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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, foster a sense of belonging, and promote self-regulation and learner autonomy. This Research Guide shares resources on online community that are relevant to the administration of online 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, and explore on-demand resources and upcoming opportunities available from the Learning Design and Technology team, the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching & Learning, 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. 

  • 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.  


  • Social presence in discussion boards versus multimodal interaction (Chen & Bogachenko, 2022
    • Summary: Online interaction that uses multimodal communication options (e.g., discussions with text, audio, and video) allows for student choice, increases social presence, and helps develop trust and rapport among students.   

    • Why it Matters: Providing opportunities for student choice in online discussions embraces an inclusive design mindset, and has been shown to increase feelings of engagement and trust.

    • What to Do? Connect with your instructional design team for their expertise related to designing effective engagement strategies and supported technologies.