What Creates Community in an Online Course?

In answering the question, “What creates community in an online course?” I began with Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of the term “community,” given as a unified body of individuals.[i]

Here are sample usages accompanying the definition:

  1. A group of people who live in the same area, such as a neighborhood, city, or town.
  2. A group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.
  3. A group of nations.

Now there’s an explicit set-theoretic devolution of semantics for ya, with unfortunate solipsistic implications. When the term is raised in references to an online course, the implication is that we’re looking for more than a mere label or categorization of a social group. Merely being a constituent of an online course is no more relevant than being a non-voting member of a political party.

Gertrude Gertrude Stein Stein might have quipped, ‘there’s no there there.

While being there might be minimally sufficient for branding as a community, what we’re really driving at is raising individuals’ degree of engagement using technologically mediated forms of communication, vis-à-vis, social media (or functional equivalents in learning management systems).

Ironically, Sherry Turkle argues that “social media” is an oxymoron, since people using online tools—answering emails from cubicles or texting in traffic—are, as a consequence, more socially isolated in a real sense.[ii] There was banter, a few years back, that even learning management systems (LMSs) should be treated as social media (adding to the irony, given that the social media components of LMSs are typically the most underused aspects of these systems).

We’ll address this shortly, as it alludes to the need for a renaissance in online education, where experiences of the virtual are as immersive as real life, in the manner that Saturday morning cartoons and video games have become more photorealistic, the latter more (and massively) interactive, and relatable as a consequence.

So here’s a recasting of the original question:

How do we enhance engagement in an online course?

Answering that gets to the heart of the matter.

There is some urgency to this. In April 2010, the Connecticut Distance Learning Association (CTDLC) announced that more students were enrolled in online courses, and more courses were being offered online than via traditional ground-based approaches. Look at Wikipedia’s “list of largest universities by enrollment” to convince yourself (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_universities_by_enrollment). World-wide, more and more, education does not take place on a brick and mortar campus.

Clayton Christensen, of Disrupting Class and The Innovative University fame, has gone so far as to predict the demise of 30% to 50% of today’s institutions of higher learning by 2030. More recently, he’s gone from a focus on disruption to transformation. Students are transforming in the manner of their acceptance of new interaction modalities. How will teachers adapt to hold their attention? That’s important, for as Chris Dede of HGSE has observed, “There can be engagement without learning, but no learning without engagement.”

Online teachers and trainers can foster engagement in at least two ways. One entails increasing the sense of presence. The other entails enhancing gestalt.


Website designers, borrowing a notion from the fields of human computer interaction and graphical user-interface design, speak of “maintaining corporate presence”—using a grid, navigation elements, consistent colors, and company monikers—to give site visitors a uniform sense of “place.” That look and feel should persist as they drill down through constituent pages. This creates the illusion that they’re in the same location they entered, much as they’d feel if physically situated at headquarters, and signalling that they’ve left the building when appearances changed. That’s why all Home Depots have the same orange motif and floor-plan—so much so that there’s an air of predictability when you’re there—a familiarity that helps you find stuff (translating to increased profitability).

Lynch and Horton championed this approach in their best-selling (#1 on Amazon since 1998) Web Style Guide. Horton then went on to publish the Web Teaching Guide (top computer science book in 2000) that extends the notion of corporate presence to individuals in general and teachers in particular.

The equivalent notion for individuals is referred to as “personal presence.” People manifest recognizable physical characteristics, sartorial style and behaviors that set them apart in a crowd. There’s even evidence of a dedicated neural center, wired for face recognition, that triggers bonding between a mother and child at birth. Because of this, most can more easily remember a face than a name. That’s important, because it transfers to 1-1, 1-many, and many-many web interactions.

By extention, personal presence in the online realm is the sense or tele-sense that someone is there (or present). What we’re looking for here, however, is something more than a lurker (Internet vernacular for a covert attendee).

To increase the sense of presence, we first and foremost require an account of other persons—some sharing of personal information, like the opening gambit of a speed date.

Simply sitting in a classroom or logging into a learning management system doesn’t establish presence. What’s needed is some semblance of a first-person introduction and a persistent sense of their being there—not a casual third-person encounter. In the spirit of this, Thoreau observed in Walden, chapter 1 paragraph 2:

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience… Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.

Turning a third-person account into a first-person experience requires a paradigm-shift, at least in our thinking, if not in practice. I’m not strictly talking about pronoun use here. In fact, postings in discussion forums often lede with personal pronouns.

I’m talking about the manner in which we treat online students as third parties. References such as, “People of the Internet..” or “Let’s see what they’re saying out in cyberspace…” or giving primacy to onsite participants in discussions, convey a sort of I-Thou relationship that treats online members as second-class citizens.


Gestalt is a “form or configuration having properties that cannot be derived by the summation of its component parts.”[iii]

In a class, we seek to collectively raise participants’ level of understanding through some form of dialogical process. Historically, the model for this has been the lecture—examination feedback loop. Nowadays, it can entail other, more evolved forms of interaction and assessment.

A gestalt process that leads to an elevated “form or configuration” should entail co-creation of knowledge—a proven cognitive strategy (more efficacious than straight lecture). In alignment, the current catechism in K-12 education is to “be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.” Several state boards of education actually use the term “facilitator” in conjunction with “teacher” and speak in regulatory language of “learner-centered” pedagogies.

Parenthetically—I’m aware of talk, but no such mandates in higher education. (Old habits and the rhetoric of academic freedom get in the way…)

Finally, a claim is often made that the sense of presence and gestalt in online courses is inferior to the standard of an onsite class. Our goal then is to bridge the gap.

Changing the Paradigm

If we treat onsite and online teaching as dichotomous, then the gap between first- and third-person persists, and interventions intended to bridge the divide devolve into choosing technologies that, at best, approximate aspects of first-person interactions. In effect, the “kindred spirit” of Thoreau’s imagination remains consigned to that distant land.

I attribute the tendency to treat onsite and online as separate and distinct to the novelty effect and/or engrained pedagogical habits.

Online is new to many teachers and trainers. That alone leads some to treat it as something different.

There’s also a distinction made between digital natives—those who grew up with technology and are fluent in its uses, and digital immigrants—those engrained in traditional approaches to content dissemination, usually ensconced in medieval resort-style residential campus settings. Studies have also demonstrated that instructors rarely move beyond the pedagogical approaches and educational technologies used in their pre-service experiences.

I move that a paradigm-shift is in order.

Two non-intersecting circles represent the prevailing onsite/online dichotomy.

DGMD-60 Onsite-Online-Dichotomy

Each is commonly viewed as idiosyncratic, with the experience of onsite posited as the gold standard.

One circle containing both modalities on a continuum represents the ideal of extending the sense of presence and gestalt of the onsite experience to online participants.

DGMD-60 Onsite-Online-Unified

The broader goal is to treat online learning and onsite learning as one and the same. Moore and Kearsley tautologously claim that “Learning is learning”—for a century of experience shows that outcomes are indistinguishable, regardless of the instructional mechanism employed. Some blurring of distinctions is already underway with the emergence of “blended delivery”—an approach that overcomes the perceived limitations of online by requiring a modicum of onsite participation.

We can do better than that.

Flexible Learning

With the advent of low cost multipoint video conferencing and ubiquitous broadband connectivity, it’s possible to have a higher level of engagement in an online course than in a traditional ground-based classroom.

Consider the large lecture, pictured below.


Now consider the face-to-face experience of an online videoconference.


In which context is the sense of presence and gestalt higher? I’d argue that the videoconference is better, and at least equal to an onsite seminar experience. There are no wallflowers. Everyone has a front row seat.

Barring bad Internet weather, connectivity is also superior, as home-based participants are typically on a dedicated broadband line, whereas onsite participants have a fractionated link to a (usually overwhelmed or dated) WiFi access point.

That’s why I require students to physically patch into their router, least they become a bottleneck. Wired is always better. As Yogi Berra might have put it, “without a connection there is no connection.”

Note that we have a mix of onsite and online participants in the videoconference pictured above. The term “flexible learning”—originating in the literature on archipelago learning, is gaining currency in education as a replacement for dualistic usages such as “onsite/online” or “blended.” There needn’t be a Cartesian body-spirit distinction.

In a common incarnation of the flexible learning paradigm, the course is centered on a synchronous onsite class, which is simulcast to videoconferencing participants (with full duplex communications), and time-shifted for the sake of asynchronous participants.

This captures the sense of presence and gestalt of a live class and conveys it to the online side of the spectrum. The only divide is a piece of glass—on either side of which sit participants. From one meeting to the next, they can switch perspectives with no loss of continuity. And for those participating asynchronously, studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between the experiences of being present in a conference versus viewing a recording. In one such study, it was found that 95% of the questions an asynchronous participant would have posed—were ventured by a synchronous participant. That’s satisfactory, considering the costs of actually being there.

Consider the scenario of having to hiring a baby sitter, drive 50 miles on a moonless night in blizzard conditions, sit through two hours of an onerous lecture on a bad hair day, head home, pay the sitter, and catch a few Zs before heading to work the next day—versus clicking into a videoconference in your favorite easy chair, shirt but no shoes required, smoking, eating and drinking—encouraged. Which would you prefer?

The Role of Technology

There’s an inclination to treat technology as an intervention rather than an affordance in online education.

Interventionists[iv] take a “purpose-first, tools second approach.” They tend to look at a learning objective and align a tool for its fulfillment.

Common “purposes” given for interactions include

  1. Presenting and sharing.
  2. Debating (Discussion).
  3. Collaboration.
  4. Getting help.
  5. Socializing (on-task/off-task).

These are useful categorizations, but consigning a particular tool to a form of interaction is artificial, because they are all functionally equivalent. Years of study in distance education have established that, starting with research sponsored by the US military during World War II, and meta-analyses going back a hundred years prior. Turns out the medium is not the message.

Moreover, there’s evidence that a mix of too many tools encumbers communications.

If we look at tools as affordances, and dissolve the barrier between onsite and online, then it’s evident that they add to rather than subtract from the presence and gestalt of a class.

Many teachers have, in fact, stumbled into this enlightened modality by augmenting their ground-based class with learning management systems for years. They’ll use them for content syndication to put up their PowerPoints, post announcements, homework, and links to web resources. They’ll naively use a discussion forum as a submission aggregator, and perhaps even a drop box. They might even graduate to using integrated electronic gradebooks.

All the while, however—and I say this based on a preponderance of incidental anecdotal evidence—they’ll more often claim they’re teaching onsite, and even eschew the suggestion that they’re teaching online. Fortunately, parochial perspectives of this sort are fading away as death and retirement manifest as the major causal change agents in education.

So, I’d argue that adopting the flexible learning paradigm, and treating technological tools as affordances (social media/LMS) helps build community. Pedagogy must evolve around that shift.


Having bridged the onsite/online divide, here are some methods a teacher might employ to enhance the sense of presence and gestalt.


  1. Be present. Post frequent announcements, respond to discussion threads in a timely manner, and pay homage to every student.
  2. Arrive early and stay late, providing opportunities for informal interaction.
  3. A postage stamp portrait or gravitar adjoining each post helps participants associate a name with a face.
  4. Share virtual coordinates, such as phone numbers, email addresses, mailing addresses, and Twitter handles.
  5. Share LinkedIn profiles or resumes.
  6. Share Facebook pages, or compile a class Facebook page.
  7. Share introductory videos.
  8. Look into the webcam periodically. If you don’t look into the camera, you create the illusion that you’re not looking at them. As they say in the modelling business, “Love the camera, baby.”
  9. Schedule clinical sections and/or office hours for F2F meetings.
  10. Sponsor Meetups (at local coffee shops, etc) for formal/informal learning.
  11. Admit students to the onsite broadcast, and rotate sites if possible to broaden the geographical accessibility for such participation to as many participants as possible.


  1. Use a Twitter backchannel or chat tool for synchronous discussions. Setting a limit on verbiage forces students to use higher order thinking skills in the composition of responses.[v] More thought goes into synthesizing a brief response than copy/pasting lengthier excerpts from resources like WikiPedia. In this spirit, Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter so I wrote a long one instead.” Moreover, the tweets provide a parallel metacognitive narrative account of participants’ thoughts and exchanges. Encouraging think aloud protocols and elaborations like this helps encoding. (In practice, I type notes with my right hand while Twittering on my iPhone with my left.)
  2. A Twitter backchannel can also be used to post questions to the instructor or TFs in real-time, giving everyone airtime for questions, and allowing consolidation of questions shared by multiple participants. (This is one case where an online affordance is preemptive of an onsite frustration—when multiple students hold hands aloft for extended periods, only to be scooped by the first of their lot to be given the floor, or acknowledged long after their response was obsolesced by a change in topic.)
  3. Use discussion boards for more deliberative exchanges, as they tend to be longer, and invite commentary. Wikis can also be used for joint authoring on collaborative projects. Open source forums, like Piazza, allow the community to grow beyond the bounds of the semester and increase its relevance. They value-add an extended warranty to the course—perhaps even a lifelong learning guarantee.
  4. Require blogging for lengthy elaboration and synthesis opportunities.
  5. Encourage non-textual postings, such as sound-bites or (better) video commentaries.
  6. Use surveys or quick quizzes to pole participants and offer graphical snapshots of group think.
  7. Use an inverted gradebook as the homepage instead of a Course Description, Announcement, or Modules page. By anonymizing participants and rank-ordering them by scores, students can monitor their progress and are incentivized to stay on task. I present it as a horizontal bar chart so they have a visual reference. This is a simple gamification strategy that encourages them to chart their progress against others and level-up performance.
  8. Per Atul Gawande’s research, add a checklist widget to the resource and activity components of each module so students can track expectations, progress and completions.
  9. Have students peer grade assignments so they have an opportunity to co-create their learning and socialize.
  10. Allow students to up or down vote discussion and/or chat entries, so they have a peer-generated rating of their contributions analogous to a Google up/down tick or journal publication power rating.
  11. Invite students into the classroom. The instructor is always onsite anyway at some point in the production process. I’ve seen edX videos where there’s a strawman playing the part of an inquiring student in a mock interview, and D2L videos where a small gathering of students around a boat table, headed by a professor, portray a simulated classroom. The interactions were blatantly scripted. Extemporaneous interactions are more real, and easier to produce. A little um-ing and ah-ing is ok. As my mother once said, it’s OK to color outside the lines.
  12. Provide on-task and off-task chat areas for students that aren’t invaded by professors to foster socialization. One learns early on that consigning banter to an off-task area prevents extraneous threads from polluting the on-task areas. I use Hot-Tub and The-Bar for mine, respectively. Stacie Cassat Green uses The-Yard for hers. Cutsie names for these areas seem prevalent, for some reason—maybe to make them sound more inviting.
  13. The secret to good teaching is resist the temptation to preach. The traditional lecture classroom is a one-to-many broadcast medium. That type of content syndication can be relegated to a recording. Class-time is better served as a section, which in the past met informally, outside of lecture, in smaller circles mentored by a graduate assistant (usually closer in age to the students). Whether via F2F videoconferencing, chat, or discussion boards, endeavor to have a generative exchange. The Bohmian Dialogue  (elaborated upon by Griffor and Isaacs) can be emulated and practiced—perhaps truer in form—than David Bohm himself envisaged.

On reflection, this sampling of recommendations applies to any classroom context. The moral of the story is, it’s just teaching. We made do with talk and chalk for centuries. Now we’re adding a refined tool-set to the mix.

The advent of high definition multi-point videoconferencing, application sharing, and screen sharing (equally important) collapses Turkle’s notion of “second self” dialogics. It started with 1D IRC interactions that relied on electronic mono-space para-language to convey the timeliness of spoken conversations and emoticons for the je ne sais quoi. We transitioned from the Byzantine 2D interactions of kerned comic chats to more fluid 3D virtual reality environments like SecondLife, which nonetheless implicate us in the guise of bots or avatars. Rift technologies promise to finally immerse us as ourselves in the manner depicted in a Star Trek holodeck.

The affordances of videoconferencing technologies are adequate to spark higher levels of engagement and gestalt in teaching, much as the rediscovery of realism triggered the Renaissance. We’re handicapping ourselves if we deny this, which is probably as bad as using these tools improperly, or not at all.

Note that we’ve made no references to pedagogy. We’ll address that in a future installment, hinting that social constructionist approaches entailing team-oriented, project-based learning opportunities are shaking out as optimal for community-building.

In the interim, adopting a stance in the flexible learning camp, and putting focus on enhancing the sense of presence and gestalt should improve engagement in the spectra of learning communities.


[i] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community

[ii] http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/322982

[iii] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/gestalt

[iv] http://tlc.provost.gwu.edu/building-community-and-interaction-online

[v] The 140 character limit is going away and most SMS chat tools will partition a long message anyway.

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