Community Building in Online and Hybrid (HyFlex) Courses
What is community building and why is it important in online and hybrid (HyFlex) classes? How do I build community in my online and hybrid courses? This research-informed guide addresses these questions with a particular focus on synchronous community building strategies. At the same time, however, many of the community building strategies presented in this guide can also be adapted to the asynchronous modality. Considerations for asynchronous engagement are outlined at the end of the guide.
The CTL is here to consult with instructors on further exploring community building strategies. To schedule your one-on-one consultation, please contact the Faculty Programs and Services team at CTLfaculty@columbia.edu.
On this page:
- What is Community Building?
- Why Build Community in Online/Hybrid Courses?
- Community Building Strategies for Online/Hybrid Courses
- Social Icebreakers
- Metacognitive Activities
- Content-based Activities
- Considerations for Asynchronous Modality and Large Courses
- Columbia Resources
- Additional Resources and References
What is Community Building?
A community is a supportive social group in which members feel a sense of belonging and share a common interest, experience, or goals (Berry, 2017; Brown, 2001; McMillan & Chavis, 1986; Rovai, 2003). Particularly in a learning community, members (both students and instructors) engage in collective inquiry and provide each other with academic and social support (Lai, 2015; Shrivastava, 1999).
Community building in the classroom is about creating a space in which students and instructors are committed to a shared learning goal and achieve learning through frequent collaboration and social interaction (Adams & Wilson, 2020; Berry, 2019; McMillan & Chavis, 1986). Community building applies to a variety of classroom contexts including physical and online learning environments, and community building in the online learning space especially requires intentional planning and deliberate pedagogical choices. Cultivating and reinforcing positive interactions among classroom participants is particularly noted as an essential component of an online learning community (Dolan et al., 2017; Moore, 1973; Moore & Kearsley, 1996).
Why Build Community in Online/Hybrid Courses?
Community building is vital to active student engagement in a course across all modalities. Particularly in online or hybrid courses, community building can perhaps play even a greater role, because it can help reduce feelings of isolation that students may experience due to the physically distant nature of online learning (Dolan et al., 2017; Hara & Kling, 2000; Northrup, 2002; Rovai et al., 2005). For this reason, intentional and purposeful approach to community building is necessary in the online or hybrid learning environment.
Research shows that when students feel they belong to their academic community, that they matter to one another, and that they can find emotional, social, and cognitive support for one another, they are able to engage in dialogue and reflection more actively and take ownership and responsibility of their own learning – and this sense of community is conducive to successful student learning especially in online settings (Baker, 2010; Berry, 2019; Brown, 2001; Bush et al. 2010; Cowan, 2012; Dolan et al., 2017; Lohr & Haley, 2018; Sadera et al., 2009).
In particular, the community of inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, 2009; Garrison et al., 2010) is widely noted for its three elements – social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence – that are deemed critical for fostering a community of actively engaged participants.
The interplay of the social presence (participants’ ability to establish themselves as real/authentic selves in their academic community), cognitive presence (participants’ ability to construct meaning and confirm understanding), and teaching presence (instructor’s ability to design, facilitate, and provide direct instruction) cultivates a community that provides optimal support for student learning in the online or hybrid learning space. Deliberate community building is therefore a key component of successful student engagement and performance in class.
Community Building Strategies for Online/Hybrid Courses
This section provides community building strategies that are organized in three broad categories: social icebreakers, metacognitive activities, and content-based activities. These strategies are presented as suggestions and are not meant to be prescriptive; adapt and modify these example activities according to your unique teaching context.
To ensure the successful implementation of community building strategies in your course, consider your context, the technologies available to you and your students, and what must be prepared and established prior to students interacting and collaborating with each other as a whole class or in small groups.
|Preparing for community building in a fully online or hybrid (HyFlex) course||Fully online course||Hybrid (HyFlex) course|
|Set up community agreements to establish mutual expectations for participating in whole class interaction (e.g., turning off mics when not speaking, using nonverbal feedback buttons, taking turns to speak, etc.)||✓||✓|
|Check the technology in advance. Ensure that the features you plan to use are enabled in Zoom and are working.||✓||✓|
|Test the classroom mics, speakers, and cameras to ensure they are all working properly so that in-class students and online students can smoothly interact with each other.||✓|
|Have contact information of classroom tech support handy so that you can request technical help when needed.||✓|
|Setting up small group interactions in a fully online or hybrid (HyFlex) course||Fully online course||Hybrid (HyFlex) course|
|If possible, ask in-class students to bring their electronic devices and earphones.||✓|
|Determine group size and composition.||✓||✓|
|Group students so that each group consists of a mix of in-class and online students; put each group in a breakout room, and instruct in-class students to spread out in the classroom to minimize background noise during small group interaction.||✓|
|Create Zoom breakout rooms – automatically assigned, manually assigned, or self-selected by students. For more detailed instructions on managing breakout rooms, see All You Need to Know About Using Zoom Breakout Rooms.||✓||✓|
|Consider setting up a collaborative document or other digital tools in advance so that students can take notes together.||✓||✓|
What are social icebreakers? Social icebreakers are instructional tactics designed to facilitate rapport building with students, foster a safe learning environment, and relieve inhibition or tension in the class (Chlup & Collins, 2010; Fisher &Tucker, 2004; McGrath et al., 2014).
Why would I use social icebreakers? What do they achieve? Social icebreakers are especially important in online learning because students do not have the affordances of face-to-face interaction in a traditional classroom setting (McGrath et al., 2014). Through icebreakers, students are able to not only warm up to each other but also familiarize themselves with the technological tools that are often used in online learning spaces (e.g., breakout rooms, instant chat, discussion boards, polls, etc.) (Fisher & Tucker, 2004). When the anxiety or pressure of online learning eases, students are more willing to participate in class and actively engage in learning.
When would I use social icebreakers? Social icebreakers often occur at the beginning of the semester, but they need not only be a one-time event on the first day of class. In fact, using icebreakers at various times throughout the course would allow students to continue the community building process and allow for more substantive interaction among themselves.
(Barkley et al., 2014, p. 59)
(Barkley et al., 2014, p. 60)
|Soundtrack of your life||
(Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2010, p. 62)
|Where are you from?||
(McGrath et al., 2014)
|Your favorite quote||
(Chlup & Collins, 2010)
What are metacognitive activities? Metacognition refers to knowledge about one’s own thoughts, including the cognitive process and regulation involved in directing one’s learning (Ambrose et al., 2010; Akyol & Garrison, 2011; Dunlosky & Medcalfe, 2009; Lai, 2011). Metacognitive activities (e.g., self-assessment, self-explanation, monitoring, revising, etc.) allow students to reflect on and regulate their own learning. For a more detailed explanation, see the CTL resource on Metacognition.
Why would I use metacognitive activities? What do they achieve? Metacognitive activities encourage students to become more self-aware as critical thinkers and problem solvers. When students are aware of their own learning process, their learning is enhanced (Bransford et al., 1999; Lin, 2001). For the purpose of community building, allowing students to collaboratively engage in metacognitive activities provides them with opportunities to practice metacognitive skills together and build shared learning experiences in their academic community. By collectively reflecting on and regulating their own learning process, students learn to think critically and to clearly communicate their thoughts to others.
When would I use metacognitive activities? We encourage you to use metacognitive activities frequently and consistently throughout your course in order to serve students and their learning needs. It is important to not only help students articulate their own thinking but also establish a shared understanding of the goals for metacognitive activities. Therefore, create opportunities early in the course to have a conversation with students about the value and usefulness of metacognitive activities and continue the conversation throughout the course.
|Personal definition of learning||
(Barkley et al., 2014, p. 61)
|Biographical writing prompts||
(Lohr & Haley, 2018)
|Goal ranking and matching||
(Angelo & Cross, 1993, as cited in Barkley et al., 2014, pp. 62-63)
(Angelo & Cross, 1993; Tanner, 2012)
What are content-based activities? Content-based activities involve the course’s subject matter. Community building can occur not only through informal, casual interactions but also through discipline-specific conversations in collaboration with peers. By engaging in activities that are geared toward achieving their shared learning objectives, students motivate each other to learn and create a safe learning environment for themselves.
Why would I use content-based activities? What do they achieve? Content-based activities serve the purpose of achieving both community building and content learning objectives of the course. By encouraging students to engage with course content in a collaborative manner with their peers, content-based activities help build a learning community with diverse opportunities for peer-to-peer interactions. Through such peer interactions, students are able to recognize the diversity in perspectives and learn the value of collaboration.
When would I use content-based activities? Content-based activities can occur at any point of the semester as long as they are implemented with clear goals and guidelines: at the beginning of the semester, content-based activities can orient students to the general subject matter; in the middle of an ongoing course project or course unit, they can facilitate student inquiry and learning; and at the end of a major assignment or course unit, they can be used for collaborative reflection.
(Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2010, pp. 64-65)
|Favorite content sharing||
(shared by a member of the Columbia teaching community at the Hybrid & Online Teaching Institute)
(Barkley et al., 2014, p. 63)
|Search for real-life examples||
(Palloff & Pratt, 2007, p. 167)
(Palloff & Pratt, 2007, p. 181)
Considerations for Asynchronous Modality and Large Courses
While the community building strategies presented thus far focus on synchronous live sessions, they can be adapted and used in the asynchronous modality. Also, because community building can be challenging for large courses, some adjustments may be necessary for the community building strategies to be more useful and practical for large courses in online or hybrid settings. Below is a list of general considerations for modifying the community building strategies for different pedagogical contexts.
- Assign a community building activity to students to complete in their own time.
- Specify the deadline for completion.
- Ask students to share their completed activity on a discussion forum and comment on each other’s post (e.g., discussion boards on CourseWorks, shared Google document or slides)
- Utilize your course’s learning management system (e.g., CourseWorks) to extend the class community to the asynchronous platform. For example, on CourseWorks, consider creating group discussions and arranging regular asynchronous group interactions throughout the semester.
- Regularly check in on students and make sure to maintain your teaching presence online. Some strategies include:
- Providing a verbal summary of the community building activity in class.
- Commenting on student posts online.
- Emailing the highlights of the completed community building activity.
- Consider ways to make student interactions more intimate and workload manageable.
- If you ask students to participate in icebreaker activities or other group assignments, consider putting students into the same groups each time so that they have the opportunity to become acquainted with each other in a smaller group setting throughout the semester.
- If you ask students to upload posts on discussion boards on CourseWorks or another online platform and read and comment on each other’s posts, consider creating group discussions so that students are expected to read and engage with only their group members’ posts.
- After an in-class breakout activity, having every student group report back to the whole class may be too time-consuming if there are too many small groups. The following are some alternative suggestions for the whole-class debrief.
- Rather than having every student group report back, randomly select groups to share their breakout discussions.
- Have students share their group discussion summary in the chat and read some out loud as the chats come in.
- If you ask students to take notes in a collaborative document during their breakout activity, skim through their notes and highlight some of them by identifying particular emerging themes/patterns and reading them out loud to the whole class.
- If students engage in a problem-solving activity in small groups, quickly assess their learning with a polling tool (e.g., Zoom poll, PollEverywhere).
- Assign students a community building activity in advance so that they can complete it before coming to class. Use Google Forms or other online survey tools to collect their responses. In class, use the survey results to facilitate a whole class discussion. You could also use a polling tool (e.g., Zoom poll, PollEverywhere) to invite students’ participation during class.
Columbia University Resources
- Active Learning for Your Online Classroom: Five Strategies Using Zoom
- Creating an Effective Online Instructor Presence
- Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia:
- Hybrid & Online Teaching Institute for Faculty:
- Module 2: Welcoming students to Online Learning and Creating Community
- Module 3: Engaging Students in Active Learning Online
- Hybrid/HyFlex Teaching & Learning
- Building Community as We Teach Online (Steve Safier, from the Discipline of Human Capital Management at the School of Professional Studies, shares his five strategies for building community in the online environment)
- Building Community in a Remote Classroom (Haeny Yoon, from the Department of Early Childhood Education at Teachers College, applies principles such as “joy” and “play” to her online teaching)
Bruff, D. (2020, June 11). Active learning in hybrid and physically distanced classrooms. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.
Center for Teaching and Learning. (2020, July 22). Building community in a flex-hybrid course: Series overview. Champlain College.
LSA Technology Services. (2020, July 30). Options for building remote and hybrid student community. University of Michigan.
McMurtrie, B. (2020, October 7). The new rules of engagement. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- McMurtrie, B. (2020, July 9). Teaching: How to engage students in a hybrid classroom. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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Adams, B., & Wilson, N. S. (2020). Building Community in Asynchronous Online Higher Education Courses Through Collaborative Annotation. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 49(2), 250-261.
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Cowan, J. E. (2012). Strategies for developing a community of practice: Nine years of lessons learned in a hybrid technology education master’s program. TechTrends, 56(1), 12-18.
Dolan, J., Kain, K., Reilly, J., & Bansal, G. (2017). How do you build community and foster engagement in online courses?. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2017(151), 45-60.
Dunlap, J. C., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2010). Hot for teacher: Using digital music to enhance students’ experience in online courses. TechTrends, 54(4), 58-73.
Dunlosky, J. and Metcalfe, J. (2009). Metacognition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Fisher, M., & Tucker, D. (2004). Games online: social icebreakers that orient students to synchronous protocol and team formation. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 32(4), 419-428.
Garrison, D. R. (2009). Communities of inquiry in online learning. In Encyclopedia of Distance Learning, 2nd Edition (pp. 352-355). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2010). The first decade of the community of inquiry framework: A retrospective. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1-2), 5-9.
Hara, N., & Kling, R. (2000). Student distress in a web-based distance education course. Information, Communication & Society, 3(4), 557-579.
Lai, E.R. (2011). Metacognition: A Literature Review. Pearson’s Research Reports.
Lai, K. W. (2015). Knowledge construction in online learning communities: A case study of a doctoral course. Studies in Higher Education, 40(4), 561-579.
Lin, X. (2001). Designing metacognitive activities. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(2), 23-40.
Lohr, K. D., & Haley, K. J. (2018). Using biographical prompts to build community in an online graduate course: An adult learning perspective. Adult Learning, 29(1), 11-19.
McGrath, N., Gregory, S., Farley, H., & Roberts, P. (2014). Tools of the trade: breaking the ice with virtual tools in online learning. In Proceedings of the 31st Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education Conference (ASCILITE 2014) (pp. 470-474). Macquarie University.
McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 6-23.
Moore, M. G. (1973). Toward a theory of independent learning and teaching. The Journal of Higher Education, 44(9), 661-679.
Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. G. (1996). Distance education: A system view. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Northrup, P. T. (2002). Online Learners’ Preferences for Interaction. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 3(2), 219–226.
Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
Rovai, A. P. (2003). In search of higher persistence rates in distance education online programs. The Internet and Higher Education, 6(1), 1-16.
Rovai, A. P., Wighting, M. J., & Liu, J. (2005). School climate. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6(4), 361-374.
Sadera, W. A., Robertson, J., Song, L., & Midon, M. N. (2009). The role of community in online learning success. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2), 277-284.
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Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113-120.
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The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of resources and tools for instructional activities.