Five Keys to Creating Thriving Learning Communities

Learning communityEducators and researchers alike agree people learn best when they’re part of a group. Online learning communities give learners the opportunity to collaboratively gain knowledge, foster creativity, and achieve progress in a virtual environment.

Based on our experience designing online learning communities for clients like the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Center for Learning and Innovation (CLI) and ETR Associates, we’ve developed a checklist of five elements that make these communities successes:

  • Break the Ice: Participants in virtual learning communities are frequently hesitant to make the first move. This puts the pressure on the instructor to get the conversation started. At the CLI, course administrators take the initiative and introduce themselves on the course discussion boards. They also include a call to action requesting that students to do the same. Instructors continue to stay involved throughout the courses, starting every lesson with a post on the discussion board and urging students to respond and share their views. This process helps students blend into the class with ease and develops familiarity among classmates.
  • Make Participation Mandatory: Research suggests that the effects of participation in an online learning community are indirect; participation enhances student engagement, which, in turn, leads to a variety of positive educational outcomes, such as achievement, learning, and success (Kuh, 2009; Pike, Kuh, & McCormick, 2011). One of the key features of the CLI trainings is they require learners to participate in the discussion forums. Each lesson is gated, and learners can only move to the next one if they’ve completed a discussion forum post. Interacting in these forums gives learners the opportunity to discuss what they’ve learned, exchange views, and discuss best practices. Students can further respond by uploading and sharing resources, such as files, photos, links, and ideas. The instructors visit the discussion boards every day and engage in discussion with the learners, maintaining a constant connection with them.Students also exchange information by searching, accessing, and bookmarking blogs, videos, and articles. The CLI platform provides quick access to various resources by offering the opportunity for learners to ‘like’ and save them to a ‘Favorites’ page. The platform also provides them with a ‘My Files’ page, where they can consolidate resources that they or their peers share during the course of study.
  • Encourage Interaction Through Collaboration: In a different online training we developed, the RTR Works! program, teachers take a cohort-based asynchronous course to learn new behaviors and skills for working with their students. Teacher participants from across the country are banded together as a single group, working on a similar schedule of training and benefiting from interacting with and learning from each other. They collaborate through discussion forums and weekly Q&A sessions, and share knowledge relevant to the study materials. Learning as part of a cohort allows for collaboration. It also helps learners develop professional networks and relationships that can last a lifetime. Collaboration can also be arranged through group assignments and projects, where team members work together to create content using software like Google Docs or wikis.These projects and performance-based activities are essential to the learning process in an online class environment. Peer interactions provide opportunities for learners to develop critical thinking skills and allow the instructor to gauge their understanding of course concepts.Small groups of students can be set up by facilitators, who in turn take responsibility for supporting and mentoring each other. These students may work in small groups that are similar to a study group.
  • Encourage Multidirectional Feedback: Learning in a group is similar to a four-way traffic signal. Just as traffic moves in and out in all directions, collaborative learning is an exchange of knowledge and ideas between group members. Discussion boards, forums, and Q&A sessions all allow for this kind of academic osmosis. Both CLI and the RTR projects have used discussion boards to encourage this type of feedback. Additionally, instructors may use social learning tools to ask learners to evaluate and justify their views, compare them with those of other group members or revise existing beliefs.To help encourage this type of feedback between learners, the CLI’s eLearning courses include a class roster that has the email contacts of all students, allowing them to contact each other, share, discuss and exchange feedback. The RTR Works! program uses polls as a way to generate feedback from teachers about issues they encounter while teaching sexual health courses to junior high and high school kids. Users receive feedback after answering a simple question, which helps them see how other teachers are dealing with similar issues. This information helps them feel united and part of a group. Polls are an efficient way to encourage user participation, as they allow learners to anonymously express their opinions.
  • Display Student Progress: This is generally done using game-based mechanics, where learners can earn badges, points, and achievements for activities they complete. A leaderboard is a great way to show student progress by making the scoreboard visible to all. This encourages students to pick up the slack and do their best, because everyone can see their achievements.

By incorporating these approaches, you can make a learning community a successful part of your next eLearning program and watch user engagement, knowledge acquisition, and retention increases by leaps and bounds.


Kuh, G. D. (2009). What student affairs professionals need to know about student engagement. Journal of College Student Development, 50(6), 683−706.

Pike, G. R., Kuh, G. D., & McCormick, A. C. (2011). An investigation of the contingent relationships between learning community participation and student engagement. Research in Higher Education, 52(3), 300−322.


October 19, 2016