The Role of the Instructor in Establishing Online Community

A large component of building a successful online course is to ensure the development of a supportive community. How does the role of the instructor impact the community in an online course?


What have I learned about how the role of the instructor impacts community in an online course?


The instructor sets the tone and expectations for the course. The online instructor is responsible for facilitating all aspects of the online course, from the personal and social to the academic (Paloff and Pratt, 1999 in Vesely, et al. 2007). It is up to the instructor to develop course activities that promote student collaboration and the development of community. Kearsley (2000) is cited in Conrad and Donaldson (2011) as writing,


The most important role of the instructor in online classes is to ensure a high degree of interactivity and participation. This means designing and conducting learning activities that result in engagement with the subject matter and with fellow students (p. 5).


According to Vesely, et al. (2007), students believe that instructor modeling is the most important thing that an instructor can do to build a sense of community in their online course. One way that instructors do this is through a sense of presence.


In a face-to-face course, it is obvious that an instructor is present because they are physically in the same space at the same time as their students. In the online, asynchronous environment it is not as obvious and instructors have to make more of an effort to be “seen”. According to Vesely, et al. (2007), the majority of students and instructors feel that it is harder to develop community online than it is in a face-to-face class. Not surprisingly, Rovai (2002b), in Vesely et al. (2007), found that students felt a stronger sense of community in courses with interactive dialogue. Instructors can promote active dialogue between students as well as engaging in discourse with students themselves. In Vesely, et al. (2007) students felt that instructor modeling is the most important aspect of developing a sense of community. In this case, modeling included participation, feedback, and communication. Communication included being available to discuss course and personal concerns via a variety of methods.


If all of the above, help to create a sense of community in an online course, then it stands to reason that doing the exact opposite will hinder the development of community. A disorganized course with little or no instructor presence and no opportunities for students to engage with one another is going to ensure that a sense of community does not develop. An instructor who publicly points out shortcomings in students’ work or in some other way derides or embarrasses the students is going to inhibit a sense of trust and discourage students from contributing.


Why did I choose this topic? How do I identify with it?


In terms of my own learning, it seemed more appropriate to focus on the role of the instructor. As a student, I know that in order to get the most out of a course, I need to be prepared to engage and collaborate with other students. As an instructor I know that I bear the greater responsibility for ensuring that the course is designed in such a way to promote student engagement and a sense of community and that I must be present in the course to facilitate this. What I have been eager to learn are the concrete strategies I can employ in my course design and facilitation.


What does this new learning mean to me? What new insights do I now have? How has my thinking changed?


Originally, I did not see the need to create a sense of community in my online courses. As someone who had never taken an online course as a student or taught an online course as an instructor, it never even occurred to me. I just assumed that students would log in, complete their assignments, take their exam and that would be it. Over time, I’ve seen how a lack of community and in particular, lack of instructor presence, can increase the stress level and dissatisfaction in a group of students. Conversely, I’ve seen the opposite occur when I make an effort to be present and establish community within the group.


My students are somewhat unique in that they take 5 face-to-face courses together and just one online course. This means that they know each other quite well outside of their online course and have already established friends, study groups and support networks. Each class usually also creates a Facebook page to communicate outside of class. Apparently they use this to communicate about their course work as well as their social lives. This is great except when they post pharmacology questions to each other on Facebook instead of in the Q&A forum in our course. As an instructor, I cannot see their Facebook page, so I don’t know if they are having issues or not.


How will I apply this new learning?


My goal is to encourage my students to develop a sense of community in my online course. I will do this through course design and facilitation of the course. There are a number of specific strategies I will use. Most of these I have already commented on in my previous journal as well as my community paper, however, they are important so I will repeat them here.


  1. Begin each course with a welcome e-mail.
  2. Educate students about the educational value of actively engaging and collaborating with other students.
  3. Post an introduction of myself to the introductions forum and request that each student do the same.
  4. Possibly include other icebreaker type of activity.
  5. Consider including a team building activity.
  6. Post my availability so students know how to reach me.
  7. Be available outside of traditional school hours when online students are most likely to request assistance.
  8. Create introductory video for each course and possibly for each unit within the course.
  9. Inform students of the expectations around class participation and engagement.
  10. Post rules of netiquette for online postings.
  11. Create discussion questions/statements that engage students.
  12. Participate in weekly discussions without inhibiting student participation.
  13. Facilitate students’ contributions to weekly discussion forums.
  14. Summarize each week’s discussions, highlighting key points.
  15. Post frequent announcements in the course announcements forum.
  16. Include a Q&A forum and educate students about the best use of this forum. Students will be encouraged to answer each other’s questions.
  17. Utilize Web 2.0 tools that increase instructor presence and encourage student collaboration.
  18. Once students are comfortable in the online environment, assign activities that give students the opportunity to work in pairs or small groups.
  19. Encourage student-student interaction.
  20. Consider incorporating the use of blogs and wikis into student assignments.
  21. Provide timely and meaningful feedback on students’ assignments.
  22. Solicit and respond to formative and summative feedback from students.





Conrad, R. & Donaldson, J. (2011). Engaging the Online Learner. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.


Vesely, P., Bloom, L., and Sherlock, J. (2007). Key Elements of Building Online Community: Comparing Faculty and Student Perceptions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 3 (3). Retrieved from:





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