Key Factors For Designing An Online Course

Reflection on: Building Sense of Community at a Distance by Alfred Rovai (2002) International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol 3, No. 1.

Issues in Online Learning

This paper discusses how best to design and conduct an online course in response to the major issues in distance learning: high dropout rates – apparently 10-20% higher in distance education compared to traditional education – and loneliness and disconnectionheightened by geographic separation. It is true that when this paper was written, in the early 2000s, the situation was one in which text-based asynchronous discussion was the norm. Today, everyday devices are so powerful that real-time voice and video conferencing is common, somewhat reducing perceived distance by increasing virtual presence. Thinking about my online learning experience over the years, I recall different tutors were more and, comparatively, less present than the other. Obvious behaviours of presence that come to mind are as simple as responding promptly to questions posed on the Forum, inviting students in turn to contribute, asking about personal experiences etc. Of course I felt closer to the those who were more present and tried to keep me involved. Therefore, it stands to reason that if you feel part of a group you are likely to experience a strong a sense of belonging and responsibility to persist through the course.

Which platform is best?

There are a plethora of different platforms out there with functionality for delivering distance courses. The paper itself mentions Blackboard or WebCT. Other platforms include Edmodo, Moodle. And I would like to suggest a blog, or even a wiki could be just as suitable. Of course, each platform has its own affordances, so it is better to do some comparative research and choose one which matches your own situation and criteria. That said, In Blended Learning and Sense of Community, Rovai & Jordan (2004) provide a comparative analysis of traditional and fully online graduate courses and summarise,

“…it may be that the reason some online courses suffer more dropouts is less related to the course delivery medium and more related to the online course design and pedagogy employed by some online faculty who have limited skills in using CMC to facilitate learning and to nurture sense of community.”

It seems, then, that no matter how many bells and whistles a platform has, ultimately, teacher training and support will lead to effective learning design. So what key factors should we consider when designing online courses?

Solutions for Online Learning

Seven factors that positively affect sense of community in an online course (Rovai, 2002):

  1. reduce transactional distance by promoting dialogue amongst learners  – design courses that make participation of online discussions easy – “all members of the learning community should be graded on quantity, quality and timeliness of their contributions” (p8). I would say that it is also important for students to be made explicitly aware of the learning process, including, learning with and from others.
  2. nurture social presence by making participants explicitly aware of their role in creating & defining the online learning community
  3. promote social equality by organising GTKY activities at the beginning to the course, discussing, negotiating and agreeing netiquette, establishing a process of turn-taking, and so on.
  4. organise small group activities with clear goals and timelines
  5. aid group facilitation by shining the spotlight on the student. I would suggest being a guide on the side: ”Some of these group maintenance roles might be: encourager, harmoniser, compromiser, gatekeeper, standard setter, observer, or follower.” (p9)
  6. negotiate teaching style and learning stage towards ‘good teaching’ – which “(a) matches the student’s self-direction , and (b) empowers the student to progress toward greater self-direction.” (p10)
  7. keep the community size small, ideally between 10-20 learners, in order to maximise learner-instructor and learner-learner interactions

How about Blended Learning?

In 2004, Rovai & Jordan suggest that what we are missing in fully online courses may be offset with partial face-to-face contact, otherwise known as Blended Learning. (A certain irony being that what where we have just come from is the physical classroom – and now we are going full circle – almost!) Blended Learning itself is a hybrid of traditional and online learning, lying somewhere along a continuum between those two environments. Indeed, “…a defining characteristic of blended learning is the ability of the Internet to provide an interactive learning experience to large numbers of students…in ways that are accessible and cost effective” (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004). Taking this idea to heart, and if I were to design a language course in the future, considering the demand for practical 21st century skills and the attractiveness of experiential learning, then I would certainly like to integrate an online component with a face-to-face component to create the ultimate online/offline experience. But how realistic an option is this for my distance Masters course whose participants were permanently located on different sides of the world? I think for us this sounds like more of a like-to-have than a must-have.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this paper. Essentially, Rovai (2002) tells us that activities that facilitate dialogue and decrease psychological distance are seen to increase a sense of community among learners. We should also look to regularly assess and evaluate the changes we make to the learning environment, not just in terms of learning outcomes, but also the learning process itself (Garrison & Kanuka, p104). Implement this advice in your course design, and you have the foundation for successful online learning.


Garrison, D.R., & Kanuka, H. (2004). Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 7, 95-105.

Rovai, A. P. (2002). Building Sense of Community at a Distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 3 (1).

Rovai, A. P., & Jordan, H.M. (2004). Blended Learning and Sense of Community: A comparative analysis with traditional and fully online graduate courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 5 (2).


Online Learning by Luis Llerena from

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