One of the biggest challenges for students new to online learning is the feeling of isolation that can come from staring at a computer monitor instead of seeing the friendly faces of their instructor and fellow students. This sense of physical separation and lack of immediate feedback or support can make students feel disconnected from the entire learning process. It has often been identified as one of the primary reasons a student quits an online degree program.

So how do we overcome that sense of isolation? How can we keep students engaged in an online academic program?

As faculty members and instructional designers, we need to consider from the genesis of an online course how we’ll develop and encourage a sense of community among the learners. Whether you refer to them as “learning communities” or “communities of practice,” they are defined by Barab, MaKinster, and Scheckler (2004) as “a persistent, sustained social network of individuals who share and develop an overlapping knowledge base, set of beliefs, values, history, and experiences focused on a common practice and/or mutual experience” (p. 53).

While we want each student to stand on their own in the final assessment of the course outcomes, it’s vital in the early stages of their development that we encourage them to “share and develop” that knowledge base. We can encourage this collaboration through multiple strategies such as:

  • Learning team activities
  • Study groups
  • Creation of a class or team wiki
  • Group discussions in both synchronous and asynchronous format

While it’s possible to design an online course that uses some or all of these strategies, it’s not enough simply to put them in the syllabus and in the learning management system. Instructors must appreciate that these learning communities require encouragement and cultivation to grow towards their potential. The first step is for the instructor to be actively and consistently involved in that learning community. This is where I would normally insert a cliché about a preacher, if you know what I mean.

Since many online programs are based on a cohort model, the effort that is put into building learning communities will pay big dividends to students as they move through their academic program. Students learn to trust their peers and to lean on each other for support and encouragement. In some cases, those communities of learning will even persist beyond the academic program and into their professional careers.

Rovai (2002) summarizes it best in the following statement:

Research provides evidence that strong feelings of community may not only increase persistence in courses, but may also increase the flow of information among all learners, availability of support, commitment to group goals, cooperation among members and satisfaction with group efforts. (p. 3)


Barab, S. A., Kling, R., & Gray, J. H. (2004). Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Rovai, A. (2002). Building sense of community at a distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(1), 1-9.