Five Ways to Foster Community in Distance Education

Jenny Provo Quarles, the School of Education and Human Development's Manager of Online Operations, debunks common misconceptions about distance learning and shares five ideas for how to build community-focused programs.


In the past 20 years, distance learning has transformed from CD-ROMs and chat rooms to fully realized, experience-focused programming, designed to integrate learning seamlessly into students’ lives. In turn, distance learning has transformed education itself.

Recent data estimates that more than one in four students, or at least 6 million students in total, now take at least one distance education course. As distance learning continues to grow, it’s not only the course materials that have moved online. Our learning communities – the deep sense of connection and support we feel as part of a group – have moved online, too.

Jenny Provo Quarles, the Curry School’s new Manager of Online Operations, first encountered the world of distance learning as a graduate student in the early 2000s, when the field was just beginning to take off. Now, she’s putting her experience to use as the Curry School launches four new fully online degrees: Master of Education, Education Specialist and Education Doctorate degrees in Curriculum and Instruction, as well as a Master of Education degree in Social Foundations.

Before you worry about how to create a sense of community, however, there’s one question you have to answer first: What does “community” mean? “We tend to think about community from a very place-bound mindset,” Quarles said. “For example, a church is a community, or a school, or a neighborhood.” But of course, community is more than physical proximity – after all, if you never speak to your neighbors, does that really count? Instead, Quarles said community is the trust and support that grow naturally from a sense of connection or common ground.

Unfortunately, community-building can be an afterthought in distance education – and when community is lacking, students suffer. “Statistically, a student will do better when they’re engaged,” Quarles said. “Their grades are higher, they’re more likely to have a job prospect, and they’re more likely to be employed. The ability to navigate community settings – you’re going to need that the rest of your life.”

But, for Quarles, the importance of strong online communities is much bigger than academic or professional success. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of equity. “The number one thing for me is that it’s an access point,” she said. “Personally, I grew up very poor, and higher education wasn’t a guarantee – it was something I had to work for. Distance learning is just this amazing way to connect people to educational opportunities.” Equity in education is making sure that your online students have access to all of the same opportunities and benefits as in-person students – including the benefits of a strong, supportive community.

Luckily, there are steps that anyone can take to proactively build community in distance education. Here, Quarles shares her top five tips:

1. Clearly define and communicate your shared values

Why is it that a sense of community can be tough to create online? In education, Quarles said, we’re used to relying on physical location to create that sense of place that allows community to bloom. “You can design a beautiful course, you can have pristine content and a strong educational experience, but it can still be lacking that sense of community,” Quarles said.

In distance education, without the ease of proximity, you just have to reach a little deeper – to your institution’s values. Shared values can be powerful common ground on which to build a community. At Curry, for example, Quarles said she’s found a community that values diverse opinions. “I have found the Curry community to be very welcoming, very focused on inclusion,” she said. “There’s a real value placed on multiple perspectives. It doesn’t matter what you’re here for, we want to include you.”

Whatever your institution’s values are, Quarles said, it’s important to communicate them clearly and integrate them into your programming. When you can define and claim those values that bind your unique community together, you create a rich soil for community-building.

2. Create space for small, informal interactions

When distance education first began to emerge, discussions on how to foster community often centered on tips for how faculty should engineer more student interactions – like incorporating discussion boards, for example, or promising frequent feedback on assignments. “That’s all really helpful, but what it’s lacking is that informal community-building,” Quarles said. “Walking into a classroom and saying, ‘Hey, how was your weekend?’ ‘Can I borrow a pen?’ ‘Oh, you like Pokémon too?’”

If shared values are the soil, then interactions are the seeds. Community, Quarles says, is built in every interaction – both big and small. Unfortunately, that kind of informal connection can be particularly tough to create online. It requires doing the work to understand who your students are and purposefully building spaces for them to connect.

As a professor, Quarles developed a method she called “affinity groups,” where she asked her students to self-place into groups organized around a common trait, such as “newlyweds,” “dog people” or “people who come from a military family.” “I learned that it doesn’t have to be serious, it just has to be formative enough,” she said. “It’s about leading people to a shared value, and the space to connect over it.” With just a nudge in the right direction, Quarles found that she opened the door to the kind of natural, informal interactions that build community organically. “By helping them recognize that shared value set or those shared life experiences, they started to foster their own community,” she said. “All I did was give them a space.”

3. Leverage technological tools with a purpose-first approach

How exactly do we create those spaces and opportunities for interactions? That’s where technology comes in. With a purpose-first, tool-second approach, technology can be a significant asset toward accomplishing goals that are grounded in shared values.

In many ways, with technology integrated into our daily lives, it’s easier than ever. “You can be on the platform of your preference, you can be on your phone, and you can be engaging in these community practices when you need to and when you want to,” Quarles said. “It’s not an extra thing.” But technology is a double-edged sword. Along with expanded access, flexibility, and new methods of engaging with others, comes increased potential for misunderstanding and fewer unplanned, casual interactions.

The key, Quarles said, is to give up trying to mimic an in-person classroom and focus on the opportunities that distance learning offers. She recalled a recent discussion group, held in-person at the Curry School, where online students joined in via a video conferencing with a chat feature. As the discussion unfolded in the room, the online participants could jump in – and they were also able to send each other links to related articles and books without interrupting the flow of conversation, adding a new dimension to the experience. “They were still engaging with peers and colleagues, but at the same time they’re also sharing these amazing resources,” she said. “It was really cool!”

“We can think about learning from a distance as being inferior, but this is a great example of where using your computer can actually allow you to make more connections,” Quarles continued. “With a purpose-driven approach, technology can open up new and expanded opportunities for connection.

4. Invest in building communities that last beyond the classroom

Of course, if you really want your programs to thrive, it takes an investment – of time, energy, and yes, money. “We’re seeking to really fully embed and immerse our online communities in what it means to be a part of the Curry community, so it’s not an add-on – rather, it’s that they belong here.”

Quarles said the Curry School’s expansion of online programming – and its investment in bringing in experts to do this kind of work – speaks to a necessary shift in how institutions view the value of distance learning. “The administration and the students both recognized that was really valuable, and it was worth the resources and the investment of time to create that space,” she said.

In addition to programming and staffing, Quarles said it’s important for institutions to think beyond the virtual classroom and invest in programming that allows faculty to coach and champion their students through the learning experience and after graduation. As students become alumni, institutions should think about how to leverage alumni networks in the digital space. In every way you can, you want to build your programs so that becoming a part of the community is a lifelong experience, not just something you do while you’re in school.

5. Bring everyone into the process – then listen to their feedback

In a field that is changing so quickly, how do you keep up? In many ways, that’s what people like Quarles are here for. “I think of my role at Curry as a hub,” she said. “My job is to make sure all the parts come together correctly.” Beyond the logistical and programming work, she sees a large part of her job as bringing people into the conversation. “I’m responsible for giving the community an avenue in which to engage,” she said. “Another aspect of that is helping everyone see that community doesn’t have to be that physical place – encouraging our faculty to tune in, check it out, and participate.”

Of course, community-building can’t only come from faculty and administration – student input matters, too. As the Curry School’s online programming continues to expand, Quarles is particularly excited about her plans to get student ambassadors more involved in the digital space. “We envision them spending their time in community spaces, helping take the pulse of students and guide us toward opportunities where we can use our shared values to have good discourse,” she said.

Ultimately, Quarles said that community-building is a shared responsibility – it’s an evolving process that requires a constant feedback loop with everyone involved. “It’s going to evolve over time,” she said. “We need to be thoughtful and responsive to our student’s needs in order to best prepare them for a world where technology is continually creating new and different opportunities to foster connection.”