siemens (2005) Whereas Walden’s approach is reminiscent of what Siemens says about Constructivism. ‘Constructivism assumes that learners are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Instead, learners are actively attempting to create meaning. Learners often select and pursue their own learning. Constructivist principles acknowledge that real-life learning is messy and complex. Classrooms which emulate the “fuzziness” of this learning will be more effective in preparing learners for life-long learning.’

    Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International journal of instructional technology and distance learning, 2(1), 3-10. Retrived from:

  3. Mary,

    Well-stated. I wonder how many of our brick and mortar colleagues have ever taken an online course. Having done a graduate degree in both environments, I think online is better when it comes to having a balanced life. My first degree, the brick and mortar one, was completed at a time in my life when I basically lived on campus and could afford the time to be on campus. during my time at Walden, I did not have the time to travel to, and study at, a brick and mortar school. In your blog you reference the success of a student relates to their feelings of inclusion and progress. This ties in to Michael Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance. I think your idea of a learning community, when built well, meets the needs identified in Moore’s theory.


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