Building Community in Web-based Learning Environments: Strategies and Techniques

Janette R. Hill [HREF1], Assistant Professor, Instructional Technology, University of Georgia, 604 Aderhold Hall, Athens, GA, 30602, USA. Email:


The Web has received widespread acceptance and use for creating and supporting learning activities across disciplines within higher education. However, satisfaction with the Web for purposes of learning has not been as strong as proponents may have hoped. Creating a community for supporting learners is one strategy that has been recommended for increasing satisfaction. The designer and/or instructor of a course can have the goal (i.e., intent) of creating a learning community, but may not have a clear idea of how to make this happen. Identifying successful strategies and techniques for enabling community to develop is a critical step toward making the goal a reality. The purpose of this paper is to present several strategies and techniques that have proven successful for community building in Web-based learning environments.


The use of electronic technologies for the delivery of instruction continues to grow at an exponential rate. More universities are seeking ways to use on-line tools to deliver instruction as the technological infrastructure expands in terms of its capabilities and power (Daniel, 1998; Katz, 1999). At the same time the institutional infrastructure is expanding, learners who could be taking courses at a distance have easier access to the technologies needed to acquire and share information with other participants. Increasingly, these learners are requesting that universities supply them with the means to engage in formal learning via distance technologies. Learners are even specifying the areas most relevant for them (management, information technologies, health, English) (Otchet, 1998).

Another interesting phenomena surrounding Web-based learn ing environments (WBLEs) is the degree to which the demand infiltrates varied disciplines. Unlike other technological innovations (e.g., computer-based instruction, PowerPoint presentations), use of the Web for formal and informal learning activities is occurring across subject areas. Learners and faculty members in a variety of disciplines (e.g., art, history, information systems, education, science) are drawn to the promise this technology holds for the delivery of instruction at a distance.

Despite the increased robustness of the technology and appeal of the delivery mechanism across disciplines, several challenges associated with the successful implementation of WBLE remain unresolved (see Barley, 1999, for an overview of several issues). One significant challenge traditionally associated with distance education is retention (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Historically, the drop out rate has ranged from 30 to 50 percent. While many factors contribute to noncompletion, two of the reasons stated in research relate to level of interaction and support in distance delivered courses (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Systematic application of strategies and techniques to increase interaction and support for learners in WBLE may help reduce the noncompletion rate.

Closely associated with retention is student satisfaction with distance delivered courses. While some studies have reported high satisfaction from learners in on-line courses (see, for example, Hill, 1999a; Hill, Rezabek, & Murry, 1998; Wayland, Swift & Wilson, 1994), others have indicated that students often experience frustration with distance delivered courses (c.f. Ritchie & Newby, 1989). Dissatisfaction with courses can have several consequences, among them: low evaluation ratings for the instructor, students dropping out of a course, students not taking distance delivered courses in the future, or low evaluations for the program that the course is part of (see Swift, Wilson & Wayland, 1997, for further discussion). As we move further into the digital age and the increase in demand for WBLE continues to expand, we need to discover ways to satisfy learners, and keep them engaged in the on-line learning process.

One explanation for high dropout rates and dissatisfaction with distance delivered courses relates to a lack of community in non face-to-face courses. In discussing the importance of interactivity, DeVries & Wheeler (1996) discuss the lack of face-to-face contact as a major barrier for distance education. Martin (1999) also mentions the lack of face-to-face contact as a negative aspect to distance delivered courses. Research by the author, however, indicates that community building can occur in distance delivered courses (Hill, 1999a), much like community building can occur in virtual teams in the business sector (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Raven, 1999). In a recent course offered via Web-based technologies the author not only observed a community being developed; she evoked specific strategies and techniques to assist with community building (Hill, 1999b). While these strategies and techniques have yet to be explored in a formal study, informal testing of the strategies and techniques in a Web-based course during the summer of 1999 indicate a relationship between their application and community building in WBLE. Given that a sense of a learning community has been demonstrated to contribute to performance in group settings (Lave & Wenger, 1991), discovering the best strategies and techniques for community building may lead to enhanced course outcomes (e.g., retention, satisfaction, learning outcomes) by participants in WBLE.

The strategies and techniques related to community building in WBLE are directly tied to implementation of WBLE; however, steps can be taken at the design and development stages to also help ensure the development of a community in WBLE. Currently, there is a significant amount of literature related to the creation of distance education, including literature related to the design and development of WBLE (see Khan, 1997, for a collection of chapters related to WBLE). What is missing from the literature is a clear delineation of guidelines for community building, and how best to facilitate this during design, development and implementation. Best practices related to community building in WBLE remain unknown. By examining the integration of specific strategies and techniques in a WBLE for community building, we can determine best practices for the delivery of instruction via on-line technologies. This will then enable us to create a comprehensive design framework to guide faculty and learners in all phases of WBLE: design, development and implementation.

This study was to explore best practices for community building in WBLE. In doing so, the study sought to examine specific strategies and techniques designed to facilitate the establishment of an on-line community. These strategies and techniques, derived from previous work (Hill, 1999a, b; Hill, Rezabek, & Murry, 1998), needed to be applied and examined in a research setting in order to test their viability and reliability.

The study was guided by the following general research question: What are the best techniques/strategies to enhance learning and community building in WBLE?

This question was addressed through two specific sub-questions:

The specific objectives for the study included:

Significance of the Study

While considerable research has been conducted in the general area of distance learning, research specific to Web-based environments for learning has only recently been published (see, for example, Dehoney & Reeves, 1999; Khan, 1997; Hill, 1997a; Hill, 1999a; Owston, 1997; Pritchard, 1998), and most is being presented at a theoretical rather than an empirical level. As the Web and Internet-based technologies (e.g., bulletin boards, e-mail, CUSeeMe, streaming video) continue to grow in popularity and use in higher education, the learning community could benefit greatly from investigation of best practices related to WBLE. Examination of how best to design and develop learning environments integrating various information technologies and using specific community-building strategies and techniques becomes vital if WBLE is to reach its potential for instructional use.

Research Methodology

The purpose of this study was to examine specific strategies and techniques for community building in WBLE. The results of this research were used to inform best practices (i.e., strategies and techniques) to inform the design, development, and implementation of WBLE. Specifics related to the procedures used in the study are described in the following sections.

Research Design

An embedded case study design was employed in the study, involving the use of multiple cases, or embedded units, within a larger context. The unit of study in the case was the individual faculty member, design expert, and/or student involved in the WBLE implementation. Case study designs have been recommended when multiple sources of evidence will be gathered during data collection. Multiple sources of evidence were used to triangulate the data, thus addressing concerns with internal validity (Yin, 1994). This approach has been used by the researcher in previous research (Hill & Hannafin, 1997; Hill, 1997b), and has proven successful when looking to describe rich contexts and for model development (Hill, 1999c).

The methods used in collecting data combined descriptive and analytical approaches. The research was descriptive in that strategies and techniques for implementing WBLE were derived from the data gathered during the study. The research was analytic in that information gathered was analyzed to identify strategies and techniques. This was accomplished through analytical induction. Strategies and techniques revealed during data collection were then compared to the strategies and techniques resulting from previous work (Hill, 1999b). Best practices for implementing WBLE were then derived based on the analysis of the evidence (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992).

Description of the Participants

The population of this study was a group of experts (n=3) and students (n=22) involved in the course Instructional Design at a university in rural Georgia. The population included university instructors, instructional design experts and working professionals returning to school from various sectors of business and industry (e.g., instructional design companies) and education (e.g., K-12 teachers, library media specialists, higher education instructors). The sample was representative of other graduate programs at other institutions throughout the United States, facilitating a level of generalizability of results to a broader population.

The Course

Instructional Design introduces learners to fundamental concepts and practices in the process of design (see the course Web site for more details [HREF 2]. The course emphasizes hands-on experiences in the creation of instruction on a micro (lesson/session) level. To provide an anchor for the design concepts and practices studied, learners acquire hands-on experience in the design, development and evaluation of instruction, on a micro (lesson/session) level. Emphasis is placed on the design of learning resources most appropriate for the goals of the instruction being created. The design project developed in the course is stand-alone instruction that can be replicated and distributed within a real-world context. Concepts, practices and hands-on experience are discussed and applied within a framework of major design components, including analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation, and maintenance (ADDIE-M).

The philosophical foundation of the course is not that there is one procedure for design, but rather an approach that works best for a particular context, audience, and activity. The course is also founded on the idea that the design process is influenced by the learning beliefs and instructional frameworks of those involved in the work (e.g., designer, subject-matter expert, learner). As such, part of what we do in the course is explore various philosophies, procedures, and techniques for designing instruction. The design process is discussed in the larger context of problem solving, with the learner acquiring the information and skills necessary to use and apply the process in an instructional setting. The goal is not to become an expert designer, but to become more of a reflective and refractive practitioner of design, assisting people in the activities of teaching and learning. Knowledge of the design process, working in concert with tools and skills determined necessary in a given a context/audience/activity framework, will enable you to accomplish this goal.

The Instructional Design course was selected for two main reasons:

To meet the various needs of the learners, multiple methods of interaction were enabled. Multiple methods were used at multiple levels. For example, interaction methods used for one-on-one dialogue (e.g., instructor/learner, learner/learner) included e-mail, chat rooms, bulletin boards, face-to-face meetings, and the telephone. Similar technologies were used for other levels of group interaction, including pairs (instructional design buddies), small groups (case study groups) and large group (i.e., the entire class).

WBLE Development & Use

A variety of technologies were used in the development and implementation of the Web-based version of Instructional Design. These included: Dreamweaver® for the development of Web pages and WebCT® for the integration of e-mail, bulletin board, and chat systems. Learners in the course also made use of a variety of technologies to help them interact in the Web-based environment. These included assorted Internet service providers (e.g., Earthlink, AOL), various Internet/Web-based technologies (e.g., Netscape, Explorer, Eudora, Outlook), and multiple productivity tools (e.g., Acrobat Reader, Inspiration, MS PowerPoint, MS Word).

Measures and Instrumentation

A combination of positivistic and interpretivist techniques were used in gathering evidence for the study. Positivistic (i.e., quantitative) techniques, including surveys and questionnaires, were used to generate individual difference measures for each case. Interpretivist (i.e., qualitative) techniques, including interviews, observations, and content analysis of discussion transcripts, were used to monitor the use of community-building strategies and techniques.

Settings and Procedures

Data were collected in a variety of environments. Expert review (subject-matter expert and instructional designers) took place in the environment in which the participant had access to the Web (e.g., the expert’s office at her/his home institution). Pilot testing with learners in the spring and data gathering with learners in the summer took place in the environment in which the WBLE was used, including campus computer labs and the learners' homes/places of employment (depending on where they have access to the Web). The facilities and necessary equipment for data gathering were pre-established.


To the extent possible, the collection, organization, and analysis of data occurred concurrently. Previous research indicates that this assists with indicating gaps in data as they are gathered and allow for adaptations in the process (e.g., need for additional information) (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Hert, 1992; Hill & Hannafin, 1997). The analysis of the data gathered involved several stages, including reading through the data, highlighting instances in the data related to the research questions, and identifying themes and patterns in the data to help inform the generation of an explicit list of strategies and techniques for community building in WBLE. To strengthen the analysis, a team of researchers was used to help inform the interpretation and results. These analysis techniques have been documented in the literature (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Krathwohl, 1998; Yin, 1994) and also used by the first researcher in previous research (Hill, 1997b; Hill & Hannafin, 1997).

The initial phases of data analysis involved the segmentation of data in accordance with the research questions. As the researchers read the data, multi-colored highlighters were used to mark-up the data according to a research question (Ericsson & Simon, 1984; Hill & Hannafin, 1997). Sections of the data related to specific research questions were then coded using established strategies and techniques for community building (Hill, 1999b; Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Additional codes were established as themes and patterns not readily applicable to the established categories emerged. All data were compiled according to research questions in the final stage of analysis. Each data set by research question were then analyzed for purposes of pattern matching. Pattern matching involves the examination of data, looking for similarities in the reactions, thoughts, and actions of the participants (Hill & Hannafin, 1997; Hill 1997b). Patterns were used to inform the generation of an overall list of strategies and techniques (i.e., best practices) for community building in WBLE.


The proposed research took place over a twelve-month period, January - December 2000. The overall research effort can be divided into three main phases:


Multiple levels of analysis and interpretation were completed during the fall of 2000 to derive best practices for community building in WBLE. While more analysis is needed to get a clearer picture of what occurred and why, results to date indicate establishment of community, but in a more eclectic way than might have been anticipated. A community does appear to have been established in the Instructional Design course, however it was a various levels. This was particularly apparent when looking at the expert’s (i.e., the instructor) sense of community versus that of the learners. Many learners indicated that they felt a connection to the community, but more to specific individuals rather than the larger group. During the end-of-the term evaluation, several learners commented that they felt a connection to their Instructional Design Buddy, but not to others in the course. Many went on to say that the other people in the course were mainly faces on a Web page and not people they felt like they knew.

In contrast, as the instructor for the course (i.e., the expert), I felt a connection with each individual in the course as well as with the various groups in the class (e.g., Design Buddies, Case Study Teams, overall class set). While my feelings of loss of community at the end of the course with this group were not as strong as they have been with previous groups (see, for example, Hill 1999a), I none the less felt that I knew each person, and had a certain level of understanding re: how they worked with each other.

Another interesting result was how the sense of community varied between and amongst individual learners. While some learners felt like they knew others in the course, many reported that they did not feel like they knew anyone else (aside from, perhaps, their Design Buddy) and that they often felt isolated in their instructional design work.

Best Practices for Building Community in WBLEs: Strategies and Techniques

Despite mixed results, the researchers were able to generate a tentative list of best practices for community building in WBLE. While we do not have a clear indication that these strategies and techniques will insure that a community will be established, they do appear to assist and do not seem to harm the process. These strategies and techniques are presented in Table 1 in overview form; more detail can be found in Hill (in press).

Strategy/Technique for Community Building


Establish a "failure safe" space in which to work and communicate

A safe on-line environment is one that the learner perceives to be a space where open communication can occur without concern for flaming and non-constructive criticism (Hill, in press). Given increased communication and exposure, creating a safe environment becomes even more important and may assist the learner with overcoming feelings of disconnection and isolation (McLellan, 1998).

Assist the learner with establishing structural dependence

Structural dependence can be defined as reliability upon the structure in which learning occurs (Hill, in press). Creating an environment were the learner can establish structural dependence can assist with several concerns in a WBLE: overcoming information overload, establishing patterns of where to find things on the Web site, and helping the learner set expectations of when to anticipate various types of communication.

Encourage an atmosphere of adventure

A current reality of Web-based learning environments is that few people have considerable experience in facilitating and/or learning in these environments. WBLE is a learning context filled with unknowns, both in terms of what can/cannot be done and expectations. Creating a sense of adventure, reiterating to the learners that " we are all in this together," can assist the learner with feeling connected to the larger group.

Assist the learner with establishing strategies for managing their time

The investment of time for interacting in an online environment can be 2-3 times higher than in a face-to-face course (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). We need to help learners establish time management strategies (e.g., . devoting 20 minutes a day to reading bulletin board postings and e-mail related to the course) so the learner can perhaps feel less overwhelmed by the time commitment (real or perceived).

Encourage the learner to set priorities regarding reading messages

The number of messages generated in a Web-based course can easily reach into the 1000s over the timespan of a term. This can lead to information overload, leading to less learning rather than deeper understanding. It is important to help the learner establish patterns for how to read and process the messages (e.g., skimming for content vs. reading for detail) so the task becomes manageable while honoring the person sharing the information in the message.

Remind the learner that someone is out there

It can be very easy to loose touch with fellow participants in WBLE. We need to create multiple ways (e.g., teams or buddies) to encourage the learner to keep in touch with others as well as with individuals(e.g., learner-learner, learner-facilitator) to help maintain the connection with the larger community (Moore & Kearsley, 1996).

Establish a well-organized structure to facilitate efficient interaction

Create a structure that is inviting and appealing (McLellan, 1998), as well as well-organized to support efficient and effective access to information in the Web-based environment (Waugh, Levin & Smith, 1994).

Provide the learner with multiple means of access

"Technology happens!" It is important to remain flexible in terms of how information and dialogue is shared in WBLE (e.g., providing multiple means of access to information and multiple ways to share information).

Work to minimize technology glitches and provide training for how to cope with them

It is important to remove the technology glitches so the learner's interaction in WBLE is positive and not filled with impossible challenges (McLellan, 1998). It is also important to provide some form of training (e.g., on-line job aids or FAQs) to help the participant work through the technology challenge when it does occur.

Table 1. Summary of strategies and techniques for community building

Meeting the Demands of Community Building: Implications and Recommendations

Techniques and strategies for community building in WBLEs are beginning to be reported in the literature (Hill, in press; Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Parson, 1997; Powers & Mitchell, 1997). This is encouraging, particularly in terms of indicating that there are ways to help learners and instructors become more comfortable in learning in Web-based environments. There are times when it is important to learn from others, and thus, knowing and applying strategies and techniques for establishing a community can be very useful.

If we look at the strategies and techniques presented in the previous section, several implications for practice can be suggested. First, knowing there are strategies and techniques for community building may not be enough. As stated by Palloff and Pratt (1999) creating and sustaining community can be difficult. However, the research presented here indicates that while it may not be 100% effective, it does not appear to harm or hurt the effort. Taking the strategies and looking for specific instantiations can further the effort. For example, sending out messages to individual learners can help them feel more connected.

Another factor that may help with community building is the establishment of importance of community at the inception of the WBLE event, whether in a face-to-face meeting or in written documentation. "The facilitator should state the importance of community explicitly, explaining to the learners why it is important and how it will help contribute to the learning experience" (Hill, in press). In addition to stating the importance and why, techniques for community building should be described and shared with the learners so they will understand how their efforts in community building can recognized.

Learning in a Web-based environment, itself a dynamic and evolving context (Costigan, 1999) is not an easy task. This makes community building even more challenging — both in terms of practice and research. There are many unanswered questions related to WBLEs that will continue to create challenges for community building, including:

Our continued examination of these questions, among others, will enable us to further our understanding of community building in specific and WBLEs in general.


WBLEs require substantial planning and development than what might at first be perceived, particularly given some of the Web-based course tools that give the appearance of "quick" course creation (e.g., Blackboard, WebCT). When a goal of a course is to create community, the efforts increase significantly. Community does not just happen, nor can you just do it. Community building takes time and effort by all parties involved. Implementing certain strategies and techniques for community building in WBLEs may make the creation of effective virtual spaces for learning easier for the facilitator and learners.


Many of the ideas represented in this paper were generated during a research project funded, in part, by grants from the College of Education and the Office of the Vice President of Research at the University of Georgia. I would like to express my thanks to my colleagues who also worked on the grant, and participated in many hours of conversation about community building in WBLE: Arjan Raven, Joan Davis and Michael Grant.



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Hypermedia references




Janette R. Hill (c) 2001. The author assigns to Southern Cross University and other educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Southern Cross University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the conference papers and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web.

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