Online Learning Communities

Dr. Palloff defines a learning community as one in which students and faculty explore content together to construct meaning and knowledge about that content. If we use this definition as a foundation, it helps us to clearly understand how this type of environment can impact both student learning and student satisfaction. Literature on learning theory suggests that one of the most significant factors for knowledge acquisition is that social interaction. One such theory, constructivism, suggests that the most significant learning occurs when students have the opportunity to “study a topic from multiple perspectives’ (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2008, p 185). Instruction in an online environment supports this learning model because being open-minded, being exposed to multiple points of view, and providing analytical feedback on a topic is mandatory. Thus, the very structure of this environment provides a platform for students to engage in and benefit from opportunities of social learning. In other words, it creates a learning community. This learning community, in turn, impacts student satisfaction. The very nature of the learning environment requires the instructor to not only set up an environment that is safe, welcoming, and supportive, but also one that allows opportunities for students to be challenged, yet successful. Ormrod (n.d.), suggests that people have a basic need for competence, a need to feel that one has done something well. A well structured learning community in an online environment will allow for interaction, feedback, and support that will motivate students simply because they have continuous opportunities to demonstrate their success and learning and have it be acknowledged by others.

In order to create an online learning community, certain elements must be present. There are elements that the course itself must possess and then there are elements that the instructor must implement. In terms of design, the course must include learning activities that actually promote a learning community. Specifically, there must be opportunities for knowledge acquisition, content linking, and performance development. As students are interacting with contact, as suggested by Pratt and Palloff (n.d.), they should also be interacting with classmates. If the students are not supporting one another, challenging each other, drawing information from one another, or providing critical feedback, then they have missed an opportunity to master and apply content through social learning.  The instructor basically makes all of this happen. His or her job is to create a risk-free and welcoming environment. How the instructor introduces his or herself and sets up the technical tools for learning is critical. It is important for the instructor to be creative and structure tools, resources, and supports in such a way that epitomizes learning community.


A central component of a learning community is that students and the instructor essentially explore content together in order to construct meaning and make it applicable to their own lives. Siemens (2009) contends that in order to truly learn, we must connect with the material. With adults more so then children, it is necessary to provide information on future trends that we can build our educational systems and from that be able to explain what’s occurring in the world today. Specifically, if we do not experience a sense of connectivness with the content, no significant learning will occur. Thus, not only must the learning structure be consistent, it must also have some direct connection with the learner’s prior knowledge and/or experiences. I believe by keeping this in mind and continuing to create opportunities for students to identify connections and recognize relevance, learning communities can be sustained. As the facilitator, it is up to the instructor to provide such opportunities.


According to Boettcher and Conrad (2010), online learning is comprised of three elements: the learner, the mentor or faculty member, and the knowledge/content. Thus, it is the way in which these three elements interact with one another that will foster or hinder the development of a learning community. In an online environment, learning often becomes a team effort. Through dialogue, project development, and group seminars one is able to build their own base of knowledge by being exposed to multiple perspectives and interpretations. This type of knowledge acquisition requires trust and open-mindedness that cannot be achieved outside of a learning community.


Boettcher, J. V. & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ormrod, J.E.; Schunk, D. H., & Gredler, M. (2008). Learning theories and instruction. New York: Laureate Education, Inc.

Ormrod, J. (n.d.). Motivation in learning. {Video Presentation}

Pratt, K. & Palloff, R. (n.d.). Online learning communities. {Video Presentation}


3 thoughts on “Online Learning Communities

  1. Iona (Dr Spikes)

    Hello! Love your blog post. Connecting and recognizing learning and prior knowledge is so crucial. I have a
    learning disability and my life is this way every single day. I have to connect the dots on every thing from daily routines to online education. Most people meeting me would never know let alone guess that I have disabilities but that shows even more how important consistency, connection, and building relationships in class are.

    • You did an excellent job in conveying your views on online learning. Making connections to prior is so important. As an educator I am constantly trying to get my students to connect to prior learning. It provides a base of knowledge and allows the learner to then expand on that knowledge.

  2. Iona,

    Very well written! I think you did an excellent job of articulating the important aspects of online learning communities. Do you feel that the learning communities that you have been a part of at Walden live up to your description above? Thanks again for sharing I really enjoyed reading your post.


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