Skip to Main Content

Cultivating Online Communities in Higher Education

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

Online Community Research by Theme

Satisfaction and Success 

  • Online engagement enhances experiences and promotes self-regulation and learner autonomy 

  • Higher levels of online engagement are associated with increased student satisfaction 

  • Interaction quality is a significant predictor of student satisfaction 

  • Instructor presence and timely feedback are critical 

  • Strong online engagement is linked to higher retention rates in online courses 

  • Social presence fosters a sense of community, belonging and commitment 

  • Early engagement is important for long-term persistence   

  • Student projects can enhance performance and outcomes 


Common strategies to enhance student satisfaction, persistence and success includes (but is not limited to) online community building activities that: 

  • Create opportunities for accessible, inclusive and meaningful interaction and collaboration 

  • Provide clear expectations and guidance for online participation 

  • Design engaging and interactive learning opportunities 

  • Encourage self-regulated learning and metacognition 

  • Provide appropriate support and resources to facilitate engagement  

  • Establish a supportive and inclusive learning environment 

  • Provide timely interventions and resources for at-risk students 

  • Encourage peer support and mentorship to foster resilience and persistence 


Related Resources

Additional References

Fredericksen, Pickett, A., Shea, P., Pelz, W., & Swan, K. (2019). Student Satisfaction and Perceived Learning with On-line Courses: Principles and Examples from the SUNY Learning Network. Online Learning (Newburyport, Mass.)4(2).

LaBarbera, R. (2013). The relationship between students’ perceived sense of connectedness to the instructor and satisfaction in online courses. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 14(4), 209–220.

Lamport, M. A., & Bartolo, P. J. (2012). Student perceptions of online instructional practices that enhance connectedness: Themes toward the development of an instrument. Journal of Instructional Research, 1, 23–33.  

Linder, & Hayes, C. M. (Eds.). (2018). High-impact practices in online education : research and best practices. Stylus.

Lowenthal, P. R., & Snelson, C. (2017). In search of a better understanding of social presence: An investigation into how researchers define social presence. Distance Education, 38(2), 141–159.

MacLeod, J., Yang, H. H., & Shi, Y. (2019). Student-to-student connectedness in higher education: A systematic literature review. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 31, 426–448. https://doi. org/10.1007/s12528-019-09214-1

Martin, F. & Bolliger, D. U. (2022). Developing an online learner satisfaction framework in higher education through a systematic review of research. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education19(1), 1–21.

Martin, F. & Bolliger, D.U. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Online Learning 22(1), 205- 222. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i1.1092

Redmond, Heffernan, A., Abawi, L., Brown, A., & Henderson, R. (2018). An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks JALN, 22(1).

Rovai, A. P. (2002b). Sense of community, perceived cognitive learning, and persistence in asynchronous learning networks. The Internet and Higher Education, 5(4), 319−332. 1016/S1096-7516(02)00130-6

Zhu, C. (2012). Student satisfaction, performance, and knowledge construction in online collaborative learning. Journal of Educational Technology and Society, 15(1), 127–136. https://www.jstor. org/stable/jeductechsoci.15.1.127



Student Supports & Services 

The following themes emerge in research on how students and supports and services positively impact perception and success in online education: 

  • Online learning supports and services have a positive impact on student perceptions of satisfaction and feelings of connectedness 

  • Student motivation, persistence and achievement is positively impacted by online student supports  

  • Access to online library resources, instructional and user design practices, as well as embedded supports are important to student and faculty success  

  • Supports and services for adult online learners have nuanced differences from campus-based options and enhance perceptions and success, especially when it comes to 6- and 8-week terms 

  • Supports and services that keep the unique needs of adult online adult learners in mind are important to success 


Related Resources

Additional References

Ludwig-Hardman, S., & Dunlap, J. C. (2003). Learning support services for online students: Scaffolding for success. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(1), 1–15.

Roddy, Chantal, Amiet, Danielle Lalaine, Chung, Jennifer, Holt, Christopher, Shaw, Lauren, McKenzie, Stephen, Garivaldis, Filia, Lodge, Jason M., and Mundy, Matthew Edward (2017). Applying best practice online learning, teaching, and support to intensive online environments: an integrative review. Frontiers in Education 2(59).

Rotar. (2022). Online student support: a framework for embedding support interventions into the online learning cycle. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 17(1), 1–23.

Online Course Design 

One of the primary ways online community manifests in higher education is via a college’s program-specific online courses, and research shows appropriate engagement opportunities matter for student satisfaction and success. Research indicates effective online course design includes: 

  • Appropriate, purpose-driven connection between students and resources, fellow learners, and faculty, including opportunities for timely and constructive feedback 

  • Instructional design teams as an important driver of student, faculty and campus success 

  • Consistent accessible and inclusive course design strategies to reduce cognitive load and allow for learner choice and voice 

  • A cross-systems, interdisciplinary approach that includes student perspectives, success outcomes, supports and services, and university-wide engagement 

Related Resources

Additional References

Baturay, M. H. (2011). Relationships among sense of classroom community, perceived cognitive learning and satisfaction of students at an e-learning course. Interactive Learning Environments, 19(5), 563–575.

Brown, R. (2001). The process of community-building in distance learning classes. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5, 18–35.

Cameron, B. A., Morgan, K., & Williams, K. C. (2009). Group projects: Student perceptions of the relationship between social tasks and a sense of community in online group work. The American Journal of Distance Education, 23(1), 20–33.

Davis, Gough, M., & Taylor, L. L. (2021). Enhancing online courses by utilizing “Backward Design.” Journal of Teaching in Travel & Tourism21(4), 437–446.

Eberle, J. H., & Childress, M. D. (2007). Universal design for culturally-diverse online learning. Globalized e-learning cultural challenges, 239-254. IGI Global. 

Fink, L. Dee. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. Jossey-Bass.   

Fredericksen, Pickett, A., Shea, P., Pelz, W., & Swan, K. (2019). Student Satisfaction and Perceived Learning with On-line Courses: Principles and Examples from the SUNY Learning Network. Online Learning (Newburyport, Mass.)4(2).

Gunder, A., Vignare, K., Adams, S., McGuire, A., & Rafferty, J. (2021). Optimizing high-quality digital learning experiences: A playbook for faculty. Every Learner Everywhere.  

Instructional Designers in Higher Education: Roles, Challenges, and Supports. (n.d.). The Journal of Applied Instructional Design.

Ouzts, K. (2006). Sense of community in online courses. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 7(3), 285–296.

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. Jossey-Bass.

Rovai, A. P. (2001). Building classroom community at a distance: A case study. Educational Technology Research & Development, 49(4), 33–48.

Swan, K. (2002). Building Learning Communities in Online Courses: The Importance of Interaction. Education, Communication & Information, 2. 23-49.

Swan, K., & Shea, P. (2005). The development of virtual learning communities. In. S. R. Hiltz & R. Goldman (Eds.), Asynchronous learning networks: The research frontier (pp. 239–260). Hampton Press.

Arasaratnam-Smith, L. & Northcote, M. (2017). Community in Online Higher Education: Challenges and Opportunities. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 15(2), 188-198, available online at

Blitz, C. L. (2013). Can online learning communities achieve the goals of traditional professional learning communities? What the literature says. (REL 2013–003). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic.

Faraj, von Krogh, G., Monteiro, E., & Lakhani, K. R. (2016). Special Section Introduction—Online Community as Space for Knowledge Flows. Information Systems Research, 27(4), 668–684.

Haythornthwaite, C., & Kazmer, M. M. (Eds.). (2004). Learning, culture and community in online education: Research and practice. Peter Lang.

Hill, J. R. (2012). Learning communities: Theoretical foundations for making connections. In D. Jonassen, & S. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments (pp. 269–285). Routledge.

Jiang, W. (2017). Interdependence of roles, role rotation, and sense of community in an online course. Distance Education, 38(1), 84–105.

Kaufmann, R., & Vallade, J. I. (2020). Exploring connections in the online learning environment: student perceptions of rapport, climate, and loneliness. Interactive Learning Environments. https://

Kraut, Resnick, P., Kiesler, S., Burke, M., & Chen, Y. (2012). Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design (1st ed., pp. xi–xi). The MIT Press.

Lejealle, Castellano, S., & Khelladi, I. (2022). The role of members’ lived experience in the evolution of online communities toward online communities of practice. Journal of Knowledge Management, 26(8), 1968–1984.

Liu, X., Magjuka, R. J., Bonk, C. J., Lee, S. H. (2007). Does sense of community matter? An examination of participants’ perceptions of building learning communities in online courses. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 8(1), 9–24. p54c3c9c5901c7

Major, C. (2022). Examining the Tie That Binds: The Importance of Community to Student Success in Online Courses. Journal of Postsecondary Student Success, 1(4). 

Malinen, S. (2015). Understanding user participation in online communities: A systematic literature review of empirical studies. Computers in Human Behavior, 46, 228–238. chb.2015.01.004

McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 6–23.

Peacock, & Cowan, J. (2019). Promoting a Sense of Belonging in Online Learning Communities of Inquiry. Online Learning, 23(2).

Rettler-Pagel, T. (2023). Communities of practice in the higher education landscape: A literature review. Every Learner Everywhere.

Shackelford, J. L., & Maxwell, M. (2012). Sense of community in graduate online education: Contribution of learner to learner interaction. International Review of Research in Open And Distributed Learning, 13(4), 228–249.

Shea, P. (2006). A study of students’ sense of learning community in online environments. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(4), 35–44.

Skelcher, S., Yang, D., Trespalacios, J., & Snelson, C. (2020). Connecting online students to their higher learning institution. Distance Education, 41(1), 128–147. 2020.1724771

Slagter van Tryona, P. J., & Bishop, M. J. (2009). Theoretical foundations for enhancing social connectedness in online learning environments. Distance Education, 30(3), 291–315. 

Trespalacios, Snelson, C., Lowenthal, P. R., Uribe-Flórez, L., & Perkins, R. (2021). Community and connectedness in online higher education: a scoping review of the literature. Distance Education42(1), 5–21.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246.