Creating Community In Your Online Course

Creating Community In Your Online Course

One of the key components when it comes to inspiring meaningful learning that actually transforms lives is fostering an engaged, supportive community. Today we’re exploring the benefits of including a community as part of your online learning experience, and how you can support learner motivation, engagement and accountability. 

There’s lots of different definitions of community:

  • community is a group of people with a common purpose, shared values, agreement on goals.
  • community is a group of people whose members have made a commitment to communicate with each other on a more deep and authentic level.


What do you think about when you think about amazing online communities that you’ve been a part of? What made them amazing for you? Often what comes up is this idea of genuine connection, being authentic, having a shared sense of purpose and that this group of people are all going through the same experience together.


The reason why community is so important when we’re talking about online learning is that community is one of the key catalysts for deep learning. I’m not going to bore you with all the jargon about learning theory and how the brain works, but I can tell you is that the theory and the science behind it shows that people learn best in community.


Another reason why community is so important is that it allows you to see if learning is occurring. This ties back to when we were talking about learning outcomes and the idea of ‘how will you know if your students have actually achieved the outcome?”


Community allows you to engage with your learners, to see your learners, to see them engaging with each other and talking about what they are learning. And you’ll see very quickly if they’re actually learning what they’re supposed to be learning or what you want them to be learning. You’ll see how they’re engaging with the content through the activities (like we talked about in last week’s episode). You’ll be able to see: are they actually doing the activities, are they doing them properly, are they having an opportunity to ask questions and what sort of questions are they asking?

If you have a community where you can see all of your students interacting and it turns out they’re all hitting a roadblock in a similar place, that gives you an opportunity to step in there and help them through it. 


We’re going to talk about motivation first because if your students aren’t motivated then there will be no engagement and there will be no accountability because if they’re not motivated, they are not active in your community. 

When it comes to talking about motivation, I’m sure many of us have heard about the concept of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. 


Extrinsic motivation are those external motivations, motivating factors. The hope for reward or the fear of a consequence. One of the things we can do as teachers, as online course creators to encourage our students, to motivate our students is we can build these extrinsic motivating factors into our course. There are quite a few ways that you can do this, such as:

  • Point system for each time they post or engage in the group
  • Prompting questions that draw on their expertise
  • Prizes
  • Giveaways


It doesn’t matter how many things that we build into the course, how many challenges, how many points, systems, whatever it may be… If our learners aren’t intrinsically motivated, it’s going to be a lot harder to get them active in the community. Because if they’re not motivated to be active, then they’re not going to be interacting with those external challenges that we’ve created.


And one of the ways you can do this is by what we talked about in last week’s episode about learning activities. And that is the idea of a learning reflection, to help them to tune into their why.

And a really fun quick little exercise that you can do is the Five Why Exercise. The instructions are really simple – just keep asking why.

Example: Let’s say you have a course on instagram and you ask them, why did you sign up? The first time they answer, it’s probably going to be quite high level. It’s probably going to be something like, “oh, I just don’t feel like I know what I’m doing when it comes to instagram. I just feel really all over the place” and you ask them again, “okay, well why are you feeling all over the place?” It might be “oh, I don’t know what to post, or I don’t know how to design my feed in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing” Ask them again, “Why did you choose this course?” and perhaps the response will be, “Well, because I really want to know how to speak to my people.” “Why do you want to do that?” ” Because I want to be able to connect with them in an authentic way.”

This is a very convenient example because I just made it up, but what you can do is by pulling them through those layers of these whys, you pull them deeper and deeper into themselves. If they stay up on the surface of that motivation, it’s going to disappear very quickly. Whereas if you pull down and connect into that deep burning why, chances are you’re going to be able to keep them highly motivated.


Once you have helped guide your students towards a deeper understanding of their why, that is where the two concepts of engagement and accountability come in. A real community only exists when its members interact in a meaningful way that deepens their understanding of each other and also deepens their understanding of the content that they’re learning. And so it’s really important to have and foster this engagement, these interactions, and provide opportunities for students to interact with each other. Whether it’s through posts, whether it’s through reflection, whether it’s just creating a space where they know they can go and interact with each other.

Even the most motivated people need structure and a sense of accountability. By having a place where they can go and engage with each other, it also holds them accountable because they know that there are other people who are on their side that are going through a similar thing that they are. 


One of the ways that you can really foster the sense of accountability is by building it into your course design, whether you have small pods, whether you have cohorts, whether you put them together with accountability buddies… It’s important that they all partner up and they have other people they can check in with. It really encourages that sense of engagement because they are, at the very least, engaging with one other person on a regular basis. They’re constantly having these interactions and being able to engage with the material and engage with each other.


How do you as a teacher, as a leader, foster community for your online program?  The biggest thing that I will say is that you need to model the behaviour you want to see in your students because if you’re not engaging, they won’t either. If you’re not motivated to show up and be present in this learning community, chances are they’re probably not going to be as present either. 

It’s really important for you as a leader to create a brave space where people feel like they can be comfortable, they can be themselves, they can ask questions without judgment.


The final thing I want to say is that it’s very crucial for you to create a space that works for you and for your people. Don’t do what everyone else is doing because that’s the thing to do. For instance, just because some people have a Facebook community as part of their course, if you hate Facebook and you know your people aren’t a big fan of it, don’t have a Facebook community. If you love Slack and you think that that is the right space for you to create a community, go for it.

It’s more important that you have something that works for you and that you have something that works for your learners. Because if it’s a space, if it’s a technology, if it’s a platform that you’re going to want to show up on, on a regular, consistent basis, then that’s the key thing.

Please share your insights with me! My favourite place to hang out is Instagram. You can find me there @emily.mwalker . I love to answer any questions you may have and most importantly, I just love see what you’re working on.

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