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Creating and enhancing online learning communities

One of the strategic goals of Macquarie’s Centre for Open Education is to develop and support the Macquarie University virtual campus so that our students feel part of and connect to the wider university community. One of the questions we ask is: how do we ensure students studying units purely online become part of an energetic and engaged learning community?

It seems that there are three fundamental components to be considered for creating and enhancing online learning communities for students studying online and these include the role of the:

  • Teacher in facilitating online learning;
  • Student in co-creating their learning experiences; and
  • University in engaging with its community of online learners.

The role of the teacher in facilitating online learning

Students report a key factor which makes a difference to their learning when studying purely online is whether the tutor and/or unit convenor is regularly “in the unit” (Symonds et. al., 2010) or what is often referred to as online presence. Online presence may be achieved through posting updates in forums, encouraging or facilitating discussions, posting welcome messages, as well as active strategies through interactions to encourage commitment and motivation (Nehme, 2010).

Teachers could also consider “expressing their personality” in online learning contexts in order to positively affect the “emotional and social climate” of an online course (Northcote, 2010). This may help overcome any criticisms that online courses might be lacking in “warmth” (Anderson et. al, cited in Northcote, 2010). If teachers have the opportunity to express their personality in an online course, teacher and student humour may naturally arise, which has been documented as being helpful in face-to-face contexts (Garner, 2006, cited in Northcote, 2010).

The teacher or moderator is seen as having a vital role in affecting the quality of online interaction. In the online context the teacher’s role extends beyond the “cognitive coach” or “resource provider” to a role which is based “primarily on the significance of both teacher-student and student-student relationships” (Northcote, 2010). The role of the teacher in this environment evolves “from a source of authority to one of course designer, leader, teacher, catalyst, facilitator, coach, supporter and evaluator” (Rourke, 1999; Garrison et. al., 2000, cited in Carter, 2013).

Moore (1989) has stated that the teacher is especially valuable in responding to the learner’s application of new knowledge. Whatever self-directed learners can do alone for self-motivation and interaction with content presented, they are “vulnerable at the point of application”. They do not know enough about the subject to be sure that they are (1) applying it correctly, (2) applying it as intensively or extensively as possible or desirable, or (3) aware of all the potential areas of application. It is for “reality testing” and feedback that interaction with a teacher is likely to be most valuable; this is why online presence is so significant in online courses.

Teachers can learn more about these strategies via professional development workshops, webinars and seminars that are offered by the Learning & Teaching Centre, as well as by engaging in online training via iLearn. The Flexible Learning at Macquarie (FLaMe) program is another way that teachers can develop their units for flexible formats. Teachers who are interested in taking their professional development further can undertake postgraduate studies in higher education to further engage with e-learning curricula and pedagogies.

The role of the student in co-creating their learning experiences

Students report that being involved with a variety of activities is key to engaging them in the content of any online unit (Nehme, 2010). Extensive rich media materials (Symonds et. al., 2010), including visual materials, are important and may be accompanied by audio clips such as short podcasts for interest (in addition to online lectures). Online activities can be provided in asynchronous formats within iLearn units in order to maximise flexibility for students studying internationally in different timezones, as well as for those who need the convenience of studying when they choose to, due to professional or other commitments. Synchronous software tools can be used to increase the sense of engagement and presence in an online unit in real-time (Pelliccione & Broadley, 2010) by connecting students studying in various metropolitan and regional areas of Australia, and also overseas, where possible.

It is also important that students studying online are aware that although the content of a unit is in theory and practice delivered to them by their lecturers, they have an important role to play in co-creating their learning experiences. To assist with self-motivation, students can make use of online tools such as the StudyWISE program via iLearn, and students who study with Macquarie via Open Universities Australia also have access to a suite of resources via OUA including 24/7 online tutoring support.

Active participation in forums (whether optional or compulsory) can create a greater sense of connection to the University, no matter how far the physical distance from campus. Open Universities students are also encouraged to participate in the OUA Connect Library program, which is a collaboration with local libraries in metropolitan and regional areas to assist students, by providing useful additional resources and also to connect them with other distance education students studying within their local area.

The role of the University in engaging with its community of online learners

Finally, to ensure that all of the above factors are made possible, the University as a whole must ensure that its administration and support services, Faculties and Departments are sufficiently integrated so that those students studying online are made to feel as welcome and connected as any student who attends campus on a regular basis. The quality and quantity of services available online as equivalent to services available on campus (for example, first year experience/orientation, learning skills and support services) makes a difference as to whether the student feels they are actually a part of the University (as opposed to simply studying a unit or units with an institution via an online portal). This means not only the opportunity to occasionally attend key events on campus where possible (for example, careers or networking events) but also daily contact with the University community, including peers, tutors/lecturers and the University as a whole.

How else can we ensure that equivalent learning experiences are achieved for distance students, both now, and in the future online learning space?

How might distance students motivate themselves to study (and keep studying) online and be self-directed learners?

Beyond the use of rich media tools (as well as social media platforms), how else may we connect with students in the online space to increase their sense of being a part of the University community?

Lara Hardy  – Online Student Support Officer, Centre for Open Education (Off-campus Programs)

Lara acknowledges the contribution of Lynn Negus, Assistant Director (Acting) and Manager (Off-Campus Programs), Centre for Open Education. Inspiration for this article was taken from the Redefining Distance Education Online White Paper (Andrew Burrell et. al.), available on the Macquarie University Wiki


Carter, M. A. (2013). A Study of Students’ Perceptions of the Online Component of a Hybrid Postgraduate Course. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences84, 558-568 at 564.

Moore, M. G. (1989). Editorial: Three types of interaction, American Journal of Distance Education, 3:2, 1-7 at 3-4, DOI: 10.1080/08923648909526659

Nehme, M. (2010). E-learning and students’ motivation. Legal Education Review, 20, 223. Retrieved July 3, 2013, from

Northcote, M. (2010). Lighting up and transforming online courses: Letting the teacher’s personality shine. In C.H. Steel, M.J. Keppell, P. Gerbic & S. Housego (Eds.), Curriculum, technology & transformation for an unknown future. Proceedings ascilite Sydney 2010 (pp. 694-698 at 694).

Pelliccione, L., & Broadley, T. (2010). R U there yet? Using virtual classrooms to transform teaching practice. In C.H. Steel, M.J. Keppell, P. Gerbic & S. Housego (Eds.), Curriculum, technology & transformation for an unknown future. Proceedings ascilite Sydney 2010 (pp. 749-760 at 759).

Symonds, S., Jamieson, A.S., Bell, A., Wood, W., Patterson, L. and Ryan, A. (2010). Taking Sociology online: Boosting teacher presence and student engagement through rich media. In C.H. Steel, M.J. Keppell, P. Gerbic & S. Housego (Eds.), Curriculum, technology & transformation for an unknown future. Proceedings ascilite Sydney 2010 (pp. 948-950 at 949).