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Cultivating Online Communities in Higher Education

Research and resources on the importance of online community in higher education.

Why Do Evidence-Informed Online Communities Matter?

Research shows that online communities that embrace evidence-informed design and facilitation contribute to positive student outcomes and perceptions, and foster a sense of trust, belonging, and purpose. This Research Guide shares resources on online community that are relevant to teaching and learning within higher education settings.

What Next?

Inspired by a research article or resource in this guide? Connect with your college to explore current work in this area or connect with your Instructional Design team.       

Recent Research & News Highlights: Online Community in Higher Education 

Check back often for research highlights focused on online community in higher education. Highlights will be added to the growing Online Community Research repository as new ones are added. 

  • Students' Perception of Care When Learning Online (Al-Freih & Robinson, 2024) 
    • Summary: A small qualitative study found online learning environments, similar to face-to-face settings, show presence of Nel Noddings' ethics of care theory (modeling, dialog, practice, and confirmation). This approach is cited as critical to effective online education. Areas for further study include: 1) the role of deliberate course design in helping instructors focus on caring teaching and learning practices, and 2) faculty / instructor skills and competencies in collaborative learning and feedback processes.      

    • Why it Matters: A caring culture has been shown to support student learning, knowledge co-creation, and engagement. Effective course design and caring teaching and learning practices go hand-in-hand for student success. 

    • What to Do? Cultivate collaborations between faculty and teaching, learning, and student support teams to provide optimal, caring learning experiences for students. Connect with your instructional design team for their expertise related to designing effective engagement strategies and supported technologies. 

  • The effect of a belongingness strategy on online higher education student performance measures (Bull, Johansen, et al., 2024) 
    • Summary: The study found a positive correlation between completion, persistence, and other success factors when student belongingness strategies were in place.

    • Why it Matters: Online education that includes continuous connection, faculty empathy, active learning strategies, and other practices that instill a sense of belonging are critical for student success. A sense of community in the online classroom is a primary element required for a sense of belonging.

    • What to Do? Explore course-level practices for belonging. Connect with your instructional design team for ideas related to engagement strategies and supported technologies that can facilitate a sense of belonging. 

  • Student participation and self-efficacy: contributors, lurkers, and outsiders (Rosen & Kelly, 2023) 
    • Summary: The study found no evidence that students who engage in optional communication opportunities had significantly higher levels of self-efficacy.    

    • Why it Matters: Opportunities for social engagement are important to online learning communities. Some members long to connect; others do not / may simply want to observe. It's important to remember that even if online students don't participate in optional engagement opportunities, that doesn't mean they are not satisfied and successful as self-directed learners. At the same time, some members don't participate due to fears related to limited experience with online technology or other factors.

    • What to Do? Create optional social opportunities for students who desire additional connection or benefit from observing. Remember: some don't want / have time to connect or find different outlets for connection. Provide student choice and consider an early student survey or poll to understand preferences, fears and potential unfamiliarity with technologies used in online communities to ensure those who want to engage have the supports they need to fully participate.