Online Discussion Forums Create Sense of Community in Online Learning

New research from Duke University finds that students enrolled in online classes who participate in discussion forums are more likely to feel a sense of community with other students in their classes. This is important because discussion forums are often optional elements in online classes, particularly self-paced online classes. However, the research indicates that such forums are a crucial tool for forming cohesive online learning communities and supporting student persistence and success. This may be even more important for non-traditional students including older adult learners.

The research was published in the journal Digital Universities: International Best Practices and Applications. The research team analyzed survey data from over 1,000 students enrolled in two open, online courses offered by Duke University through Coursera. The courses were offered as session-based courses in which all students experienced the course on the same schedule. The researchers identified this as a key difference between these courses and the more common self-paced format of many online courses.

The study authors argue that one of the reasons that the discussion forums created a strong sense of community among students was because students were able to talk about the shared experience they were having throughout the course, something that would be less likely to occur when students move through a course at their own pace. In fact, they report that self-paced versions of the same courses generated vastly less discussion among students.

The research team identified three things that instructors can do to support the development of strong student communities in online classes. These are:

  1. Use instructional strategies that intentionally prompt students to discuss course topics with each other when they need help or have questions
  2. Establish spaces for both task-oriented discussions and purely social, community-building conversations
  3. Assign projects and tasks that require students to collaborate and communicate

The full manuscript is available online and in print at: Robinson, J.; Manturuk, K. R.; Çetinkaya-Rundel, M.; Canelas, D. A. “Analysis of adult learner sense of community in online classes,” Digital Universities: International Best Practices and Applications, 2018, 5(1-2), 163-177. The interdisciplinary team that conducted this research included Jorgianne Hicks (Psychology), Kim Manturuk (Learning Innovation), Mine Çetinkaya-Rundel (Statistics), and Dorian Canelas (Chemistry).