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e-Learning kit: Building community

Strategies and technologies for transitioning from face-to-face teaching to online environments (#eLkit).

Building community

Community interactions are unpredictable and require planning and commitment on the part of the instructor. In order to promote the use of forums and other community spaces and enhance student perceptions of their learning, it is important that students are aware of the benefits of collaborative learning (Camarero, Rodríguez, & San José, 2012; Jones et al., 2006):

  • It involves them in the learning process;
  • Contributes to a positive atmosphere;
  • Facilitates peer-learning and peer-support networks;
  • Provides opportunity for reflection;
  • Promotes critical thinking and problem solving;
  • Brings uncertainties and misconceptions to the surface;
  • Improves results and achievement.

I would also add that it can be really fun and stimulating to interact with each other over different media. This section includes best practices for building community, some notes on team work, recommendations for discussion forums, social media, and synchronous communications, and ends with links to learn more about communities of practice.

Best practices for building community

Cuthbertson & Falcone (2014) provide best practices for building community in online information literacy courses and workshops:

  • Strategy 1: Regularly give students a place to be themselves and share their experiences, thoughts, and interests. Help them see the value of their participation by representing the information back to the group.
  • Strategy 2: Give responsibility to individuals or groups for discussion threads on select academic topics.
  • Strategy 3: Encourage student-to-student advice regarding assignments.
  • Strategy 4: Use synchronous communications to strengthen ties to the classroom community.
  • Strategy 5: Leverage students’ love of mobile technologies.

Additional best practices from Gilly Salmon for enabling collaboration include asking students to post a question at the end of each discussion and respond to the messages posted by their peers, sharing information and resources with each other (2013).

Team work

  • Start off with team building exercises before having them collaborate on a task. Team members can be asked to select a name for themselves and outline their rules of engagement (Matuga, 2007).
  • Twelve to twenty members is a good team size, just in case some leave. Any more and there is the danger that individuals will remain quiet, rather than repeat ideas already represented (Salmon, 2013).

Discussion forums/boards

Recommendations for threaded discussions (messages grouped by question and replies, as opposed to order of posting) (Dron, 2007):

  • You can cultivate different threads, some for independent learners with open ended questions, and others that are more directed with explicit instructions. For example, offer a less moderated thread that students can use to discuss the learning process. It may end up that there are not many students taking advantage of this secondary route but students lurking there will benefit from their insights.
  • When a new topic is introduced, old messages should be archived but still made available to students. This will prevent the discussion from being too confusing or overwhelming.
  • Guiding questions from teachers can reassure students that someone is monitoring their learning. Teachers can also reward and emphasize, de-emphasize, summarize, and use other means of maintaining momentum in discussions.
  • Student moderators can positively impact discussions, motivating peers to contribute and to do so more diligently (further support for strategy 2).

Teachers act as moderators in online discussions, promoting openness by acknowledging different experiences and responding to student contributions, but they can also give responsibility to individuals or groups as moderators (Malik, 2013):

  • Invite students to volunteer as moderators for defined topics and for a given time period (ex: one week).
  • Provide guidelines for student moderation:
    • Responding to direct queries.
    • Adding their own short posts initially, allowing others to contribute, with more complete answers later on.
    • Summarizing discussions towards the end.
  • Benefits:
    • Moderating students dedicate more time and effort to the discussions and get more out of the experience, including soft skill development.
    • Non-moderating students work harder to reach the level of their peers.
    • Contributes to overall community building.

Social media

Social media is often used to make course related announcements and for activities, such as ice breakers, to enable students to introduce themselves and get to know each other.

Facebook groups

Why Facebook? Facebook is an example of an application that can be used for strategy 1 above, where students can feel comfortable and interact with their peers. Miller (2013) found that compared to using a standard discussion board, students using Facebook posted more often and with more urgency. Discussion activity: Students were asked to provide links to articles with key points and personal reflections, and react to other articles posted using their comments section.

Advantages of using Facebook over traditional discussion boards:

  • Teachers and students are already familiar with Facebook and likely have used it in the past or are currently using it.
  • Easy access to discussion threads, without logging in to a learning management system and navigating to the discussion section.
  • Participants can be alerted of new posts in a Facebook group without returning, as opposed to having to return to a system continually to check.
  • There is a Facebook app so anyone can contribute via their mobile device (complies with strategy 5).
  • When using Facebook groups, you can separate your private Facebook life from participation in a group. No one has to be friends in order to participate in a Facebook group and no one will be able to navigate to and see profiles of individuals who are not their friends (such as the instructor).
    • Facebook groups can be set up to allow only those invited to join.
    • After being set up, groups can be changed to secret so that they cannot be viewed by anyone who is not a member and cannot be found in a search.


Practices for making the most of Twitter (Bledsoe, Harmeyer, & Wu, 2014):

  • Allow time for students to get comfortable with Twitter and learn necessary terminology.
  • Provide a video introduction to Twitter, including account creation and navigation tips.
  • Explain the significance of hashtags. Have students create their own and tweet using their classmates' hashtags.
  • Caution on the uncensored nature of Twitter and the possibility of encountering inappropriate tweets and comments.
  • Promote the use of TweetDeck or other tools to organize tweets.
  • Use Twitter to discuss information overload, filtering and authority.

Social media considerations

  • Privacy: There are different privacy settings for individuals and for groups (Facebook example). 
  • Data collection: With social media tools collecting and using information on what we do, who we connect with, and the devices we use, everyone needs to be aware of individual policies. For example, see the Facebook data policy
  • Students can be reminded of the possible permanency of their posts. Even if a post is deleted before anyone has a chance to share it, someone could have taken a screenshot of it.

Synchronous communications

Web conferencing can be used for social learning opportunities as well as for consultations and online office hours.

Best practices for engaging learners in a web conferencing environment (Badia & Colosimo, 2013):

  1. Provide orientation to the environment and an introduction to each web conferencing session. For example, use ice breakers that encourage interaction with the environment and indicate the different options that are available for comments and questions or for communicating privately with librarians and with each other. Introduce anticipated learning outcomes and session outline verbally and in writing.
  2. When informing, plan to cover less content than you would face-to-face and have someone else monitoring and responding to chats. Verbally describe instructor interactions with the environment and slow down in case there are delays with live demonstrations but continue to ask for input as you would with live sessions.
  3. Alternate periods of informing with active learning exercises and feedback, such as group work and peer-learning opportunities. Use questioning, polling and quizzes, but also leave time for practice, such as mapping or database searching.
  4. Humanize the environment by chatting one-on-one with individuals, addressing students by name, avoiding extended periods of silence and playing music while they are engaged in exercises. Use your webcam at the start and during question periods, encourage the use of feedback icons, and enable microphones of individuals at appropriate times.  
  5. Close each session deliberately with time for reflection and feedback and send a follow-up email soliciting additional feedback and offering the recording.

Communities of practice

Learners may also join or form their own communities of practice, where each person has some level of practical knowledge and expertise and learning occurs through participation.

Bottom of the page bonus (video)Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation [intrinsic vs extrinsic rewards]


See the full bibliography for works consulted.

Badia, G., & Colosimo, A. L. (2013). Best practices for engaging users in a web conferencing environment. ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings, Atlanta, Georgia.

Bledsoe, T. S., Harmeyer, D., & Wu, S. F. (2014). Utilizing Twitter and #hashtags toward enhancing student learning in an online course environment. International Journal of Distance Education Technologies (IJDET), 12(3), 75-83.

Camarero, C., Rodríguez, J., & San José, R. (2012). An exploratory study of online forums as a collaborative learning tool. Online Information Review, 36(4), 568-586.

Cuthbertson, W., & Falcone, A. (2014). Elevating engagement and community in online courses. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 8(3-4), 216-224.

Dron, J. (2007). Control and constraint in e-learning: Choosing when to choose. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Pub.

Jones, C., Cook, J., Jones, A., & De Laat, M. (2006). "Collaboration" In: Conole, G., & Oliver, M. Contemporary perspectives in e-learning research: Themes, methods and impact on practice. Hoboken: T&F.

Malik, K. (2013). "Engaging learners as moderators in an online management courseIn: Wankel, C. & Blessinger, P. (Ed.), Increasing student engagement and retention in e-learning environments: Web 2.0 and blended learning technologies. Emerald Group Publishing.

Matuga, J. M. (2007). "Self-Regulation and Online Learning: Theoretical Issues and Practical Challenges to Support Lifelong Learning" In: Y. Inoue (Ed.), Online Education for Lifelong Learning (pp. 146-168). Hershey, PA: Information Science Pub.

Miller, S. T. (2013). Increasing student participation in online group discussions via Facebook. Astronomy Education Review, 12(1), 010103.

Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: The key to active online learning. Taylor & Francis.

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