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Engaging learning communities online summary

The LDCU TEAL Roundtable discussion sessions involve a conversation around a particular theme. In these sessions we are joined by a panel of staff and/or students who share their experiences on a range of topics. These sessions are safe spaces for staff and students to discuss hopes, fears, ideas and inspiration. They are not recorded, instead we share a brief written summary from the event outlining key points raised.

TEAL Roundtable Discussion – Engaging learners in the online environment
Wednesday 19th January 1-2pm

Many thanks to the following panel members who joined us for the first LDCU TEAL Roundtable Discussion:

Roxanne Douglas, Teaching Fellow, English and Comparative Literary Studies
Sara Hattersley, Associate Professor, Academic Development Centre
Gioia Panzarella, Assistant Professor, Global Sustainable Development
Sarah Penny, Programme Manager, Institute of Advanced Studies

If you would like to share your thoughts and experiences around this topic it is not too late. You can contribute to the related Padlet and share challenges, opportunities, tips and questions. [Link]

Brief overview

The panellists shared their experiences of creating online communities ranging from online reading groups, developing communities of diverse groups of learners, supporting wellbeing, developing key skills, virtual common rooms, pastoral support, supporting postgraduate researchers who teach, programme communities. There was a rich discussion around the similarities and differences of experiences and how these communities evolved during a pandemic.

Central to the initial discussion was the significance of online learning communities, how peer learning opportunities can provide an enhanced experience and the opportunity through asynchronous and synchronous activities for reflection, discussion, collaboration and critical thinking.


One of the questions asked focused on what the key challenges are around establishing these communities. Challenges discussed included:

  • Moving things online and developing communities at speed. Learning as you go – some things worked, some things did not.
  • Communications – how to maintain conversations and engagement. The danger of information overload via email and/or Teams and how messages could be missed. Scheduling communications, students involved in sharing information and setting expectations were discussed as potential solutions to these challenges.
  • Time and resource needed to establish communities online. How can we develop self-sustaining communities?
  • Presence – how different people dealt with their role in the online learning community – how to set expectations and engage learners. What is our role as tutors in these spaces? What is the role of the learner?
  • Peripheral participation – how to ensure that all learners have an opportunity to engage in the online space including those who have a confident digital presence.
  • Debate around cameras on vs cameras off. There were discussions around setting ground rules and addressing the issue from the start. But there was also acknowledgement that learners may not be able to put their camera on for various reasons.

The panel all agreed that whilst it was great to be back in the classroom there were advantages to nurturing online learning communities and that they will continue to evolve these spaces in their own practice. These opportunities include the following:

  • Increase in reach – opportunity to engage with more people than previously. Bring learners from different areas of the university together in one virtual space.
  • Flexibility and choice, learners can choose how/when they engage in these communities etc. One approach included an online drop in opportunity, learners appreciated this offering and were keen for it to continue as things move into the classroom once more.
  • Flattened hierarchy – how being online could potentially give learners a sense of ownership in this space. For example, learners can respond to each other’s questions and thoughts creating a space of shared responsibility.
  • Being human – how we can take an opportunity online to find out more about our learners. Check in with how things are going – linking to wellbeing.
  • Developing learners sense of belonging where they may not previously have a community to engage with.

The panel and participants in the meeting shared some of their tips to developing communities of learners in the online space including:

  • Establish ground rules early on and in collaboration with the learners.
  • Establishing a supportive, open community. There were discussions around a variety of different icebreakers that could be used in this space including the following:
    • One panellist uses an activity that explores the origin of your name, who gave you your name? what does it mean? What are the stories behind the name? This provides an opportunity to share stories and learn more about each other.
    • ‘Beyond the rectangle’ – sharing an object or book nearby on the screen, going to all-together mode and sharing that item with colleagues.
    • Use of emojis, gifs, hands up to create a comfortable safe environment, asking learners to respond in the chat to engage and encourage participation from the outset.
  • Consistency is important – leaners know what to expect. Setting shared expectations.
  • Celebrate achievements and recognise success both within the work of the community and beyond.
  • Explore other platforms for developing communities e.g., one panellist discussed her use of town to introduce and develop the community.
  • Communication is key.

Share your thoughts and experiences online learning communities via our Padlet - 

Interested in finding out more about developing communities online – see the latest Cultivate newsletter 

If you would like to get involved in future TEAL Roundtable discussions or suggest a topic – email