Creating a Positive Learning Experience by Building a Sense of Community

As an active participant and supporter of online/distance education, I agree with Merriam and Bierema, (2014) when they state on page 198 that “online learners perform modestly better than (those) participating in traditional face-to-face education”. I participate in the online learning environment for many reasons.

  • The ability to do schoolwork regardless of the day or time,
  • The ability to create some sort of balance between home, work, and school commitments.
  • The cost is often slightly less

I was surprised to read that the drop out rate for distance education programs is often “10-20%” higher than in traditional course according to Rovai, A. (2002),Building Sense of Community at a Distance

A community is described as “a group of people who are socially interdependent, who participate together in discussion and decision making, and who stare certain practices that both define the community and are nurtured by it, according to Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler and Tipton (1985) in their book Habits of the Heart. Habits of the Heart

So as a future educator how can I create a positive learning community in our current online education forum?

  1. Learners need a sense of community.
    1. The learning community needs to be based on Andragogical assumptions to meet the needs of the adult learner.
    2. Andragogical theory tells us that adult learners bring diverse experiences and are externally motivated. I can imagine that being the instructor of an online education community could feel a bit like, the saying, “herding wild cats” but when one observes the growth of a virtual community extremely soul satisfying at the same time.
    3. The instructor needs to engage the students with each other and with themselves. This can be achieved through the use of venues such as; group notice boards, “coffee rooms”, and small groups.
  2. Spirit
    1. The creation of a community spirit is a thought-provoking concept. Students need to feel the need to connect with each other. I have found the establishment of learning partners a very effective practice. Regardless of the life experience that each learner brings with them, when placed in a learning partner relationship the learner is compelled to develop a relationship with the other learner. If trust builds between the two learning partners a sense of community develops. Requiring weekly postings ensures students stay connected. If this is not achieved, a sense of distance, loneliness, and low motivation can occur.
  3. Trust
    1. A sense of trust is essential. Establishing clear rules of communication at the start of class ensures that each member of the online community develops a sense of trust. Learners will seek support, and direction from fellow online learners when they have a solid sense of trust. Of note, a sense of trust creates opportunities for candour and sharing, further building the sense of community.
  4. Interaction
    1. Current online communication is “littered” with emojis, and idioms. I was intrigued to see that this article was written in 2008 and yet is probably more applicable now than then, Nicholas Carr (2008) Is Google Making Us Stupid? – The Atlantic
    2. Quality, respectful interaction between learners is essential to creating a positive learning environment. This can be achieved through clear expectations for communication and subtle instructor feedback if felt to be otherwise.


I have personally experienced both positive and negative online learning environments as an adult (note the sense of trust and resulting candour). As a future educator, I will always prefer the face to face learning environment yet now I have some knowledge and a lot of past experience of what is essential for the creation of a positive online learning community.

This is my positive learning space….


Merriam, S., & Bierema, L., (2013), Adult Learning; Linking Theory and Practice,

San Francisco, Jossey-Bass

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