9 Rovai, “Building sense of community at a distance”


Rovai, A. P. (2002). Building sense of community at a distance. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 3(1). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v3i1.79.


Distance learning has many advantages, but also has challenges that face the learners of today. A major factor, like physical separation of classroom community members, can affect the type of support learners receive as they complete their online courses. Rovai promotes the concept of building a sense of community through distance educational experiences that will promote student retention, course completion rates, and even increase the flow of information within the community. Instructors that design distance education courses should examine not only the content creation, but the affective component of community building to increase learner participation and achievement.

Key points

  • Sense of Community can be developed in distance education by considering what the learners do together through the student commitment of learning and design of experiences by the instructor.
  • Four dimensions of community are defined.
    • Spirit of community—the membership and bond formed that allows learners to both nurture and challenge each other.
    • Trust—the ability to rely on other community members through displayed credibility and benevolence.
    • Interaction—the socio-emotional driven interaction of disclosing personal information and exchanging empathetic messages not only promotes friendship, but increases the feeling of trust and pursuit of support in a distance learning environment.
    • Common expectations—Learning expectations and commitment to a shared goal. Community members share learning experiences socially in order to transform their understanding of the content.
  • Course design, pedagogy, and sense of community matter most in learning environments.
  • Seven factors influence a positive sense of community in a virtual learning environment.
    • Transactional distance—a psychological and communication space found between learners and instructors. This is varied for each learner and decreased by encouraging discussion between community members.
    • Social presence—enhancement through interaction and reciprocation that others are there.
    • Social equity—equal opportunities to learn provided to all students and connected learners that can share openly in the classroom.
    • Small group activities—providing structure for a group to perform tasks and engage in learning activities.
    • Group facilitation—group interaction and maintenance roles to continue group tasks.
    • Teaching style and learning stage—a degree of choices for learners in an instructional situation balanced with instructional style that will empower the student.
    • Community size—eight to ten students minimum needed for good interactions and 20-30 students at maximum for an instructor to pilot meaningful class discussions.


Students enrolled in distance education programs face many challenges that may cause them to not complete a course or program. Some factors students have are beyond the control of the educational institution they attend. According to Rovai (2002), “one strategy to help increase retention is to provide students with an increased affective support by promoting a strong sense of community” (p. 12). By promoting community, feeling of isolation can be decreased and academic connections can be made in a broader peer base. Student satisfaction can also be promoted by making sure instructors are supporting the four dimensions of the learning community; spirit, trust, interaction, and common expectations. The other key factor in supporting student success is integrating the seven factors that influence a virtual community. These include decreasing transactional distance, enhancing social presence, promoting social equity, engaging students in small group activities and facilitation, finding balance for teaching and learning style with learners, and setting up the right size of community for engaging interaction and community sustainment. This literature attends to the idea of arranging an environment that students can experience a healthy community of learners that will allow satisfaction and retention with their learning.

Discussion questions

  1. Think about your own experiences as an online learner or instructor. What was your community like and what kinds of things do you think could have been improved upon?
  2. Choose a dimension of community that Rovai writes about. How would you instill this dimension in an online community as an instructor?
  3. Out of the seven factors of a virtual community that are mentioned, which one do think is the most important to implement and why?

Additional Resources

  • Donovan, J. (2018, August 3). The importance of building online learning communities. Retrieved from http://blog.online.colostate.edu/blog/online-education/the-importance-of-building-online-learning-communities/
  • Palloff, R. M., Pratt, K., & Palloff, R. M. (2007). Building online learning communities: effective strategies for the virtual classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Pappas, C. (2018, March 16). 8 tips to build an online learning community. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/tips-build-online-learning-community


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