It is generally agreed that learning involves
interaction and that it is a communal activity
(McMillan & Chavis, 1986; Sarason, 1974). The
traditional setting where communal learning activity
occurs has been the in-person classroom; however,
with the advent of technology that is no longer the
case. While communities in general have been
considered to be “place-based” (Paloff & Pratt,
1999, p. 21), the success of MySpace.Com and
numerous other online communities demonstrate how
communities can transcend physical spaces and still
have actively engaged participants. The purpose of
this survey research was to compare instructor and
student perceptions about building community in
online university classes. The paper begins by
reviewing the literature which has linked community
to the learning process and identified it as
essential. Previous research examining the
challenges for instructors in building online
community is also discussed. The methodology
employed for this survey research is then described
and the study’s findings are presented and
discussed. The paper concludes with a discussion of
the implications of these findings and specific
recommendations for instructors and administrators.
The Importance of Community to Learning
The concept of learning communities has been
discussed for more than two decades (Caverly &
McDonald, 2002). Research has clearly shown that
functioning in a community can enhance the learning
that occurs among community members (Hargis, 2005;
Kember, 1987; Powers & Mitchell, 1997). While
community has been defined in the education
literature in many different ways (Boyer, 1995;
Hill, 1996; McMillan & Chavis, 1986; Preece, 2000;
Rogoff, 1994; Sergiovanni, 1994), below are elements
of community frequently identified:
1) A sense of shared purpose
2) Establishment of boundaries defining who is a
member and who is not
3) Establishment and enforcement of rules/policies
regarding community behavior
4) Interaction among members, and
5) A level of trust, respect and support among
Shea, Sau Li, & Pickett (2006) highlight the
critical role that community plays in academic
success and persistence in higher education. Yuen
(2003) asserts that a learning community can help
individual learners “achieve what they cannot on
their own” (p. 155). The root word of community is
communicare, which means “to share.” (Paloff &
Pratt, 1999, p. 25). This sharing occurs through
interactions within social networks which are formed
in the community.
When these interactions among community members are
directed toward the purpose for which the community
was formed, it is considered collaboration. Woods &
Ebersole (2003) assert that optimal learning
outcomes are “directly tied to the establishment of
social networks among participants engaged in a
collaborative learning enterprise”(para. 1). Such
collaboration has been shown to be very important in
the development of a learning community and in
achieving the desired learning outcomes for a course
(Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Yuen, 2003). However, with
the ever changing technological landscape, how that
collaboration occurs in the online environment
continues to evolve.
Unique Challenges and Opportunities with Online
In recent years, there has been increased interest
in online learning communities and their impact on
education. With an estimated 96% of public and
private colleges and universities now offering
online courses, such interest is certainly warranted
(Allen & Seaman, 2006). One reason for the interest
in online learning communities has been to better
understand and address the dropout rates among
distance education students. Their dropout rates are
often 10-20% higher than in traditional courses
(Carr, 2000). Research has identified the feeling of
isolation as one factor associated with higher drop
out rates among online students (Galusha, 1997; Hara
& Khling 1999; Kubala, 1998; Soles & Moller, 2001).
LaRose & Whitten (2000) make the point that computer
mediated instruction introduces the computer as a
new “social actor” into the classroom. They assert
that by “removing or attenuating sensory cues, Web
courses strip away the personality of the
instructor, perhaps to the point that the learner
loses the sense of taking a course from the
instructor in favor of taking a course from a
computer” (p. 325). Eastmond (1995) makes the point
that online students’ feelings of being alone can be
overcome when students join together in a community
where the learners support one another. Brown (2001)
found that students felt it generally took a longer
period of time to establish a sense of community in
an online class than in a traditional face-to-face
classroom but that it could be achieved. The power
of establishing a sense of community in online
classes has been demonstrated by LaRose & Whitten
(2000) who found a statistically significant
relationship between students’ sense of community
and the positive achievement of learning outcomes in
the online setting. So how is this sense of
community achieved in the online setting? Both
students and instructor have roles to play.
Student and Instructor Roles in Online Learning
Consistent with the traditional face-to-face
classroom, online students will get out of a
learning community what they put into it. If they
are passive and choose not to engage in community,
then the benefits they derive will be limited.
Ideally, students will be intentional about their
learning and actively seek to build and sustain the
learning community. However, the education
literature suggests that instructors play a key role
in motivating students to engage as learning
Olcott & Wright (1995) assert that the
responsibility for instructional quality and
aggregate effectiveness of distance education rests
with the instructor. Paloff & Pratt (1999) add that
the instructor in an online class is responsible for
facilitating the personal and social aspects of an
online community in order for the class to have a
successful learning experience. However,
facilitating these aspects is not without challenge
because the online classroom involves
computer-mediated communications which are generally
regarded as less personal and possessing diminished
social presence (Rovai, 2002a). To address the
diminished social presence, Mandemach, Gonzales &
Garrett (2006) suggest that online instructors need
to be “seen” in order to be perceived by their
students as present in their course. While
traditional instructors are able to utilize their
physical presence as a signal of their active
involvement in a class, online instructors must
actively participate in the course or risk the
perception of being invisible or absent (Mandemach
et al., 2006: Picciano, 2002).
Instructor Presence and Behavior Modeling
Mandemach et al. (2006) assert that instructor
presence is most impacted by: teaching presence,
instructor immediacy, and social presence. Teaching
presence involves frequent and effective interaction
with the course instructor. Instructor immediacy
refers to the behaviors that enhance closeness and
nonverbal interaction with another. Social presence
refers to the salience of the interpersonal
interaction and relationships.
Aviv (2000) suggests that the online instruct own learning in that it creates the expectation that
they will receive the same type of interaction.
Additionally, Rovai (2002b) examined the presence of
community in fourteen courses (7 online and 7
face-to-face) and found that those courses where
students perceived a stronger sense of community
emphasized interactive dialogue over structure in
The multi-media capabilities of today’s online
learning software offer many tools and options for
instructors to establish social presence, to model
various types of interactions, and to foster
community development. As a general framework for
such instructional leadership, online instructors
are well served to keep in mind Chickering &
Gamson’s (1987) seminal work identifying seven
principles of good practice for instructors in
Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate
1. Encourages contact between students and
2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among
3. Encourages active learning,
4. Gives prompt feedback,
5. Emphasizes time on task,
6. Communicates high expectations
7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.
Such principles have been shown to be effective in
the online environment as well (Chickering & Ehrman,
1996). One can readily see how each of these
recommended instructor behaviors both individually
and collectively can serve to foster development of
a learning community in the online environment.
Summary and Significance of Present Study
This introduction has reviewed the research
literature linking the development of community to
successful learning in both the traditional and
online classrooms. The advances in technology in
just the past decade have enabled learning
communities to transcend physical space and have
created unique opportunities for individuals from
all over the world to participate in online learning
communities anytime and anywhere. While technology
has created unique opportunities to develop these
online learning communities, the literature also
clearly documents significant challenges in building
online community which have implications for both
students and instructor.
The present survey research makes an important
contribution to our understanding of online
community by examining similarities and differences
between instructor and student perceptions about the
challenges and essential elements of online
community. This research builds on the work of Brown
(2001) who examined how the phenomenon of community
occurs in the online environment from the students’
perspective. The present study included both
students and instructors and asked whether
establishing community in the online classroom was
harder or easier and why. Additionally, while many
of the variables that impact the development of
community in the online classroom have been
previously reported, this study sought to identify
and compare student and instructor perceptions of
what is truly most important.
A survey research design was selected for this study
to investigate the perceptions of instructors and
students regarding development of community in an
online course environment. A survey instrument
including both closed and open-ended questions was
used to collect data. The method of analysis used
for the open-ended responses was an adaptation of
Auerbach & Silverstein’s (2003) exploratory content
analysis. In exploratory content analysis: 1)
Researchers identify segments of text used
repeatedly by participants to express the same idea,
2) segments are then grouped into repeating ideas,
3) the repeating ideas are then assembled into
themes, and 4) once common themes are identified,
the researchers complete the analysis by returning
to the literature to review theoretical constructs
related to the research question(s). In accordance
with exploratory content analysis, open-ended
answers are coded independently by reviewers. In
this study, two researchers followed the process of
exploratory content analysis, independently coding
open-ended responses, and then met to compare
identified themes. Both reviewers were in agreement
regarding the major themes emerging from this
Ratings for rank order questions were on a scale of
1-7. Percentages for each rank were calculated using
the UltimateSurvey program. In this study, the
findings converged to explain the perception of
instructors and students regarding important factors
in the development of community in online courses.
The 62 respondents in this study included 14 faculty
members and 48 graduate level students at a regional
comprehensive university. Participants were those
who responded to e-mails sent to a convenience
sample of instructors who were teaching online
courses in spring 2006 and fall 2006 (N=64). Student
participants were invited by their instructor to
complete the online survey. All faculty participants
were experienced online instructors and indicated a
minimum of 2 online courses, with an average of 7
courses developed and taught. Three instructors
developed and taught more than 8 online courses. The
average number of online courses taken by student
respondents was 4 courses with 14 students having
taken 6 or more online courses.
Surveys were purposely administered near the end of
each semester so that students/instructors had
sufficient experience in the course to reflect upon
and to comment on the sense of community. Academic
programs represented by instructor respondents
included: Educational Leadership and Foundations,
Nursing, Human Services, Special Education, and
Health Sciences. Instructor and student participants
from 14 different online courses completed the
The survey instruments were developed using
components of Brown’s (2001) framework focusing on
the process of community building in distance
learning classes. Rather than providing a pre-set
definition of community, an initial question asked
respondents to provide their definition for
community. Additional survey questions were created
to obtain student and instructor perceptions on the
importance of specific factors in building community
in online courses. Factors from Brown’s (2001) study
which formed the basis for survey questions
1. Expected behavior modeled by instructor
2. Sufficient time available for discussion and
3. Similarities found about which participants could
4. Personal/academic need/desire to be part of
5. High priority placed on class and interaction
6. Engaged in class dialogue
7. Having materials such as textbooks available for
the first class session
8. Having time available to devote to the class
Parallel survey instruments were created for
instructors and students. The following are example
questions which were created relevant to the purpose
of this study:
In an online course, how important is it to have the
instructor model being part of a community?
In this online course, to what degree did you model
being part of a community to assist students in
feeling part of community?
What were some ways in which you, as the instructor,
modeled building community in this online course?
In an online course, how important is it to you to
have the instructor model being part of community?
In this online course, to what degree did having
your instructor model being part of a community
assist you in feeling part of the community?
What were some ways in which your instructor modeled
building community in this online course?
Rank order question which was answered by instructor
Please place the following factors in rank order
from the most important (1) to the least important
(8) factors in building community in online courses.
Use each number only once.
Rank order responses were derived by calculating the
mean ranking number for each item.
Instructor modeling behaviors conducive to
Students with more online experience
participating in the course
Sufficient time for discussion and
Finding similarities with other class members
Personal desire/need to be part of an online
A student's interest/priority for the class
Interaction and dialogue with colleagues in
an online environment
Having textbook and other materials for the
The final questions for each survey asked
respondents to list other factors which either
contribute to, or detract from, building community
that were not mentioned in the survey.
Data analysis results are provided for the questions
pertaining to perceived importance of a learning
community in learning course material and defining
key elements of community. Further results are
categorized according to the main perceptions of
students and instructors regarding important factors
in building community in online courses. Analysis of
data regarding perceptions of whether creating
community in online courses is more or less
challenging is also provided.
Importance of an online learning community
Eighty-five percent of students and 100% of
instructors perceive being part of a learning
community assists students in performing well and
learning course material. For students, 85% stated
that becoming part of community was important to
them in this specific course, and 94% reported
experiencing a sense of community in their course.
Ninety-three percent of instructors stated that it
was important to them to have students become part
of a learning community in this specific course.
Students and instructors were in agreement regarding
key elements of a learning community. Key elements
included: a sense of shared purpose, purposeful
communication involving encouragement and support,
collaborating to learn course material, working for
an extended period of time on a common goal, and a
comfortable exchange of ideas in an organized
fashion. Two themes emerged from content analysis of
the open-ended responses: a) Development of a
learning community is encouraged by including
structured, collaborative activities in course
design and b) inclusion of opportunities for
intentional, supportive, and ongoing interaction
among class members is critical.
Important factors in building community
Rankings of factors and representative quotes from
survey participants are summarized in Table 1.
Students and instructors both agreed that instructor
modeling was important in building online community.
However, when analyzing the responses for the rank
order question, students ranked instructor modeling
as the most important factor in building community
in online courses, and instructors ranked it as
fourth in importance. Conversely, instructors rank
ordered interaction and dialogue with colleagues as
first, while students perceived this factor as
fourth in importance. Faculty ranked instructor
modeling as fourth in importance, even though there
was agreement with students on the themes of
modeling: participation, feedback, and
communication. Instructors indicated that modeling
community was primarily a factor of course design as
indicated through open-ended question results. As
students engage in online discussions, structured
chats, and other interactive activities, instructors
believe community develops. Instructors commented
that, “the instructor can not model what has not
been designed and embedded into the course”.
Student’s interest and priority for the class
Table 1: Factors ranked by faculty and students as
most relevant to building community
Students Ranking Order
Faculty Ranking Order
1. Instructor Modeling
1. Interaction and Dialogue
The professor participating in the discussions;
she responded in the middle of a posting-that
let you know she was really reading the
Creating a rich setting for students to
introduce themselves and their involvement in
discussions is important
The professor constantly answering questions;
grading and commenting on papers immediately.
Deliberate instructional design and strategies
and tactics (role-plays, debates, and
interactive peer introduction exercises) are
The Professor communicates frequently by e-mail.
She has gone out of her way to offer online chat
sessions to help with difficult material.
The instructor’s role is critical. The
instructor must design and facilitate activities
that promote community building.
Prompting shared personal view points and or
experiences is critical.
2. Student’s interest and priority for the
2. Student’s interest and priority for the
Students must have self discipline to check in
and contribute to discussion boards
A large portion of the course is devoted to
participation- this is dependent upon involving
oneself actively in the community.
I care more about getting to know people in f2f
classes. In online courses, I’m more interested
in simply learning material. I prefer individual
Students who do not participate in group work
detract from community building.
3. Sufficient time for discussion and
3. Sufficient time for discussion and
It takes more effort [to create community] in an
online class because you have to take time to
Making sure students continually interact with
one another and support one another through
shared learning and group projects is crucial.
4. Interaction and Dialogue
4. Instructor modeling
I have learned so much from classmates.
Instructor can not model what has not been
designed and embedded into the course
Sufficient time for discussion and interaction
Having sufficient time for discussion and
interaction was another important factor for
building community in online courses. Students
perceived that while community is important and may
help them learn course material, it takes more time
and effort to communicate in an online course.
Instructors stated the importance of making sure
that all students are consistently interacting with
one another and supporting one another through
shared learning activities and group projects.
Interaction and dialogue with colleagues
Students and instructors ranked interaction and
dialogue with colleagues as the fourth important
factor in building community. Open ended comments
revealed that for students, having online
conversations with classmates and reading each
other’s contributions to assignments enhanced the
online learning environment. Instructor responses
focused on the instructor’s role in designing and
facilitating activities that promote building
community rather than personal modeling.
These themes and
representative comments are presented in Table 1
Is building community more challenging or less
challenging in online courses?
Eighty-nine percent of students and 79% of
instructors stated that building community in online
courses is more challenging than building community
in face-to-face courses. Themes from analysis of
open-ended responses regarding perceptions that
building community in online courses is more
challenging than in face-to-face courses included:
a) Communication, b) time, c) participation. These
themes and representative comments are presented in
Table 2: Perceived difficulties in developing
You don’t have all the elements of communication
(body language, tone, opportunities to explain).
Face 2 face immediacy of feedback (verbal and
nonverbal) which is part of the collaborative
process, energy developed within groups as they
collaborated to solve problems does not occur
It’s a challenge for students to adjust to
slower pace and “facelessness” of online
Hard to find time to discuss personal issues and
experiences online. All time is consumed with
assignments and discussions concerning them.
[developing community] takes more effort because
you have to have time to participate
Time spent in reading and responding
Some people participate more and some shy away
from typing views/thoughts. if you don’t check discussion threads daily.
Students who do not participate in group work
detract from community.
Eleven percent of students and 21% of instructors in
our study perceived that building community in
online courses is less challenging than building
community in face-to face courses. Themes from
analysis of open-ended responses regarding perceived
reasons building community in online courses is less
challenging than in face-to-face courses included:
a) Communication with entire class is easier, b)
flexible time schedule, c) time for more thought
and deliberation which results in richer postings in
online courses, and d) online courses provide an
environment in which students can be themselves, can
learn by reading other student’s postings, and an
environment in which 1-2 students do not dominate
discussions as can occur in some face-to-face
Respondents in this study were in agreement that
being part of an online learning community assists
students in performing well and learning course
material. Their perceptions are in alignment with
Yuen’s (2003) and Woods & Ebersole’s (2003)
assertions that learning communities assist students
in achieving more through the collaborative efforts
of the group. Instructors, in particular, perceive
the benefits of students relating well to each other
and assisting each other within the context of
learning course material. An important factor in the
formation of community is a student’s desire and
need to become part of the learning community as
opposed to being present simply to learn course
material. For instructors and students who recognize
the value added benefits of participating within the
learning community, there was agreement with current
literature regarding the definition and critical
factors of a learning community. Learning
communities involve a structured, supportive
environment in which there is purposeful,
intentional interaction among members of the group.
Additionally, there must be a level of trust,
respect, and support present among community
Results of this study support research literature in
that even in collaborative online environments where
students engage in discussions, debates, case
studies, and problem-based learning activities,
students still want to experience instructor
presence in the course (Garrett, 2006; Mandemach, et
al, 2006). It was important for the instructor to
provide students with leadership and guidance
through modeling substantive responses on the
discussion board. Students indicated that
instructors modeled community by giving frequent,
timely, and constructive feedback. Regarding
communication, students identified that instructors
being available to discuss course concerns and
personal concerns via e-mail, chat rooms, and
discussion boards modeled community for them.
Respondents were in agreement that a student’s
interest and priority for the course were important
to the development of online community. As shown in
Figure 1, both students and faculty indicate the
need for students to be self-disciplined and to have
self initiative for participating in the course.
Respondents stated that building community in online
courses can be more challenging due to the lack of
immediate feedback and nonverbal cues, the need for
self-discipline, and the lack of informal sharing
that often occurs in face-to-face courses.
Respondents also noted that forming an online
learning community could be less challenging due to
the ease with which an individual can communicate
with all classmates and the instructor
This study has important implications for instructor
participation, course design for online learning as
well as for administrators with regard to building
community in online courses.
Implications for Instructors
First, students contend that instructor presence is
a key factor in online learning and online
community. In online classes, instructors can
generate a sense of “presence” through their actions
in the online environment. Students in this study
indicate a need to be heard by their instructors
through consistent feedback, responses to postings
and responsiveness to concerns.
One of the key means by which instructors establish
presence in the online classroom is via their
ongoing interactions. Instructors can demonstrate
leadership in their course by modeling appropriate
interactions (Mandemach et al. 2006). Collins &
Berge (1996) suggest that such interactions should
focus on “promoting human relationships” (p. 7).
They maintain that this process involves: a)
affirming and recognizing students’ input, b)
providing opportunities for students to develop a
sense of group cohesiveness, c) maintaining the
group as a unit, and d) various other ways of
helping members to work together in a mutual cause.
Similarly, Heuer & King
(2004) offer a number of suggestions for how online
instructors can enhance their presence in their
courses through effective course management. They
1) modeling expected behaviors and interactions
2) encouraging students
3) facilitating sharing and participation
4) responding to students concerns and establishing
an environment of open communications.
Examples of how an instructor might implement these
recommendations include things as simple as sending
an email complimenting a student on his/her
participation in a given week (i.e., “encouraging
students”), establishing a virtual “lounge” where
students and faculty can talk informally about any
topic of interest (i.e., “facilitating sharing and
participation”), asking the class whether the
expectations for participation are clear and
providing suggestions for improvement (i.e.,
“responding to student concerns and establishing an
environment of open communication”), and providing
students with polite but honest feedback about their
work (i.e., modeling expected behaviors and
interactions). Another effective technique to
promote the development of relationships is the use
of rotating smaller working groups of 4-6 members.
The smaller group size allows for more interaction
and the rotation allows students to still interact
with all of their classmates.
The apparent discrepancy between student and
instructor perceptions of the importance of
instructor modeling may be explained in thinking
about both perceptions within the context of course
structure. According to Garrison, Anderson, & Archer
(2000), instructor presence involves the
instructional design of the course, facilitating
discourse, and direct instruction of key course
concepts. Instructor respondents in this study
agreed that instructional design is important for
the development of a learning community. Within the
courses surveyed for this study, community was
modeled by the instructor through providing clear
structure and guidance for course assignments,
providing structure within the course where
interaction is required such as initial “getting to
know you” activities, group discussions and survey
research assignments, providing frequent thorough
feedback on assignments including constructive
commentary, and being available to discuss course
concerns and personal concerns online. According to
instructor comments, facilitating discourse was
modeled through substantive responses in discussion
postings and providing leading questions for
students during cooperative group activities such as
debates, role plays, and survey research
assignments. Rather than providing direct
instruction through a lecture format, (face-to-face
courses), instructors in the online courses
structured assignments to lead students in learning
essential course concepts. Instructors accomplished
this through carefully constructing assignments to
highlight key concepts, through clarifying confusing
concepts within synchronous or asynchronous
discussions, and by providing rubrics for quality of
discussion responses. Through observation of student
interaction, the instructor is able to clarify
misconceptions that become apparent in course
content. In this regard, instructors stated that
dialogue between course participants is more
important than instructor modeling because it is
through reading student responses that the
instructor is able to identify the level of
individual student understanding of course material.
Implications for Course Design
As instructors noted in this study, the development
of community must be an intentional goal. The
achievement of that goal must be built into the
design of an online course. As Palloff & Pratt
(1999) noted, the development of an online learning
community involves developing new approaches to
education and new skills in its delivery.
LaRose & Whitten, (2000) recommend that instructors
incorporate “immediacy features” (p. 32) into the
design of online classes to build community. They
identify three possible sources of immediacy in the
virtual classrooms that may generate a sense of
belonging and closeness among class participants:
the interactions between teacher and students
(teacher immediacy); interactions between students
(student immediacy) and interactions with the
commuter system that delivers the course (computer
immediacy). Collectively, these sources constitute
instructional immediacy. Incorporating these
features into the online classroom serve as
incentives for class members to both feel and act as
members of a community.
Fostering student immediacy is important in building
online community because peer groups are valued
associations. Student immediacy describes behaviors
that create a feeling of closeness between learners
(LaRose & Whitten, 2000). Caverly & MacDonald (2002)
found that students need to make connections by
finding similarities in background, motivation and
commitment to have a sense of community. Course
design should support community building through
faculty presence and student immediacy. Examples
include well-designed icebreaker activities, group
assignments, and ongoing topical discussions that
involve both faculty and the students.
This study examined instructor and student
perceptions of community across fourteen different
online courses in higher education. While
additional studies of this type are needed, the
findings still provide important insights to faculty
who are currently teaching online or who plan to
teach an online course in the future. One clear
take-away from this study is that it is incumbent
upon faculty to play a leadership role in building
community in their virtual classrooms. As this
study has shown, students believe instructor
modeling is the most important element in building
online community. While a number of recommendations
have been made in this paper for how an instructor
might model the community behaviors he/she wants to
see in class, the study’s findings clearly show that
both faculty and students believe building online
community is a real challenge. However, with a
compounded annual growth rate forecast in distance
education of 33% (Oblinger
& Kidwell, 2000), it is a
challenge we cannot afford to ignore.
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