TonyReeves This is a guest post by Tony J. Reeves. It was originally posted on Tony’s blog on May 17, 2013. Tony is the Program Manager in Digital Pedagogy and a Learning Technologist at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, the United Kingdom.

Why would you want to create an online learning community? Social media? Blogging? What benefits to learning can be brought by chatting away at all hours of the night?

Well, for the generation of students now entering university, social online interaction is as much a part of the fabric of their lives as their t-shirts. Social media is arguably one of the ultimate manifestations of the social constructivist forms of learning first proposed by Vygotsky (1978). If learning is a process of constructing understanding through discussion with others, then it’s hard to deny that social media has increased learning opportunities exponentially. And whether instructors choose to explore these opportunities or not, students will continue to access information through social channels in order to enhance their learning.

So how can online communities and social media benefit teaching and learning in higher education? Here are four reasons:

1. They help students adjust to university life

The transition from high school to college can be a difficult journey. Some students experience a feeling of “culture shock” (Oberg, 1960). Coming from a range of different background, students’ responses to their new learning environments and contingent upon their individual psychologies. Students will only get the most out of their university experience and become successful, independent learners – akin to what Maslow (1954) described as “self-actualization” – if their basic needs are met.

Building an online community around students’ experience provides them with a supportive social structure, and helps to cultivate a sense of belonging in the crucial early stages of a course. This can be a key factor in improving retention, particularly for international students who are grappling with unfamiliar surroundings (Sovic, 2008). Discussion communities can help show students that they are not alone, and that they share common concerns with their peers.

2. They increase peer-supported learning

An online community makes it possible for students to form friendships quickly, overcome issues of shyness and confidence. It provides a forum where students can ask questions and share information outside of the classroom. Students support each other through answering each other’s questions. This also reduces the amount of queries sent on to the instructor.

Cultivating an online community around a course also enables students from all cohorts to interact. This not only improves inter-year communication, but also provides opportunities for more experienced students to mentor newer students. Sophomores and juniors years are often happy to share their experiences with the new cohort. This behavior follows the Wegner’s communities of practice model (1998) in which new members of a community gradually move towards its center as they grow in confidence and experience.

3. They help instructors to monitor engagement and enable them to quickly diagnose problems

An online community allows an instructor to monitor student engagement and to identify students who might be having difficulty with their work. Although not all members of an online community participate regularly in discussion, the tutor can see whether students are logging in to read updates. If a student has not logged in for some time it is possible that they become disengaged from the course. The tutor can then contact them to ask if they are having difficulties.

Setting regular, fun tasks asking students to post examples of their work or an update about a given topic can be a useful means of stimulating engagement, particularly during university holidays. This printable leaflet contains ideas for community-building activities. For even more, here are 50 Community Building Tips from online community expert Richard Millington.

4. Developing digital literacy skills enhances student employability

Developing transferable skills is a key aspect of any university degree. An online community enables students to develop a sense of professionalism and to become accustomed to communicating effectively in an appropriate tone. Encouraging students to share examples of their work online obliges them to consider their target audiences, from customers to employers, and develop their abilities to present themselves in a professional manner. Encouraging students to engage in online discussion helps them develop critical thinking , writing, reflective and communication skills. It also fosters their ability to seek out new information and share with their peers.

The vast majority of college graduates will need the ability to use online communication tools in their chosen career. Online learning communities create opportunities for students to develop and sharpen skills that will improve their employability, and help them to work more effectively and collaboratively with others.

This excellent Slideshare from Stephen Downes provides further supporting evidence of the benefits of ways in which an online community can enhance students learning.


Maslow, A. (1954) Motivation and personality. New York: Harper

Oberg, K. (1960) Culture shock: adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, pp.177-82

Sovic, S. (2008) Coping with stress: the perspective of international students. Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, 6 (3). pp. 145-158. ISSN 1474-273X

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind and society: the development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press

Wenger, E. (1999) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wenger, E. (2006) Communities of practice: a brief instroduction. Available at


Richard Millington’s excellent Feverbee website is a constant source of inspiration and highly recommended for anyone interested in developing and managing online communities.