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What is an Online Learning Community?

What is an Online Learning Community?

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With the rise of remote learning, many found that their learning performance got worse, and they lost motivation. There is no doubt that solitary education via a computer screen can be off-putting. However, given the extraordinary times, online learning has become the new norm. This is why educationists and course creators have come up with Online learning communities.

Follow this article till the end to know all about the ins and outs of these communities.

What is an Online Learning Community?

These are unique and specialized spaces where learners and experts come together to discuss something...anything. The communities are usually focused around a central idea or theme but can move away from it every now and then to accommodate the queries of the participants.

Online communities
courtesy of Brian Thomas CSUCI

Apparently, studies trace the history of educational/informational communities back to constructivism. This means that true learning stems from the collaboration of learners and their interaction with their surroundings. In addition, the idea is an extension of social learning.

Essentially, these communities have specific goals; academic, professional, social, etc. Accordingly, members come together in a collaborative environment to achieve these goals. In a way, these communities are rather similar to online cohorts but with better engagement tools.

A learning community is a small group or cohort of students who share common academic goals and work collaboratively in the classroom with one or more professors.
- LIU Brooklyn

Types of learning communities

  • Interest-based communities: As the name suggests, such kinds of communities focus on specific interests or goals. People come together to discuss these ideas and seek collective responses to concerning questions.
  • Shop-talk communities: They focus on accomplishing a talk i.e how to do that or where to find such and such. Since these communities act as quick spaces for seeking answers, they do not have longstanding members. Once people get their solutions, they usually end their engagement. However, such communities are central to running businesses. Entrepreneurs can use these spaces as an alternate solution to customer support services. WebMD is a great example of shop-talk communities.
  • Action-based communities: Members is this particular community type strive to achieve some sort of actional change. These can be social movements, activist groups, fundraisers, or even your college student groups working for a particular cause.
  • Information dissemination communities: Such communities are highly paternalistic. The content and community activity are tightly controlled by the hosts. Hence they tend to lack driving engagement.  
  • Profession-based communities: These communities are especially for professional development. Young professionals and seasoned experts collaborate on enabling the members in skill-learning for furthering their careers.

Purpose of online a learning community

If you are still wondering about the reasons you need to invest in an online community, here are some to get you out of your confusion.

  • Fosters shared learning amongst members. Participants find solutions to problems collaboratively, give feedback to each other, and learn from each others' experiences.
  • Supports distributive leadership i.e. creates a horizontal structure for a healthy exchange of ideas. It democratizes learning by involving every participant.
  • Builds lasting connections. When people get together and learn from each other on such a one-on-one level, they tend to build deeper emotional connections. Hence, such people stick together for longer durations.
  • Measures collective progress. Additionally, these communities can also act as a tool for measuring the effectiveness of your online courses. You can see from the engagement how well the learners have grasped the concepts and how well they are applying them.
  • Provides support to the participants. Not only academic or professional but also emotional in times of need.

The online learning community model

If you go around looking for a learning model for your community, you will stumble upon several. This might lead to confusion and deter you from even beginning with your space. Essentially, all of the models are derivatives of each other in some ways. One of the most prominent models is the 'community of inquiry model' by Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer, proposed in 2001.

community of inquiry model
Community of Inquiry Model
Curtesy of Gabi Witthaus

Similarly, educationists at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology came up with their own model specifically for online learning communities. The Fully Online Learning community model intends to democratize learning and reduce the distance between learners and educators.

Primary elements of FOLC

The FOLC model focuses on two central ideas:

  1. Social presence - This is one's ability to project themselves emotionally and socially onto others. It includes communication, cohesiveness, and collaboration.
  2. Cognitive presence - This is one's learning and comprehending ability.  Moreover, cognitive presence looks at the

These two elements are necessary to illustrate the effectiveness of a community. Firstly, social presence is what drives member engagement. It is primarily the basis of how people behave in a social setting that determines the quality of interaction. Secondly, cognitive presence determines how well things are being understood within a community.

Although, it is tough to get a close-knit community online wherein people can be themselves fully. The virtual distance can disrupt things. However, thanks to technological breakthroughs, we now have ample remedies to improve learner engagement. A great way of reducing this distance is by improving communication online by using adequate social chatting tools.

Essential tools to run an online community

Here are some top-of-the-list basic tools that you will require to host your community.

  • A video conferencing app e.g. Zoom.
  • Social Media groups e.g. Facebook communities.
  • Chatting tools e.g. Discord or Slack channels.
  • An all-in-one online community platform such as Teachfloor.

Usually, going around looking for each applicable tool can prove counter-productive. That is why it is better to go for an all-in-one platform. Such platforms provide you with all the essentials in one space and save you the extra work. Similarly, Teachfloor provides its users with features like a Discussion board and Peer review through which members can freely collaborate.

Benefits of online learning communities

From the POV of course creators, here are some pros of opting for online learning space.

  • Build reliable connections - grow your network by engaging with students - old and new. Moreover, you can get experts to connect with newcomers and build a space for professional interaction. Simultaneously, these connections also work as a great way of seeking organic leads. In this way, your community members can be your course marketeers.
  • Develops brand identity - having a strong community can make your work and courses appear authentic. When new members participate, they can perceive a deeper image concerning your work and on the basis create a brand identity.
  • Earns client loyalty - a close-knit community ensures client retention. It also improves client satisfaction as people can resolve their concerns within the community and do not have to look elsewhere for help.
  • Organic feedback - with a trusted community, you can receive authentic constructive feedback and measure progress effectively. Additionally, you can also use the community space for beta launching any new material.  


So this was all for an all-you-need-to-know session about online learning communities. But before you go, here are some tiny bits of wisdom to help you build a successful community of your own.

Avoid being too specific, rather be open. It is good to have a direction but remember not to be rigid with it. It is good to shake things up every once in a while.  Moreover, abstain from rigid community moderation. Let the community members feel like equal partners and make them feel heard. You can determine community guidelines but insofar, interfere only as much in the implementation of these. Initiate ice-breakers to try to get the community going. These can be interactive polls and questions, etc. Since members can feel shy in the beginning, these ice-breakers can help them open up and participate.

By now you have learned everything there is to learn about online learning communities. Now it is your turn to apply this knowledge and reap the ample benefits of them.

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