By: Linda Dale Bloomberg

Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, Northcentral University, San Diego. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her new book is titled Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.

In my previous blog The Future Is Hybrid—and the Learning Community Is Extended and Amplified! I shared communication among two students studying in a graduate online program:

I just thought of a new idea. It would really be nice for each class to zoom a meeting every couple of weeks with the professor. After reading a lot of the material, the discussion piece is missing. I would love to have synchronous meeting involving the professor and other students in the course.

I love this idea. I too would love to have synchronous meeting involving s professor and other students in the course. I know there’s probably a struggle with schedules, but I was surprised to find I’m missing a bit of that classroom discussion aspect too. It’s nice to get like the video feedback and what not from the professor, but waiting for email responses and juggling schedules just makes it a little disappointing when I really am passionate about the subject matter and eager to ‘talk shop’ and learn.

The bottom line is that graduate students seek connection with fellow classmates! They want to be part of a “community”! And authentic relationships are at the crux of student’s sense of belonging to an inclusive community.

Develop a Learning Community

Building an inclusive community in the online or hybrid learning environment is as essential as providing high-quality content, and becomes the essence of successful pedagogy. Student engagement is not typically an end in itself. We want students to be engaged because it leads to outcomes that we value such as achievement, satisfaction, increased motivation, and an ongoing sense of belonging. As I write in my book, Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, developing a learning community has been at the heart of distance education since its inception, and the need to foster community on the online environment remains a focal issue.  With the transition to online and hybrid classrooms, it is important to create an inclusive learning community through meaningful interactions and social technologies. The notion of a learning community is predicated on the value of connection and collaboration among learners and instructors, where interaction and participation are ongoing, regular, and focused around shared values and goals. Collaborative experiences allow learners and instructors to value the other’s perspectives, thoughts and ideas, thereby learning with and from one another. Indeed, one of the primary reasons students cited regarding lower satisfaction with online courses is the lack of opportunity to engage and collaborate with peers (Morris 2020).

The Community of Inquiry Model (CoI) developed by Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2003) relates to instructors developing collaborative working relationships and interacting with learners to bridge transactional distance and generate greater engagement. The concept of presence is a key component of this model by which instructors develop collaborative working relationships and interact with their students in order to bridge transactional distance and generate greater engagement and success. The model views “community” as something that emerges in support of online learning, which is based on the relationship between four elements: social presence, teaching presence, cognitive presence, and emotional presence. The central organizing element is teaching presence; that is, the design, facilitation, and, most importantly, the direction of personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes.

Since the Community of Inquiry Model (Garrison, 2009; Garrison et al. 2003) is largely restricted to analysis of online discussions, Borup et al., (2020) called for a broader model of engagement that would include more types of learning activities, including “outside of class” interactions that can strongly impact student learning and performance. To support student engagement in higher education online and hybrid contexts, Borup et al., (2020) propose a new theoretical framework, Academic Communities of Engagement (ACE), for online and blended learning, which includes both the course community and students’ personal support communities. The course community is organized and facilitated by those associated with the course or program who have knowledge of course content, expectations, and procedures. The course community is generally made up of peers with similar knowledge as the student as well as professionals who are experienced at supporting students in learning both course content and ways to learn in online and blended environments. Moreover, enduring relationships formed in a course community can potentially become part of a student’s personal support community following the course.


The essence of interaction among learners, teachers, and content is referenced in many theories of education, most notably, Constructivism (also referred to as Constructivist learning). Adult education as a field has always valued learning from collaboration and experience, with John Dewey, as early as 1916 who viewed learning as a series of social experiences in which students learn by doing, collaborating, and reflecting with others. Similarly, Vygotsky (1978) concluded that learning and knowledge is fostered through the social interaction of teachers and learners, and he called for an approach to learning and teaching that is exploratory and collaborative, with the teacher providing opportunities for learners to assemble with each other and learn together. Some years later, Lave and Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998) drawing on the work of Vygotsky (1978) developed the concepts of “communities of practice” and situated learning, and their work is evident in many studies related to online education. This approach holds that learning is situated in, and derived from, participation in communities, and that real-world contexts are the most optimal learning environments.  More expansive learning is derived from the interactions between learners, instructors and learners, and learning spaces and tools.

Although technology offers significantly expansive opportunities to enhance the learning experience, it needs to be applied by experienced educators who bring so much more to the table than the content itself. In the hands of experienced and empathetic educators, technology can enable customization of course design and content to address students’ needs and connect students to each other, ultimately delivering empowering and transformative learning experiences. To create a collaborative and inclusive online or hybrid learning environment that encourages and builds a learning community, engagement must be intentionally facilitated. The implication is that it is an instructor’s presence and thoughtful use of collaboration tools that will pave the way for the quality and depth of the interaction and connections.

Facilitate Group Work and Collaboration

In terms of the natural pursuit to connect, students will often tend to utilize available forums in the learning management system (LMS) to connect with each other and share material and experiences. However, you should not rely solely on learners making connections for themselves, but rather be intentional in inviting interactivity by embracing all available opportunities for inclusive peer-to-peer learning and collaboration. Successful collaborative efforts can be accomplished by way of thoughtful planning, and a balanced use of strategies and resources both INSIDE and OUTSIDE the classroom.  Collaborative learning opportunities can involve either group discussions or shared tasks, activities, and projects. Online facilitation methods encourage participation, engagement, and interaction through synchronous and asynchronous tools, as well as a combination of tools that can be used before, during, AND after class.

Asynchronous Discussion Forums

Discussion forums (sometimes referred to as “discussion boards”) are a significant part of online and hybrid courses, facilitating communication and interaction as students ask questions and respond to discussion prompts. The asynchronous format removes technical hurdles and ensure that students are able to engage with peers in a discussion-based class at a time of their own choosing, and allowing them to engage in and build a sense of community. Discussion forums can be used with small group activities, replacing research-based assignments, and incorporating thought-provoking topics. However, this is not to be seen as a hands-off approach where the instructor can just observe and to some extent disengage. Rather, through discussion forums you have an opportunity to engage more fully with your students by monitoring and being a part of the discussion, and contributing explanations and useful resources.  You do this by developing thoughtful questions that will generate dynamic interaction among your students, engage them more deeply with the course material, and foster meaningful contributions. To generate increased interaction, you might consider assigning specific roles so that students are provided with greater responsibility and autonomy, and this also serves to enhance the sense of community. For example, students might “role play” as particular kinds of respondents or you might ask them to undertake particular tasks, such as being a summarizer, a respondent, or a connector with outside resources. Be sure to closely monitor the conversations, making sure that all discussion and communication is useful, appropriate, and that the tone of the conversation is–at all times–inclusive and respectful.

Synchronous Discussion Groups

Numerous online collaborative tools can be harnessed for the purpose of bringing learners together and encouraging a sense of community, such as online productivity suites and social media platforms. Your LMS will undoubtedly also offer course specific applications, thereby providing you with a variety of ways to create community by connecting learners with others who have similar interests, or who are working on common projects. Remain thoughtful and proactive in encouraging meaningful interaction, and provide appropriate and supportive guidance. For example, if you are setting up synchronous meetings to bring groups of students together, if you only turn on your camera and audio right at the start of class, that would be similar to walking in the door of an in-person class right at the scheduled start time and going straight into teaching.  Whether in-person or online, those precious minutes before and after class are critical for answering questions and connecting with your learners. Therefore, sign in several minutes before class and greet learners as they enter. This period of time before the class actually begins, also offers an opportunity for informal peer-to-peer interaction and community building. Most synchronous tools that are currently available include virtual “breakout rooms” that can be used to create deeper levels of student-to-student engagement and interaction for think-pair-share or team-based exercises; all the while developing and strengthening the learning community.

Lock in Your Learning: Action Strategies

Fostering relationships, and building community connects student to the university, their program, and enhances their learning. Community I therefore is vital to student health, student success, and retention.

  • Convey a clear message that online learning is not “alone learning”.
  • Help students envision the value of being members of an academic learning community where they can learn with and from each other.
  • Integrate synchronous and asynchronous collaboration tools that are meaningful and accessible.
  • Facilitate engagement and community by creating opportunities for students to actively interact and communicate, leading to more expansive learning.
  • Inclusion is a key and intentional element of course design Dismantle barriers of access and equities!
  • Don’t forget the POWER of inclusive community!

Bloomberg, L. D. (2021). Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners. Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Borup, J., Graham, C.R., West, R.E. et al., (2020). Academic Communities of Engagement: an expansive lens for examining support structures in blended and online learning. Education Tech Research Dev, 68, 807–832.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. Macmillan.

Garrison, D. R. (2009). Implications of online learning for the conceptual development and practice of distance education. Journal of Distance Education, 23(2), 93-104.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2003). A theory of critical inquiry in online distance education. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of Distance Education, 113-127. Erlbaum.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. C. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

Morris, T. H. (2020). Experiential learning–a systematic review and revision of Kolb’s model. Interactive Learning Environments28(8), 1064-1077.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (M. M. Lopez-Morillas Cole, A. R. Luria, & J. Wertsch translators). Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.

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