Creating Connection in the Online Course

A photo of a person with headphones on, listening to a video of a person on their iPad.

The absence of physical peer presence and direct sensory feedback often creates uncertainty and insecurity in online learners. Due to this, creating a positive learning climate is crucial to student success in online education. A positive learning climate is one in which students understand expectations and learning outcomes and feel supported by the instructor and their peers. In this article, we overview the role of caring, community, and communication in the online course.

The Role of Caring in a Positive Climate of Online Learning

Caring is an important component of creating a positive, learner-centered climate in your courses. We usually associate caring with the type of interactions that come with strong personal connections. Personal connections are often more easily made face-to-face. Online courses without face-to-face interaction make the connection different, but possible. 

Supporting students in an online course is a great way to show that you care. Bender (2003) suggests that caring ranges from the impersonal (how to find a textbook) to the highly personal (life or work situations relevant to student success in the course). Early semester caring is likely to be impersonal and directed generally toward students. As the course progresses, caring may become more specific to each student as you get to know them better.

Communication is the key to connection. Students respond well, are more satisfied, and feel cared for when the instructor communicates clearly and often in the online course. If it is possible, personalized communication and responses really do make a difference to your students. Even if you have many students, a simple brief note to individuals as frequently as you can manage will go a long way toward establishing your connection and creating a positive learning climate. One of the ways you can make this more manageable is by scheduling individual check-ins a few times each semester.

Never forget that communication involves listening. Simple acknowledgments of communication are important. Emails and messages left unanswered by the instructor are a quick way to create uncertainty for online students. To learn more about communicating to students online, see our article, The Importance of Instructor Presence in the Online Course.

Instructors can also demonstrate caring online by providing support for students. While the instructor cannot take on the task of individually supporting each student, there are ways to design and teach online courses which provide a structure of support. 

For example, many students do not know how to take online classes. Just because they can use Facebook and Twitter does not mean they have the skills to function in a positive learner-focused environment. Many of them are not self-directed, which is crucial to online success. Being self-directed means knowing how to manage one’s time or be responsible for one’s own learning. While this is not unique to the online environment, the consequences are usually more severe because diagnosis and intervention is made more difficult by distance. Therefore, it is important to teach online students good study skills. The bottom line: when students feel supported (cared for), the learning climate will be positive. 

Creating a Connected and Effective Online Learning Community

Online students really want to believe they are a part of a community. Working alone at a computer does not feel very connected, but fortunately the online instructor can design and teach courses in ways that create community.

We often understand online communities in terms of platforms like Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter. Paloff and Pratt (2003) describe what distinguishes an online learning community from social networks and other online communities as: “Engaging in collaborative learning and the reflective practice involved in transformative learning differentiate the online learning community.”

A good model for establishing effective online learning communities is the Community of Inquiry (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). The Community of Inquiry involves three elements:

  • cognitive presence (which most faculty members handle very well),
  • social presence, and
  • teaching presence.

Building community in online courses requires a combination of each presence, but social presence is crucial for minimizing the relational distance so common to online courses. Social presence means that you and your students are active and present throughout the course in various ways – ranging from individual dialogue to participation in group work and discussions. 

Additionally, assessment and feedback are key elements of creating an effective learning community. Students need to know where they stand early and often in online classes to reduce the uncertainty of the online environment. Social presence activities like the ones described above are a good way to start the feedback habits early in the course. Quick, regular formative assessments that serve as self-checks to students also have the effect of strengthening student participation in the online community. 

Put yourself in the shoes of your online student. What are three things you would want your instructor to do to make you feel more connected?


Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Paloff, R. & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. Josey-Bass: San Francisco.