Creating Online Communities in Education

My daughter has experienced onsite learning in public school (grades 1-2) and online learning for private school (grades 3-6) and public school (grade 7 during COVID). This has left her with a very clear understanding of her needs and ability to articulate her desires.

When I approached her with the Fall 2020 onsite vs online options that her new private school is offering, she had some questions.

  • Will I be able to video or speak with my teachers every day?
  • Will I be communicating each day with the same group of students?
  • Can I switch back to onsite if I don’t like their structure?

These questions struck me as very telling, more so because they were also her requirements, not mine or someone else’s. She knows, accepts, and dislikes the onsite requirements of wearing a mask all day and being socially distanced from other humans 100% of the time. She also knows the daily community experience is an absolute must for her to accept online as an option.

She wants community. As adults, do we know and demand that as well?

Relevant beyond COVID

Professors converted their onsite learning experiences to online during March and April quickly. Thus begun my blog series of Moving Onsite Learning to Online: Avoid these Traps! A lovely result was hosting several calls from various industries in my free 1-hour COVID disruption sessions. One conversation about how we can create effective online communities stood out. The point was that COVID merely pushed us harder and faster into trajectory we were already on … online learning. Even if there was a magical vaccine tomorrow, there are still questions that must be answered for future learning efficacy. One of the big ones is how we can create real communities with real connections in the online space.


As mentioned in my article Creating Success for Online Collaboration, structure is crucial for any real results or change from online discussion. Loosely designed discussion or even chaotic collaboration in the onsite space can still result in inspiration and change for individuals. Perhaps it’s not optimal, depending on the goals. However, it’s not a complete waste either. A lack of real structure in the online space, though, results in lost information and disconnected humans.

That same article provided facilitation methods for structuring online discussions, followed by another one that provided strategies for facilitating online collaboration. That is very different than building community. What are the structures and strategies for facilitating community building in the online space?

1-1 Relationships

The first kind of connection necessary for real community is the 1-1 relationship between the facilitator and the learners. I’m not referring to the “introduction circle”. Rather, I am referring to the human bridge that has to be intentionally built.

  • Phone each learner in advance.
    PHONE???? Are we in the dark ages?
    OK, fine, text or email if you must, but the voice is extremely powerful. Don’t dismiss it!
  • Introduce yourself and ask them what excites them about this upcoming learning experience.
    Set the positive tone early. COVID especially has already made everything feel overwhelming. You can emotionally disrupt that overwhelm.
  • Ask them what they are worried about from this course … anything from logistics to content.
    Learn early what they’re worried about. Keep notes for each student so that you can respond more effectively across the learning time span.

Building that human bridge immediately increases their retention and motivation. While onsite professors may have 100+ students in the room, doing online learning well should reduce that to <30. Now you have a group you can nurture rather than count. And really, even 50 students x 10 minutes is only an 8-hour day, or 2 hours a morning the week before. Our job is teaching them, not perfecting content that may or may not be retained.

Virtual Lean Coffee

Now that you have a human connection, we need to create an intellectual playing field to kick off the learning experience. It can be easy to data dump on learners, especially online. However, the Lean Coffee method allows you to facilitate a structure for them to determine the agenda within the scope that you offer.

Facilitated On-Going Discourse

Lastly, any online community needs consistency and continuity. We need the good practices of providing relevant chunks over reams of information and authentic assessments over validating information. We also need regular discussion that keeps the topics stitched together.

This can be structured and facilitated in a number of ways, as described in the following two articles:

The bottom line is that your learners consistently connect both verbally and visually. Even if you do have an asynchronous discussion forum, real community happens when the brain recognises real humans. The poor communication, insensitivity, and trolling on social media shows how words on a screen are not enough for connection. At the very least, using Lean Coffee to kick off the on-going discourse helps keep asynchronous threads connected.

Questions for Next Steps

  • What is the next learning experience you’re facilitating?
  • How are you engaging with the learners?
  • Do you have a structured community plan for the learners?
  • Do you have a facilitation strategy for discussions?

If you are uncertain about these questions and want more than the resources provided in this article, don’t hesitate to work with me in one of the following ways:

  • Schedule a meeting with me! Select the COVID-19 Disruption meeting to get an one-hour free consult on converting your onsite course into online learning. You can always buy more time by the hour.
  • Buy a coached virtual workshop with me to design your course with a structured, repeatable process.


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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.