6.1 Building online communities

Palloff and Pratt’s (1999) book, “Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace”, maintains that a learning community is the defining hallmark of the successful distributed/distance education effort. Using the computer for significant course interaction can be an experience different from teaching a face-to-face course. This section guide will provide information on the following issues:

  • How can educators create interactive learning environments?
  • How can educators become successful interaction facilitators?
  • What interaction tools are available for distributed/distance education?
  • What interactive teaching methods could be implemented in a course?

Cultivating Supportive Online Environments

This video discusses strategies for developing an online community.

Developing an online community, Brock University, Centre for Pedagogical Innovation, CC BY 4.0

Characteristics of Effective Teaching in Any Setting

How do you engage and facilitate learning with students? One report, titled “Students’ Perceptions of Effective Teaching in Higher Education” (Delaney, Johnson, Johnson, & Treslan, 2010), examined student feedback on what makes an effective and engaging educator in a traditional classroom, hybrid, and online modalities. They listed nine characteristics held consistently valuable across the spectrum, which is provided below in the sequence specifically relating to an eLearning context (Delaney, et al., p. 6, 2010):

  1. Respectful
  2. Responsive
  3. Knowledgeable
  4. Approachable
  5. Communicative
  6. Organised
  7. Engaging
  8. Professional
  9. Humorous

Quality teaching (regardless of the time, place, format, or modality) enhances the student experience. Some of these characteristics are certainly easier and more familiar, in a physical classroom; but given experience, practice, and sometimes patience, they are just as attainable in the online classroom. Moreover, these characteristics align closely with the course design rubric created by QualityMatters (QM). The QM tool addresses the content, instructional strategies and approaches, as well as resources that comprise a well-designed course. The nine characteristics outlined above relate back to the ‘human side’ of teaching.

The Importance of Interaction

Interaction is important for quality learning. It may be defined as direct communication, with the telecommunication infrastructure (interactive video, computer, telephone, fax, or other technology tools) acting as the mediating tool. The emphasis is on communication and not technology (which is the tool for communication). There are many types of interaction. There is interaction with instructional content, among peers, or between educator and students. Most importantly, it needs to have a purpose. This implies that a learning environment has been created and interaction strategies can be guided to support learning outcomes. Interaction can be particularly supportive of:

  • Higher-order learning skills (e.g., analysis, synthesis, or evaluation)
  • Collaboration and cooperation skills
  • The sharing of new ideas
  • Creative thinking
  • Equalising mutual acceptance

Engaging online students

This video discusses ways to improve interaction and engage students in online and blended learning environments.

Engaging online students, Brock University, Centre for Pedagogical Innovation, CC BY 4.0

The Role of the Educator

Effective interaction must have adequate educator preparation. Keep the following essential points in mind as you structure your online classroom.


There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Goal-oriented students and those who are experienced with technology may have intrinsic, or inner, motivation. However, most who initially encounter distance education and its technology, or who are inexperienced in the dynamics of group work, will need support, monitoring, facilitating, and feedback. For those who require extrinsic, or outside, motivation, you can attach a small percentage of students’ grades to participation and contribution to encourage perseverance.

Motivation in learning

This video discusses taking student motivation into account when designing courses.

Motivation in learning, Brock University, Centre for Pedagogical Innovation, CC BY 4.0

Improving student motivation

This video discusses strategies to improve student motivation in your course.

Improving student motivation, Brock University, Centre for Pedagogical Innovation, CC BY 4.0

Evaluating participation

This video discusses evaluating participation in an online learning community.

Evaluating participation in an online learning community, Brock University, Centre for Pedagogical Innovation, CC BY 4.0


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