There are many definitions of “community”, but most encompass notions of trust, belonging, “feeling at home”, connectedness, interactivity, shared expectations, and shared conversations.

One useful way of thinking about community is to break it into three components (link to source):

  • Community as shared physical space
  • Community as a “communication process”
  • Community as shared values and interests

In common usage we often use the word “community” to refer to people sharing physical spaces – even if people in those spaces don’t know one another well, such as in a “bedroom community”. Because of this, it can be easy to feel that creating a classroom community in a virtual online space is difficult or even impossible. 

Fortunately, Gen Z already knows that this isn’t true! For our students, some online communities have become more vibrant and engaging than many communities that exist “IRL”. Research on class communities in online courses backs this up (1). In fact, all of the aspects of community listed above can be successfully created in a hybrid or online course with a little creativity.

Below we’ve outlined some ideas for each of the aspects of community, with links to take you to “deeper dives” into the topics that interest you the most.


Your hybrid or virtual/online course does take place in a “space” – it’s just a virtual space instead of (or in addition to) a physical one. With a little effort, you can make that virtual space (Canvas, Google Meet, etc.) as comfortable and conducive to learning as your physical classroom.

Here are some basic principles for making your virtual classroom space comfortable and conducive to learning:

  • Make it safe and inclusive
  • Make it visually welcoming
  • Design the space to account for your students’ physical responses to working on a computer
  • Keep it simple and organized to minimize cognitive load

Read more about how to make your virtual course “space” welcoming and comfortable.

Shared Communication Processes

When designing a hybrid or virtual course, it is especially important to make sure that everyone understands what communication channels you will use and how often you will use them.

  • Streamline communication by limiting the number and complexity of communication channels
  • Avoid the “firehose of information” effect by consolidating your communications and organizing them clearly
  • Use Canvas to create a “one-stop shop” for essential information like due dates, policies, assignment descriptions, and announcements

Keeping things simple will help students feel comfortable – and make them more likely to stay engaged with your course. Learn more about how to streamline and simplify communication in any course.

Shared Values and Interests

Agreeing upon and articulating shared values and interests is essential in all class communities.

The fundamental challenges of negotiating classroom values are the same in both in-person and virtual learning spaces: 

  • Balancing freedom and openness with inclusivity and safety
  • Making sure everyone is able to participate in class discussions and projects – and feels comfortable doing so

Articulating shared values is an important component of setting expectations for respectful community and managing incidents of exclusion and disrespect. Learn more about shared values in class communities, including special concerns and techniques for virtual and hybrid environments.

Learn More Techniques

Explore our articles on virtual classroom community to learn more about how you can foster good community relationships in a hybrid or virtual course. Equity Unbound and OneHD have compiled a collection of community-building strategies (including quick activities) for online learning. George Washington University’s Instructional Core offers additional suggestions for fostering community in virtual learning.

(1); see also Garrison, D.R., & Vaughan, N.D. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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