Building an online community

Aerial view of the University of Sheffield campus, spread over the cityStudents experience university life from within a number of different ‘communities’ - the whole University, the department, social groups and clubs, and of course the degree programme and module.

The department therefore contributes to their overall sense of ‘belonging’ at University, particularly during the Coronavirus pandemic.

While much of this guidance is aimed at individual practitioner level, it is worth considering what measures will be taken to build a sense of community as a department, and to ensure that there is continuity throughout the semester.

Department level community building activities could include a series of informal social sessions such as online coffee sessions, inter-level quizzes and seminars so that students can interact with peers and colleagues outside their classes.

The Students’ Union and its societies are also important community creators. Consider working with them to run online forums and events for student activities that are open to all.

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Maintain a consistent and regular presence

"I think being as ‘present’ in your programme as you can is really important- showing students you are there helps to create that sense of a relationship with learners, and helps (crucially) to motivate learners to keep up with their course even when not surrounded by their fellow students."


Being present in your online space is one of the most important things you can do to build an online community. After all, if you are regularly present and engaged in the online classroom, your students are more likely to be too.

Try to create a schedule for meaningful and active involvement. Think about the amount of time you dedicate each week to teaching in-person and schedule the same amount of time to be visibly present and engaged with your digital class.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Start each week by sending students an overview of the coming week’s topic.
  • Check the discussion forums 2-3 times a week and respond to students to show you are reading their posts.
  • Host regular live sessions throughout the semester to connect with your students in real-time.
  • Respond to learners who contact you in a timely fashion and reach out to students who are struggling or disengaged.
  • Record short videos that react to things that are happening on the course - for example, clarifying any misconceptions about a class topic or assignment.
  • Hold online office hours according to a schedule or by appointment.

If you’d like to learn more about communicating with students, we offer some practical advice here.

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Allow your personality to shine through the materials

There are also ways of maintaining a teacher presence without having to make direct contact with students.

By capturing your personality and passion within the course materials, you can make your online space feel like a lively and welcoming place to be. This module introduction video sets the scene in an engaging manner.

Here are some of the places you can let your personality shine through:

  • Use video to record personal introductions - from office staff as well as academics - show the faces of the people they will be interacting with during their study.
  • Introduce yourself to your learners with some personal information beyond your academic profile. How did you get into this field? Why does this topic interest you? What parts of the course are you most looking forward to?
  • Use a conversational and friendly tone in all written materials - from assignment instructions to weekly announcements. Don’t be afraid to use humour and analogies.
  • Annotate your reading lists with helpful insights about the literature.
  • Share personal anecdotes and experiences within the academic content.
  • Use short formative quizzes with feedback written in your voice. This will position you as the student’s guide through the course material.
  • Consider giving video or audio feedback on assignments - your voice can add extra emphasis to key points and soften criticism that may be perceived negatively.

Use live sessions to check in with students

Your live teaching sessions should be used for interactivity rather than content delivery. Start each session with a ‘checking in’ activity that asks students how they are feeling.

These types of activities are an investment in the classroom community. They allow every student’s voice to be heard and show students that how they are feeling is important to you.

One technique you could employ is the rose and thorn check-in. This asks students to share a rose— a highlight, success or something positive that has happened — and a thorn, a challenge experienced or something they could use more support with.

Create an online coffee shop

Host a virtual coffee shop where students and faculty can get to know each other, discuss off-topic subjects or share study tips. This might be a specific thread on a discussion forum or a live hangout scheduled at a recurring time. In order to engage as many students as possible it is best to consult with student representatives as to when these activities should be scheduled for and in what format.

Arranging loosely structured, optional platforms for social networking and connectivity, can build community and help students feel less isolated. It also gives you an opportunity to find out how students are doing in the class and adapt your approach if necessary. This is the sort of interaction that happens organically in a face-to-face classroom, but that you must purposefully cultivate in an online course.

Providing some space for students to share their views about studying online can help students to feel ‘heard’. Students typically respond positively by offering their own tips and advice.

The School of Law has set up Google Currents community pages for each of their subject areas (related programmes are grouped together). These are social spaces for students to get to know each other. They also have a Google Current page for each module where students can post queries / comments about work relating to the module and staff can post generic feedback, additional resources etc. Find details of how to set these up here.

An alternative forum for project based learning is Make:Projects. Pete Mylon from MEE uses this as a way of building community around shared projects.

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Use peer-learning activities

Small group activities are often forgotten in the transition to digital learning. However, during times of isolation, this type of interaction can help students to build connections and strengthen peer relationships. This is particularly important when students are new to the University and will not have all of the usual student interaction to help them to settle in.

Peer learning can be encouraged both within the curriculum and outside of the curriculum in more informal settings. Examples within the curriculum could include embedding team-based learning by using breakout groups to encourage discussion in Blackboard Collaborate, team quizzes and competitions, or meeting tutees as a tutor group regularly as well as individually. There are more ideas for effective group work in our Managing Group Work resource.

Alternatively, peer learning can be encouraged informally, so that students can study and develop their understanding of the materials together outside of their contact time. Direct your students to this guidance on setting up a study group. Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) schemes supported by 301 Academic Skills Centre are designed to run alongside a module or programme, fostering cross-year support and community within a programme, with trained student facilitators from higher years running interactive and informal study sessions for newer students in small groups.

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Build community through discussion forums

Discussion forums are a great tool for building a class community, however, it is unwise to think, “if I build it, they will come”. Here are some tips for encouraging engagement with a discussion forum:

Start with an icebreaker

Use an icebreaker discussion so that your students can practice using the discussion functionality. Good icebreakers are easy to engage with, regardless of existing knowledge. Here are some icebreaker examples from Gary Wood, Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Post model contributions

A blank forum can be pretty intimidating, especially towards the beginning of the semester when this type of interaction is new to many students. Try to kick off early course discussions with your own thoughts, modelling the type of contribution you’d like to see.

Prompt discussion early

Get discussion going early in the week by asking students to share their initial thoughts on the topic. Early reflections like this set in motion a higher level of engagement leading to more insightful discussions as the week progresses.

Try to prompt at least one or two student responses on Day 1 of every activity.

Use generative discussion prompts

Well designed discussion prompts can help to stimulate conversation. These prompts need to allow for a multitude of potential answers. If not, the conversation will end very quickly as one learner provides a correct answer.

Prompts that encourage learners to apply the knowledge to their personal context can help start rich learning conversations as learners share experience and insight.

A discussion is an effective way for learners to demonstrate mastery of the course learning objectives so it can be useful to consider how the discussion question aligns with your learning objectives. This discussion prompt framework may help you to come up with appropriate questions.

Set expectations and minimum requirements

Set expectations and minimum requirements.

Establish a minimum posting requirement to require student participation. Encourage students to respond to each other, in addition to responding to the main prompt.

Share this guidance for students to help them get the most out of discussion boards: 301: Online communication

Beware hyper-responsiveness

Don’t feel you have to respond to every post. This can actually limit the time that other students spend processing and reflecting on the discussion, and can prematurely ‘move’ the debate forward.

It can be helpful to allow for a debate to evolve around one or two similar points, so that the tutor’s response can be structured around coherent sets of issues.

Open up conversations to other students

Contribute comments which summarise what learners have posted, as well as follow-up questions that stimulate further discussions. Provide follow- up responses that ask for more information or more in-depth consideration.

Align discussion topics to assignment tasks

Align your discussion topics directly to the assignments so that students are better motivated to engage with them. Consider providing a selection of discussion questions and let your students choose from amongst them.


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Further information

Faculty of Arts and Humanities Online Communities Guidance

Student Engagement at a distance

Faculty of Social Sciences - Student Communities minisite

Ideas for...Community Building

301: Online Communication

Discussion board activity ideas

Extensive guidance on discussion boards from Edutopia

Equity Unbound Activities for building community

JISC Digital Pedagogy Toolkit