Building Community in Online Learning Environments

Online but Not Alone

This resource is available as a PDF

Students and teachers often worry that online learning can be isolating, and virtual classrooms pose unique challenges to nurturing connections amongst learners. Nevertheless, there are strategies and techniques for building and maintaining a sense of community in online learning environments. Can online learning be just as good a learning experience as face-to-face instruction (Erickson, 2020)?

This resource outlines the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, which describes how learning emerges from the learners’ educational experience. The resource adapts CoI principles to provide concrete tips for building engaged, collaborative learning communities in online environments.

Research shows that a sense of community can be crucial to motivating and supporting students. Not only do collaboration and mutual discovery help learners feel more engaged with course content; they also enhance the sense of cooperation, shared responsibility, and overall educational experience of participants (Hilliard & Stewart, 2019; Anderson, 2017). CoI suggests that optimal learning communities emerge at the intersection of three different kinds of presence: social, cognitive, and teaching presence (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000 & 2010).

Social presence involves “the ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as real people.” (Garrison et al., 2000)

Teaching presence involves “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes to support learning” (Fiock, 2020)

Cognitive presence involves participants’ “ability to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection” and communication (Fiock, 2020)

Considering how these forms of presence overlap and inform course design and implementation can help students succeed online—not alone, but in a community.

CoI Categories and Indicators

The table below identifies how each type of presence (social, teaching, and cognitive) can be categorized and indicated through various activities.

PresenceCategoriesExample Indicators
Social• Emotional/affective expression
• Open communication
• Group cohesion
• Risk-free expression
• Mutual awareness and recognition
• Building and sustaining group commitment
• Collaboration
Teaching• Instructional design and organization
• Direct instruction
• Facilitating communication
• Building understanding
• Sharing personal meaning
• Defining and initiating discussion topics
• Focusing discussion
Cognitive• Triggering event: identifying problems and topics
• Exploration: research, collaboration and communication
• Integration: analyzing, synthesizing, and constructing meaning
• Resolution: applying knowledge
• Exchanging information
• Connecting ideas
• Applying new ideas

Adapted from: Garrison et al. (2000) & Garrison (2007)

Online Community Building Strategies

The table below provides strategies for building community in online learning environments and tips for implementing these strategies. Implementing strategies that foster various forms of interactions and presence will help generate a robust online learning community. Remember to check with your Course Instructor before making changes to the course Quercus page or implementing changes related to course evaluation and grading.

#StrategyExamples and Tips for Implementation
1Post a welcome message for the course• Use Quercus announcements, inbox function, or an email listserv to reach out to students before the first meeting.
2Introduce yourself• Create an introductory video about yourself in an asynchronous setting.
• During synchronous sessions, use both audio and video.
• In addition to the usual information, tell students something that lets them know about your personality—e.g. pets, family photo, favourite hobby, a show you are watching, etc.
3Invite students to post profiles or introductory videos• Post profile pictures on Quercus or use discussion boards to post videos or written introductions.
• Enable threaded responses and encourage students to comment on each other’s posts.
4Provide clear expectations on how students can reach you• For example, via office hours, University of Toronto email address, Quercus inbox, etc.
• Tell students when and how quickly they can expect a response (e.g., within one business day; not within 24 hours of a major due date).
5Make yourself available• Consider setting aside some time at the beginning/end of class for informal conversation and student questions. If possible, offer by-appointment and drop-in office hours.
• Enable the “waiting room” function for video office hours (if available) and consider using spreadsheets allowing students to sign up for timeslots.
6Provide clear learning outcomes• Create learning outcomes that are clearly communicated to students at the start of the course and the beginning of each class.
• Schedules (with clear break times, if applicable) are especially important in online learning.
7Design tutorials for learner choice, flexibility, and control• Provide options for how and when students interact with materials, the instructor, and each other.
• Where possible, provide choice of topic, content and/or format (e.g. video, written, podcast, arts-based, etc.).
8Create tutorial guidelines for acceptable behaviour• During an early class meeting, ask students to collaboratively create a community agreement and/or a netiquette guide.
9Facilitate icebreaker activities• Break students into groups of 2–3, give them time to chat, and then have them introduce their partners to the larger group. It might help to provide specific time limits and pieces of information they should gather about their partners.
• Regular social presence can also be enhanced by asking students to describe the weather where they are or inviting them to bring significant objects for “show-and-tell.”
10Incorporate early activities to familiarize students with the technology• Set precedents for engagement early in the course. Introduce students to breakout groups, chat panels, the “raise hand” function, Quercus modules, and other tools you intend to use.
• Consider devoting time to a “virtual tour” of the learning spaces (e.g., Bb Collaborate, MS Teams, course Quercus page), and include frequent access checks (e.g., “can everyone hear me?”; “is this function available to everyone?”).
• Organize virtual “treasure hunts” (e.g., find the icon, discover the function).
11Model posting and responding on discussion forums and during class activities• Model expected behaviours and encourage diverse perspectives, divergent thinking, and experimentation. Use thought-provoking open-ended discussion prompts or debates.
• Encourage students to participate and respond to each other in discussion boards and live discussions.
12Be present in discussion forums• Facilitate/guide without dominating the discussion; ensure to allow time and space for students to contribute.
13Encourage students to interact with one another• In synchronous and asynchronous settings, encourage students to talk and respond to one another rather than just the instructor.
• Threaded discussion boards and weekly “respondent” duties can facilitate this kind of interaction.
14Provide multiple means of participation• Allow students to participate in multiple ways. Facilitate verbal and written discussion and invite students to share their ideas through various media (videos, images, weblinks).
• During live discussions, monitor the chat panel and repeat pertinent comments when possible.
• For discussion boards and assignment submissions, keep expectations flexible and give learners a choice of topics/formats.
• Consider supplementing traditional assignments with podcasts, blog posts, vlogs, creative submissions, etc.
15Provide opportunities for learners to be experts• Allow students to sign up as topic experts; provide opportunities for them to teach their peers manageable portions of the course content or give them chances to connect content to their real-world experiences (e.g., how content might connect to their lives, values, other courses, etc.).
• Encourage students to find supplemental resources and share them with the class (e.g., library resources, articles, videos, documentaries, books, news stories, etc.).
16Incorporate team-based, collaborative or problem-solving activities• Have students work through a problem together. Invite students to get creative with team names; use breakout groups to facilitate smaller group problem-solving.
• Consider holding a debate where each team must argue an opposing point of an issue or topic. It can help to assign student roles, e.g., notetaker, first speaker, questioner, etc.
17Incorporate peer-review sessionsPeer-review sessions can be done in large or small groups (e.g., pairs), synchronously or asynchronously, and formally or informally. In a class leading up to a major deadline, allow students to exchange early drafts of their work and receive peer feedback.
18Provide timely, actionable, and substantive feedback.• Provide clear, explicit feedback with the opportunity to ask questions for clarification when possible.
19Share stories and experiences with students• Share professional and relevant personal anecdotes; incorporate humour if/where appropriate.
• Invite (but don’t force) students to share their own experiences with the class.
20Encourage reflection• Provide time to reflect on the learning experience, reflecting on how current knowledge/learning will be used in the future. Encourage students to share what was successful and what wasn’t.
• Short, ungraded writing assignments or digital forms can be great ways to encourage learner reflection.


Anderson, T. (2017). How Communities of Inquiry Drive Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age. Contact North Online Learning.

Erickson, D. (2020). Q&A: A Founder of Distance Education Weighs In On Its Educational Benefits. University of Wisconsin-Madison News.

Fiock, H. S. (2020). Designing a Community of Inquiry in Online Courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 21(1), 135–153.

Garrison, D. R. (2007). Online Community of Inquiry Review: Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence Issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61–72.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2–3), 87–105.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2010). The First Decade of the Community of Inquiry Framework: A Retrospective. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1–2), 5–9.

Hilliard, L. P., Stewart, M. K. (2019). Time Well Spent: Creating a Community of Inquiry in Blended First-Year Writing Courses. The Internet and Higher Education, 41, 11–24.

Moore, M. G. (1989). Editorial: Three Types of Interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education 3(2), 1–6.

Moore, M. G. (1973). Toward a Theory of Independent Learning and Teaching. The Journal of Higher Education 44(9), 661–679.

University of Virginia Center for Teaching Excellence. (n.d.). Applying the Community of Inquiry Framework.

University of Waterloo Centre for Extended Learning. (n.d.). 2b. Community and Interaction. Fostering Engagement: Facilitating Online Courses in Higher Education.

U of T CTSI/TATP Resources

Active Learning and Adapting Teaching Techniques.

Community of Inquiry.

Teaching with Technology & Teaching Online.