Designing and developing online learning communities

I’ve been studying the use of technology for learning in the last 12 months. Along the way, I have interacted with some of my course mates and industry peers about the practice of education technology, almost entirely online. The upshot of these activities is that I’m beginning to think that regular face time with individuals may not be necessary in order to create a community, not when current communication and information technologies allow me to connect with my peers and industry experts in an anytime, anywhere, everywhere mode. I have been building my personal learning network, but haven’t considered that in doing so, I am joining an online learning community – a very organic, very informal, loosely organised community.

As a result, I’ve started to delve into what makes for effective online learning communities, particularly those created especially for online courses (what Wilson, Ludwig-Hardman, Thornam and Dunlap (2004) called bounded learning communities).

The Australian National Training Authority (2003) lists these four key factors to consider when designing a successful online learning communities:

  • good planning to establish the key elements of the community, such as scope, purpose and member make-up
  • consideration given to how the community is to be maintained so it remains of value to members
  • choosing the most appropriate digital tools to support the community, taking into account the technology literacy of the community
  • consideration given to how members of the community are to be supported through learning and interacting in this new medium.

These factors are good starting points for an instructional designer looking to use online learning communities for online courses. It seems easy enough to establish an online learning community, but the challenge, I believe, is to develop the community so that it can be of value to its members. This is especially important for bounded learning communities. Without the right processes in place at the early stages of development of the learning community, there is a possibility that it may not work. Or if it does, it comes too late in the course for students to fully reap the rewards.

It seems quite possible that for bounded learning communities, the course instructor plays an important role in developing an online learning community. This is on top of setting up the learning community in the first place. Certainly, Murdock and Williams (2011) found that online students placed far more importance on the role of the course instructor to facilitate the development the learning community, than on-campus students. For whatever reason – perhaps because there isn’t that physical anchoring which being on campus provides – online students require a captain to help them navigate a course and motivate them to learn how to steer the ship in the agreed direction. At least, in the early formation phases of the learning community.

What then, should the instructor do to facilitate the development of the learning community? Extrapolating from research around learning communities and finding applications for this in online education, DiRamio and Wolverton (2006) suggested that connections, experience and responsibility are three key ingredients in the development of a learning community. DiRamio and Wolverton (2006) called this the C-E-R framework. Essentially, it translates to these following principles:

  1. Students feel connected to the course content and their peers.
  2. Students actively participate in discussions and/or activities, and share their experiences and learnings.
  3. Students are self-motivated and takes responsibility for their own learning, which includes the practice of active reflection. 

Therefore, the instructor should develop learning activities that are based on these principles to facilitate the development of the learning community.

However, Murdock and Williams (2011) cautioned against using a ‘one size fits all’ technique for online learning communities – likely because every student body is different. Therefore, the factors and principles outlined here are starting points from which an online learning community may be designed and developed. They are interesting starting points and should bring about some (hopefully) positive results.


Australian National Training Authority (2003). What are the conditions for and characteristics of effective online learning communities? Australian Flexible Learning Framework Quick Guides Series. Retrieved 26 April 2013 from

DiRamio, D., & Wolverton, M. (2006). Integrating Learning Communities and Distance Education: Possibility or Pipedream? Innovative Higher Education, 31(2), 99-113. doi: 10.1007/s10755-006-9011-y

Murdock, J., & Williams, A. (2011). Creating an Online Learning Community: Is it Possible? Innovative Higher Education, 36(5), 305-315. doi: 10.1007/s10755-011-9188-6

Wilson, B., Ludwig-Hardman, S., Thornam, C., & Dunlap, J. (2004). Bounded Community: Designing and Facilitating Learning Communities in Formal Courses. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 5(3). Retrieved 25 April 2013 from


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