Sense of Community as a Valued Outcome for Electronic Courses, Cohorts, and Programs


Brent G. Wilson

University of Colorado at Denver

Paper written for VisionQuest PT3 Conference held in Denver, July 2001, supported by Tom Carroll, Barb McCombs, and Mary McNabb. Also online:


Online learners can develop a sense of community within their classes and cohort groups–including feelings of belonging; trust and safety; expected learning; and an obligation and desire to contribute to the group. To some degree, this sense of community can be designed for, supported, and assessed as a learning outcome, instrumental in meeting other individual and group learning objectives.


The World-Wide Web has been good for instructional designers and technologists. Not since the PC revolution has technology generated such interest for educators and learners. Unfortunately, the instructional-design profession was caught relatively unprepared to handle the possibilities afforded by the Web. Instructional design, as a field, arose out of concerns for individualized learning and instruction–not socially connected learning. Psychology, not anthropology or sociology, was the theory base underlying our instructional theories and models. Of course, the Web can be a delivery mechanism for downloading or presenting instructional tutorials, but that’s only touching the surface. The sheer quantity of hypertext-based information far exceeds earlier resources available, empowering individuals to direct their own learning. Most importantly, though, the Web presents an infrastructure wherein virtual worlds–in the form of new relationships, organizations, and communities–can begin to take shape.

Happily, the rise of the Web technology coincided with theoretical developments in education stressing meaning construction, social negotiation, and cultural support for learning. A key lesson of these sociocultural learning theories was:

Most people learn best as they construct meaning while participating in collaborative, authentic, purposive activities.

Rich and challenging activities require higher levels of student agency and self-directedness, which in turn require better and more extensive preparation and support. In other words, to reap the full benefits of what is often called "constructivist learning," students need to be better prepared to take responsibility and make decisions themselves. Constructivist learning requires more–not less–preparation on the part of students, teachers, and schools, and more cultivated sense of trust and belonging within school groups.

This is particularly true for online learning environments, where personal contact mostly takes the form of alphanumeric exchanges (email, chats, document sharing, etc.). To socially construct meaning and immerse oneself in a virtual environment, students must be committed, articulate, and considerate of each other’s needs (cf. Hill, 1999; Hill & Hannafin, 1997; Shin, 1999). Many online instructors have learned that their classes will rise or fall depending on the strong sense of trust, good will, and connectedness among participants. This is often referred to as a sense of community or belonging (Paloff & Pratt, 1999).

Regrettably, the term community, like learning or culture, is so broad and used in so many contexts, that its meaning when discussing online learning environments can be somewhat imprecise. A certain imprecision of theoretical primitives may be needed, but I intend in this short paper to try and sharpen the focus of community within networked learning environments such as online courses and programs. This should help researchers and practitioners get a better handle on a key ingredient to successful online learning experiences.

Scales of Groups

Almost always, people identify with multiple groups and institutions, e.g.: workgroup, employing institution, school, family, church, friends, etc. We participate within each group at different levels (immediate versus extended) with different group members (often peers, super-ordinates, and sub-ordinates). Different cultures (defined loosely) can be said to reside within communities or groups. In this sense, a culture refers to the set of artifacts and meanings (norms, expectations, tools, stories, language and activities, etc.) attached to a fairly stable group of people associating with each other. Thus each of us is, in a sense, multicultural and multilingual as we adapt to different cultural norms required by different groups and allegiances.

Applying this idea to learning groups, we find different cultures attached to different levels of a student’s experience:

• courses, assigned together for a fixed block of time;

• learning cohorts, sometimes formed to complete a set of courses together;

• academic programs and schools;

• professional groups, sometimes controlling licensure and standards;

• volunteer interest groups, now becoming popular on the Web.

Learning groups like these can cohere into communities if they exhibit sufficient permanence and a compelling purpose that attracts loyalty among its members. Even though, we should remember, not all communities are positive and healthy, the sense of belonging and connectedness associated with community is a positive trait that can be sought after in any learning situation.

Sense of Community: A Psychological Construct

Groups found in courses and cohorts can develop a coherence that supports learning of individual members. Whatever the level of formal organization, the structure should leave enough room for a self-organizing element, with leadership and expertise emerging from the ranks. Learning groups should provide a measure of familiarity and coherence, while exhibiting a tolerance for differences among learners. Members should share a sense of community, which could be defined as:

…a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together. (McMillan & Chavis, 1986, p. 9)

Adapting ideas from McMillan (McMillan, 1996; McMillan & Chavis, 1986) and Cristol, Lucking, and Rovai (2001), a sense of community among learners seems to include the following characteristics:

Belonging. Members identify with the group and feel a sense of buy-in (at least partially) to the group’s purposes and values.

Trust. Members feel safe within the group and believe and members will generally act for the good of the whole.

Expected learning. Members expect the group to provide value, particularly with respect to their learning goals.

Obligation. Members feel a moral imperative and desire to participate in activities and contribute to group goals.

This "sense of community" construct could be useful to instructors and program evaluators as they seek to understand the dynamics of learning interactions. Individual and group reports could be triangulated with qualitative and quantitative indicators of online interaction.

Designing for Community

Fostering a sense of community among learners can be tricky–It’s hard to design for, because, by nature, it is largely out of control of any strict authority or hierarchy. Rather, a positive sense of community is distributed among members of a cohesive group, the result of continuing communication and mutually beneficial exchange and collaboration. Group members need a certain structure, but they also need permission to innovate, to share emerging knowledge, and to solve problems collaboratively. Groups successful in creating a sense of community need a variety of forms and tools to facilitate communication and knowledge-sharing. They also need to create their own rituals (rites of passage and recognition; boundary-setting; renewal; etc.), rules of engagement, and habits of language and exchange. Respect and consideration need to be shown toward differences; indeed, how the group maintains a cohesive focus while accommodating differences among members–meeting this challenge seems to be at the heart of successful community creation.

Course- and program designers can build in a number of supports for community and social cohesion, including:

• meaningful and authentic exercises and requirements;

• extended opportunities for collaboration–not just via threaded discussions, but also in completion of projects and case responses;

• user-friendly communication tools; in the best case, moving beyond alphanumeric exchange;

• tools for organizing, evaluating, and publishing knowledge, available to all group members with expectations for use;

• effective means for resolving disagreements and making group decisions;

• respect for individual members, including flexible accommodation of multiple goals, foci, and learning needs, and room for private exchanges.

Currently, designs for online community are being refined and tested in numerous field settings as Web-based programs proliferate. We need continuing development and publishing of specific teaching models and frameworks that can be studied and shared through research–The profession thus emulates the community behaviors we are talking about.

Assessing Community

A fledgling construct like sense of community can be readily assessed using conventional attitude measures. Cristol, Lucking, and Rovai (2001) report the development and initial validation of an instrument to measure "sense of classroom community," a very similar construct. Presently the measure is a 40-item Likert scale, with four 10-item subscales for spirit, trust, interaction, and learning. I expect that a shortened measure could be used by practitioners in assessing sense of community within classes, cohorts, and other learning groups. While a reported sense of community does not of itself establish effective community, it could be a useful component in tracking and assessing group cohesiveness–which in turn seems to heavily contribute to the success of online learning programs.


Online learners deserve to participate in effective learning groups. Through group experiences, learners come to terms with differences in themselves and in others; they come to identify with other competent performers; and by modeling and observation, they learn some of the limitations and uses of their knowledge. A successful cohort experience in school sets the stage for positive group affiliations at future points of career and learning. Establishing a construct of "sense of community"–then routinely designing for, supporting, and assessing this outcome in online learning groups–this is a doable agenda that can significantly contribute to the experience of online learners.


Cristol, D., Lucking, J., & Rovai, A. (2001, April). Instrument development and sense of community. Presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle WA.

Hill, J. R. (1999).A conceptual framework for understanding information seeking in open-ended information systems. Educational Technology Research and Development, 47 (1), 5-27.

Hill, J.R., & Hannafin, M.J. (1997). Cognitive strategies and learning from the World Wide Web. Educational Technology Research and Development, 45 (4), 37-64.

Hill, J. R., & Raven, A. (2000). Online learning communities: If you build them, will they stay? ITFORUM Paper No. 46. Online: < >

McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14 (1), 6-23.

McMillan, D. W. (1996). Sense of community. Journal of Community Psychology, 24 (4), 315-325.

Paloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rovai, A. P., Lucking, R. A., & Cristol, D. (2001). Sense of Classroom Community Index. Unpublished attitude measure.

Shin, M. (1998). Promoting students' self-regulation ability: Guidelines for instructional design. Educational Technology, 38 (1), 38-44.