Thursday, October 23, 2014

Using Social Media to Create a "Sense of Community"

Merriam-webster.com defines community in three ways: as "a united body of individuals," as “an interacting population…in a common location,” and as "a body of persons of common...interests scattered through a larger society." Tom Adamski, former CEO of Rosetta, describes communities in his TEDx talk (2012) as "an organic construct" that is "built off of the elements of our human nature: our wants, our desires, our psyche."

Communities are built naturally in a traditional education setting. Students interact face-to-face with other students in their classes and on campus. As they get to know their peers, they identify and connect with people with interests, challenges, and goals similar to themselves. Students can then turn to these connections for support and encouragement throughout the completion of their program and beyond.

These communities also serve as reminders that their studies should be a high priority. In a tight-knit class community, the absence of a student is not only noted by a professor but also by their peers. In classes where verbal discourse is encouraged or required, students must stay engaged in class conversation and up-to-date with the course materials or risk possible public humiliation.

Online education, unfortunately, does not offer students the same access to their peers as in traditional education. Communication is largely asynchronous. Students also do not have easy access to the personal characteristics of their classmates: their age, background, personality, interests, sense of humor, etc. This makes it incredibly difficult for students to connect and form communities in meaningful ways and that give them support (moral or otherwise) in their studies.

In cases where online classrooms fail to give students a sense of community, social media may be utilized to assist students with connecting with their classmates. Because communities are formed by individuals meeting in a common location, institutions can assist students in building communities by dictating the common ground where they will exist: Facebook, Google+, a university sponsored social media platform, etc. Profile features, similar to those found in Facebook, can be utilized to assist students with locating peers with similar interests and backgrounds (Ren et al, 2012). Centralized, free, and open discussion forums can be utilized to give students a common ground to meet and communicate.

Not all online students are comfortable with or have experience using social media. Instructors can further assist with institution-wide endeavors to build online student community through helping students to construct online communication literacy and social media skills. OnlineUniversities.com’s 2010 blog post 100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media In the Classroom contains a detailed list of activities instructors can add to their curriculum/coursework to assist students in building these skills.

Online communities have the potential to encourage student engagement and prevent attrition in online distance education programs. However, in order to take advantage of this potential, institutions must commit to offering students a virtual common ground to meet, as well as encourage students to use it. At the same time, because communities are built organically, institutions must allow students the personal space to use the virtual common ground and to make it their own. If institutions force students to participate in communities that they (the institution) feels is most necessary and beneficial, they risk low student engagement.


Adamski, T. (2012, December 26). Community – Making an old concept new [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AKfvRF_Mh8

Community. 2014. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved October 23, 2014, Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community

OnlineUniversities.com. (2010, May 4). 100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media In the Classroom [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2010/05/100-inspiring-ways-to-use-social-media-in-the-classroom/

Ren, Y. et al. (2012). Building member attachment in online communities: applying theories of group identity and interpersonal bonds. MIS Quarterly, 36(3), 841-864. Retrieved from http://www.misq.org/


  1. Cheryl,

    I have mentioned this before and my experience with using online communities is limited however, edomodo provides a great setting for students to interact with one another. The interface is definitely geared more toward K-12 however, it is set up a lot like facebook so student are able to quickly pick up on how to use the interface. Edmodo also allows teachers to moderate posts so students will not be tempted to harass each other in the community. I love using this program and I wish I had more opportunities to do so. Currently our students do not have their own personal computer in the classroom but in the next 2 years each student will be issued a device. I plan on using edmodo as an online community for students to access learning materials as well as engage in academic discussions with myself and other students.
    Thanks for Posting,

    Matt Finck

    1. Hi Matt! Thank you for your response, and for referring me to Edmodo. What a great social networking tool! This is a perfect example of how an institution can provide a common social networking platform to house and encourage online communities. Is this a tool that students are encouraged to use outside of class?

  2. Hi Cheryl,

    The American Association of Colleges and Universities, which is the premier research/policy association for higher education, has done and sponsored a lot of research around issues in traditional higher education. One of their most important initiatives concerns what are called "High Impact Practices", which are university courses, programs, or requirements that have a "high (positive) impact" on the educational experience of the traditional student.

    They are listed here: https://www.aacu.org/resources/high-impact-practices

    One of these is Learning Communities, which are courses (generally taken during the first year) in which all the students are co-enrolled; for example, all the students in a given section of College Writing I are also enrolled in a section of Intro Psych. Often these courses are scheduled back-to-back, and often the professors are expected/encouraged to collaborate in their assignments (so that a paper assignment for Intro Psych provides an opportunity for the professor in College Writing I to teach APA and perhaps some strategies for presenting research, etc.).

    I'll give references for the major publications on HIPS and LCs at the end of this post.

    So, to my point: one of the things I would like to investigate through the course of this program is whether there are HIPs for online learning -- or, if there are ways that the HIPs defined by the AAC&U can be translated into online practice. Learning communities would seem to me to be a natural place to start, particularly in undergrad programs, but also (I think) in graduate programs, particularly since one of the major headaches in setting up LCs -- the scheduling -- wouldn't be an issue in online learning.

    So, I think you have hit upon an important issue in online learning, and I think it is one that is worth exploring as the OL/DE enterprise continues to evolve.


    Brownell, J.E & Swaner, L.E. (2010). Five high-impact practices: research on learning outcomes, completion, and quality. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

    Kuh, G.D. (2008). High-impact education practices: what they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

    1. Alice, thank you for your post and for the information regarding learning communities. This idea of linking common or related content is fascinating and powerful. I know that some online programs offer cohorts to give students to opportunity to progress through the material with the same group of people. In OMDE 608, we read an article (referenced below) regarding ways librarians have worked with online instructors to build in activities that promote information literacy. Please let me know if you find another other examples. I'll look for examples as well and let you know what I find!

      George, L., & Frank, I. (2004). Beyond books - Library services to distance education students. In J. E. Brindley, C. Walti, & O. Zawacki-Richter (Eds.), Learner support in open, distance and online learning environments (pp. 135-143). Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg

      (You can find a PDF of this text if you search for the title in Google.)