2. Definition of Learning Community

2. What is a Learning Community?

Increasingly we are seeing a trend to move beyond social networking on the Web towards the building learning communities (see Reynard, 2009). In this context, a learning community is the vehicle through which learning occurs online. Members depend on each other to achieve the learning outcomes for the course. Without the support and participation of a learning community, there is no online course (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Fulton and Riel (1999) defines a learning community as a group of individuals who are interested in a common topic or area and who engage in knowledge-related transactions as well as transformations within it. Learning communities are held together by four cohesion factors: function, identity, discursive participation, and shared values (Woodruff, 1999).

  • function: the goal or purpose of the community
  • identity: the validation of 'self' through membership
  • discursive participation: the means by which the members' discourse helps to advance the function or goal of the community
  • shared values: the global beliefs held by members which unite them and help to promote an emerging discourse

Palloff and Pratt (1999) list the following desired outcomes that indicate that an online community has been forming:

  • Active interaction involving both course content and personal communication
  • Collaborative learning evidenced by comments directed primarily student to student rather than student to instructor
  • Socially constructed meaning evidenced by agreement or questioning, with the intent to achieve agreement on issues of meaning
  • Sharing of resources among students
  • Expressions of support and encouragement exchanged between students, as well as willingness to critically evaluate the work of others

Similarly, the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (2009) provides an excellent set of principles and guidelines for develop a learning community at: http://www.cirtl.net/pillars/learning_communities.

Strategies for Building a Learning Community

Palloff and Pratt (1999) suggest some basic steps that must be taken in order to build a virtual community:

  • Clearly define the purpose of the group.
  • Create a distinctive gathering place for the group.
  • Promote effective leadership from within.
  • Define norms and a clear code of conduct.
  • Allow for a range of member roles.
  • Allow for and facilitate subgroups.
  • Allow members to resolve their own disputes.

The key elements to the creation of a learning community are as follows: honesty, responsiveness, relevance, respect, openness, and empowerment (Palloff and Pratt, 1999). When the instructor creates an online environment for participants in which these elements are present, group members can feel safe in expressing themselves without fear of how they will be perceived, allowing for active, rich discussion. Other specific strategies for building a learning community include:

  • Posting introductions and learning expectations
    Students should be able to introduce themselves and begin to know each other. However, an important addition to the process of getting to know each other is the sharing of expectations for the course.
  • Encouraging comment on introductions
    Not only does this practice enable students to begin opening up to each other but it begins creating a safe space in which they can interact. 
    All of us need acknowledgment and need to feel welcomed into a new situation. The promotion of human connection allows students to begin forming the relationships that are the basis for collaborative learning. Acknowledgment of contributions at this stage is particularly crucial due to the fragile nature of this stage of development.
  • Negotiating guidelines
    It is important to engage students in discussion of the guidelines posted by the instructor at the beginning of the course. The discussion allows participants to take responsibility for the way they will engage with the course and come to shared agreement about the ways they will interact with each other (Palloff & Pratt, 1999).
  • Creating a space for non-classroom-related interaction
    This space helps the class atmosphere become congenial and collegial if students can interact with each other about more than simply the class material and assignments (Online learning communities by Bauman athttp://tcc.kcc.hawaii.edu/previous/TCC 1997/bauman.html).


Fulton, K., & Riel, M. (1999). Professional development through learning communities. Edutopia, 6(2), 8-10.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.

Woodruff, E. (1999). Concerning the cohesive nature of CSCL communities. In C. Hoadley & J. Roschelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the Computer Support for Collaborative Learning (CSCL) 1999 Conference.

Kahn, T.(1999, May 1). A New Model of Education: Designing Virtual Communities for Creativity and Learning, Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/designing-virtual-communities-creativity-and-learning