Community from a Distance: Building a Sense of Belonging in an Online Classroom

Updated: May 22, 2019

Kari Henry Hulett

Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology

It happens to everyone. That sense of distraction and over commitment. Semesters when demands of professional development, research, scholarship, and service draw your energy and focus away from classroom teaching. With just a few short weeks left in the semester, I was desperately striving to meet dissertation writing deadlines, teaching two online undergraduate courses, and prepping for a class in the fall. Admittedly, I was plagued with self-doubt about whether or not I had provided my students with the attention I would typically give them.

One morning, while hurriedly preparing for work, I checked my email during breakfast and saw it — a note from one of my online students. The email was brief but to the point. "I just wanted to say I've had a fantastic semester with you. It's a shame we've only met at student-teacher conferences. But I loved having you as an instructor this semester." I was floored! Flattered and humbled, I wondered what it was that had made this such a "fantastic" class for this individual during a semester I had not attended to my students as much as I would like?

Although I would love to claim the kudos were due to my amazing personality, I suspected it was something else. What had this student found so beneficial about my online class, at the same time I was striving to overcome fears that I had neglected him and his classmates? As I reflected, I thought about the course design and how it was set up to ensure their success. I am convinced it was the course design, not my winning smile, that was the real cause of his admiration.

Community by Design

Humans do not learn in a void; learning is a social event. When I approach designing an online course, I always put community building first on my priority list. I build community by including two primary methods of interaction: weekly discussions and periodic conferences. Those two components make a difference in both the students' sense of community and rapport with me as well as with their classmates.

Discussion Board Assignments Aimed to Build Community

Discussion threads intentionally serve to bring students together. The first week of class, students participate in a welcome discussion to get to know their classmates and me. I post a response to both model expected behaviors and let the class get to know me. Even if this were the only use of the discussion thread, I think it would be useful.

But in my classes, I go further to build community purposefully.

Most weeks, there are specific reading prompts from the text to which students must respond. All students must then respond to two of their peers' posts. The key to success for this type of question is to leave prompts open-ended, promoting critical thinking. When the prompt results in a single correct response, students get frustrated when others have already given it, and as there are no alternative perspectives to that kind of answer, genuinely responding to the posts of others is not useful. On other weeks, students use the discussion board to exchange papers with their peers. Using guiding questions, which I provide, peers offer reader responses to their colleagues to strengthen that person's writing before the final paper is due.

I have found that students dread peer editing the most at the beginning of the course and praise it the most at the end. It requires a lot of trust to let strangers read your work, which most of us in academia can attest. What students find, though, is that they develop bonds with each other through this sharing process. Many seek out a particular peer to work with for the second and third papers as well because that person was so helpful during the first review. Students have told me on occasion that they continue peer review relationships with other students from my class into subsequent semesters.

Periodic Faculty-Student Conferencing

Two virtual conferences are required across the course and each assigned a grade. Although conferences typically are completed with virtual conferencing software, I always give students the option to meet with me face-to-face in my office if they prefer. Some of my students are local and want to do this; others live too far away for it to be a choice. Whichever method they choose, they are required to set an appointment. The purpose of the conference is two-fold. First, it provides an opportunity for me to get to know each student. Second, it allows me the occasion to listen to students’ thoughts as we discuss the feedback I provide on the student's writing.

This two-way communication significantly impacts learning when compared to merely providing written feedback to the student.

Engaging students in a conversation around their work offers me as a teacher with greater insight into what they are thinking as they approach the task.

This insight, in turn, allows me to adjust my approach so that each student can grow from where they are, rather than from where I assume they might be. Although time can be a constraint to incorporating conferences, they are important. I do two meetings per semester; however, the benefits of meeting with my students are apparent even after just one conference.

When I first began holding conferences with my online students, there were logistical issues I had to overcome. One challenge was scheduling. Due to availability issues, it may be impossible to reschedule appointments. That semester, I was also teaching traditional face-to-face classes. Some of my conferences were virtual for online students, and some took place in my office. I scheduled them back-to-back in fifteen-minute time slots. Unfortunately, I had not considered the time it takes to log on to the virtual conferencing software, get connected and begin a conference with the online student. I was late to just about every online conference that first time. After that, I started blocking out two-hour segments of time exclusively for online conferences, which allowed me to log on, get set up, and easily and quickly move between conference rooms every fifteen minutes.

In Summary

Building community in the online classroom is a vital aspect of online course design. Designing the online course to intentionally build connections between students and with the instructor provides a sense of belonging and support. Such bonds help combat the sense of isolation that is inherent in distance learning, particularly when other tasks demand your time and you don’t have time to spontaneously check in on your students.

Discussion Questions

1. When planning discussion threads, what is advantageous about scheduling synchronous chats vs. asynchronous postings? What are the disadvantages of both formats?

2. Should group assignments require students to work in the same or different peer groups throughout the course? Consider the benefits of each.

3. What other conferencing methods might be employed with students besides the ones discussed?


Bender, T. (2012). Discussion-Based Online Teaching to Enhance Student Learning. 2nd Edition. Theory, Practice and Assessment. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Herman, J. and Nilson, L. (2018). Creating Engaging Discussions: Strategies for "Avoiding Crickets" in Any Size Classroom and Online. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Linder, K. and Matteson Hayes, C. (editors). (2018). High-Impact Practices in Online Education Research and Best Practices.

Nilson, L. and Goodson., L. (2018). Online Teaching at its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning

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