Print Page | Contact Us | Report Abuse | Sign In | Join or Create a Guest Account
News & Press: CDLT News

Building Community in Online Courses

Wednesday, February 03, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Dr. Kathleen Stone, Western Governors University
Share |

 CDLT Research to Practice Blog

In November, I presented at the AAACE annual conference on research I completed as part of an Ed.D in Higher Education and Adult Learning. My research explored how adult online students at a small rural community college described a sense of school community when completing online courses. I wanted to understand their perceptions of the presence of a sense of school community and what aspects they felt could contribute to successful completion of online courses. From this small qualitative case study, I found students did not perceive a sense of school community, yet they felt having a greater sense of school community would help them successfully complete online courses. What is school community and why look at this factor when exploring online course completion rates?

A sense of community in an online environment includes two distinct aspects: classroom community and school community. A sense of community in the online classroom has been the focus of much research in distance learning (Childress & Spurgin, 2009; Rovai, Wighting, & Lucking, 2004). However, less attention and research has been given to the culture and climate that makes up a school community in the online environment (Childress & Spurgin, 2009; Rovai, Wighting, & Liu, 2005). School community has two dimensions: social community and learning community. A school’s social community involves “spirit, cohesion, trust, safety, trade, interdependence, and a sense of belonging” (Rovai et al., 2004, p. 267). A school’s learning community consists of the feelings of learning community members regarding the degree to which they share group norms and values and the extent to which their educational goals and expectations are satisfied by group membership (Rovai et al., 2004, p. 267).

Student retention theories generally focus on traditional age students (Tinto, 1975) or adult learners in traditional environments (Bean & Metzner, 1985). Tinto’s student retention theory focused on the academic and social integration of traditional aged students in face-to-face settings. Bean and Metzner’s nontraditional student attrition model focused on adult students in face-to-face environments, but placed less emphasis on social integration. However, Rovai’s (2003) composite persistence model places adults in an online environment and includes the importance of interpersonal relationships, social integration, identification with school, institutional commitment, and learning communities.

Since FCC students primarily take online general education courses, course by course, and not necessarily as part of a cohesive program, every time students and faculty enter a course, there is a need to rebuild community (Childress & Spurgin, 2009). Building a connection to the institution, faculty, and staff outside the classroom can support students’ sense of community beyond the individual course (Childress & Spurgin, 2009; Rovai et al., 2004). Adult students feeling they are part of a larger community and supported by the institution and others going through the experience is important for successful completion of online courses and programs.

During the last decade, online course enrollment grew quickly. Between 2002 and 2012 enrollment in online courses grew from 1.6 to 7.1 million students (Allen & Seamen, 2014). Over half of those enrollments, 53%, were adults at community colleges (Radford, 2011). As online enrollment has soared, online course completion rates have struggled. Nationally, a course completion rate of 225 institutions showed an average of 73% for two-year colleges (WICHE, 2013).

At FCC, rates were averaging 67%. A review of the literature showed many potential factors for online course completion; however, a sense of school community is a gap in practice and research. The same review confirmed that low course completion rates are problematic.

For the small institution this research focused on, four significant themes emerged: interaction was limited in quantity and type; students did not feel a sense of belonging or connection; there was a need for clarity of support available and a personal feeling of being supported; and students’ educational values included online remaining convenient, with fully online options available. These results along with theory and a review of the literature resulted in the following recommendations: the creation of an online orientation and community space; the adoption and integration of asynchronous video technology; and the hiring of an online curriculum instructional designer. Much more research is needed to understand a sense of school community for adult learners and how it relates to successful completion of courses and programs.

A full research article is currently in progress.


  1. Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2014). Grade change: Tracking online education in the United States. Retrieved from
  2. Bean, J. P., & Metzner, B. S. (1985). A conceptual model of nontraditional undergraduate student attrition. Review of Educational Research, 55 (4), 485540. doi:10.3102/00346543055004485
  3. Childress, M. D., & Spurgin, D. G. (2009). Effects of university and departmental community on online learners. Educause Quarterly, 32 (4). Retrieved from
  4. Radford, A. W. (2011). Learning at a distance: Undergraduate enrollment in distance education courses and degree programs. (NCES 2012154). Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics website:
  5. Rovai, A. P. (2003). In search of higher persistence rates in distance education online programs. Internet and Higher Education, 6 (1), 116. doi:10.1016/S10967516(02)001586
  6. Rovai, A. P., Wighting, M. J., & Lucking, R. (2004). The classroom and school community inventory: Development, refinement, and validation of a self-report measure for educational research. Internet and Higher Education, 7 (4), 263280. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2004.09.001
  7. Rovai, A. P., Wighting, M. J., & Liu., J. (2005). School climate: Sense of classroom and school communities in online and in-campus higher education courses. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6 (4), 361374. Retrieved from
  8. Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45 (1), 89125. doi:10.3102/00346543045001089
  9. WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. (2013). Managing online education 2013:Practices ensuring quality . Retrieved from WCET website: