Cultivating and Sustaining an Online Community

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

The success or failure of many online courses depends on cultivating and sustaining a sense of community among the members of the class and including the instructor in that community. (In this way, online teaching is not unlike onground teaching.) As we embark on another quarter and another school year, here are five principles and five techniques for building and sustaining community online.

Five Principles of Community Building

According to a distillation of the research, five principles lie behind creating a sense of community in a course:

  • Have a focus that piques particular learner interests. This can be a topic or subtopic that students want to address. Anything you can do to bend content and activities toward learner interests tends to increase their involvement.
  • Have guidelines and make sure everyone sticks to them. Guidelines help instructors and students work together, so guidelines need to apply to everyone in the community.
  • Create a habit. Give learners a reason to check in daily, even if a very small reason.
  • Ask for feedback. Solicit other opinions and ideas. Ask students what they feel is working or not working and why. This cultivates investment in the group.
  • Have participants interact with one another, not just the instructor. Again, encourage students to think about one another as important to the learning process.

Five Sample Community Building Activities

  • Include an FAQ discussion and ask students to subscribe to it—perhaps as part of your welcome video/activities. An FAQ discussion allows anyone in the class to ask and answer questions. As well, an FAQ often allows instructors to handle repeat questions more easily.
  • Correspond with students through Canvas inbox and announcements. Send tips, reminders, and updates to let students know you are thinking about them and what they’re facing in the near future. (Keep these reminders and updates brief to avoid overwhelming them.) Try sending a 30-second video reminder if there’s something you particularly want to emphasize.
  • Share links or news stories that connect to content. You will increase the relevancy of what you are teaching. You may find it especially valuable if you can highlight instances of local interest that intersect with your course.
  • Use discussion boards to give students tasks to do and discuss together. This task can be as simple as asking them to share a sign-up sheet or comment on one another’s posts. Or, it can be as complicated as asking them to peer review one another. The key is find specific activities to get them talking to and working with one another. Then, involve yourself in the discussions as well. (You don’t have to offer a full reply to every discussion board. Harness the power of the Like button when you can.)
  • Schedule a meeting or conference early in the quarter so they can interact with you synchronously. This meeting can be an open group call or video. Make it informal and don’t require it. Let them know it is simply a chance to get to talk with you in real time. (I have talked with several instructors who stagger such open hours throughout the quarter, offering morning, afternoon, evening, and night times to accommodate as many students as possible.)

These are just a few ideas to help you begin. If you have more activities to suggest, we’d love to hear them. Email me at

To Read More About Building Community in Your Classes:

Brian Bergen-Aurand is an Instructional Designer in eLearning and Faculty in Arts & Humanities. He specialized in questions of Digital Culture, Quality Standards (QOI, QM), and Course Review.

Last Updated November 2, 2020