photo of Students ASL Class in lecture hall


Though technology has improved dramatically over the years to support high quality, collaborative online/hybrid teaching and learning, many of the pedagogical principles remain consistent with in-person instruction. An instructor needs to let students know about expectations for their work, participation and collaboration, as well as the instructor’s availability and approach to feedback.

Appropriate online/hybrid instructional strategies should also be identified and employed in order to create a friendly, communicative, and productive online environment for students. Assessment of online/hybrid students’ performance should be properly designed to ensure student achievement.

Instructional Technology and Design Services has designed a Student Guide to Online Learning for students to learn more about what online or hybrid courses are like at Montclair State University. In addition, we have developed and Canvas Student Orientation Course and encourage students to take this survey in order to determine their preparedness for online learning: Self Assessment for Online Learning Readiness.

Learning Communities and Interaction in the Online Environment

In a traditional classroom, students interact with each other in the same physical classroom space. This frequent face-to-face contact helps students build friendships and create a learning community. However, an online/hybrid learning environment does not provide such a sense of community unless the instructor provides community building opportunities, such as group assignments, discussion forums, and other social activities. Below you will find several research-based frameworks to inform your thinking about how to enhance community and interaction in your online/hybrid courses, as well as face to face environments.

Community of Inquiry

Peter Shea and Temi Bidjerano contend that the traditional community of inquiry model (Anderson, Garrison, and Archer 2001) should be revised to include Learning Presence (Shea, Bidjerano, 2010) and therefore, be comprised of four key integrated elements:


The extent to which the professor and the students are able to construct and affirm meaning through sustained discourse (discussion) in a community of inquiry is cognitive presence. It is a vital element in enhancing critical thinking. Cognitive presence can be demonstrated by introducing factual, conceptual, and theoretical knowledge into the discussion.


Social presence is the complete and interactive educational experience of participants in the didactic process. When participants in an online course help establish a community of learning by projecting their personal characteristics into the discussion or other activities, they present themselves as real people.  


Teaching presence supports the design and management of an educational experience and facilitates the communication between teachers and students. Teaching presence supports and enhances both cognitive and social presence in achieving educational outcomes.


Learning presence involves learner self-regulation and self-efficacy, predominantly in the online environment. Self-regulated online students monitor their time and cognitive strategies, regulate their own study environment, and exercise control over their interactions with peers to maximize learning. Furthermore, the relationship between teaching presence and self-efficacy is stronger for students in blended learning environments, and self-efficacy and effort are dynamically associated with teaching and social presence.

A revised CoI model (Source: Shea & Biderjano, 2010), available via license: CC BY 4.0

Deep and meaningful learning is generated through the interaction of these core elements within a community of inquiry. Building a community is important for any course, but essential for online courses. It is important to emphasize the joint development of the above elements in order to foster community in the class. This encourages students to feel comfortable in the course, establishing relationships and openly discussing course content with peers.

Cultivating a strong sense of community takes time, commitment, and good planning.
The following are some suggested activities for the online environment to help build a social learning community:

Interaction Online

Developing opportunities for online interaction is essential for a successful online/hybrid course. Students are greatly dependent on the facilitation of offering opportunities for interaction. Moore (1989) identified three types of interactions that are important for learning and engagement, including learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner.


The communication process between the learner and the content or subject of study. Learners typically construct meaning and understanding through the learning content and this is also a defining characteristic of education.

There are several ways to facilitate learner-content interaction:

  • Stimulate prior knowledge and “hook” your students into engaging with new concepts.
  • Present subject matter by using appropriate media. You can use charts, graphs, process maps, and timelines into your course to make complicated ideas visual.
  • Add interactive elements to encourage active learning. These can be as simple as rollovers or hyperlinks to additional information help to keep the visual design simple yet engaging.
  • Offer exercises and activities for students to engage with course content. This is helpful for students to self-check their understanding of concepts through ungraded tools.
  • An online discussion forum is a place where students share resources, negotiate meanings, and construct knowledge collaboratively.
  • Online discussion is regarded as the core of an online course. Therefore, it is important to appropriately design online discussion activities and foster productive online discussions.
  • In online courses, group work provides opportunities for students to interact with each other as well as with the course content.


The interaction between the learner and the expert who prepared the subject material. The instructor serves as a facilitator, guiding students through independent or group learning activities and provides feedback directly to students. Student-to-faculty interaction is extremely important in order to keep students focused on the content and provide feedback -both positive and corrective. This type of interaction should be built into all online courses.

How to Facilitate Learner-Instructor Interactions:

  • Feedback and Reinforcement: Feedback and reinforcement can take on many forms; email communication, audio recorded comments on assignments, or comments on blogs, journals, and class projects.
  • Office Hours and Meetings: Meetings can be arranged during office hour blocks or via private meeting times using Blackboard IM, Skype, and many others. Consider that some students may not be able to meet during conventional business hours.
  • Messages and Announcements: You may want to send regular messages out to all students, selected groups or individuals to provide additional information, feedback or recommendations. This is helpful in keeping your course dynamic and for students to sense the instructor’s presence between meetings or activities.


Where students take information that they have read or listened to and begin to build their understanding through dialogue with others. It could be the interaction between one learner and other learners, alone or in group settings, with or without the real-time presence of an instructor. It is through using information that it becomes knowledge.

How to Create Learner-to-Learner Interaction:

  • Partner or small group assignments that support collaborative critical thinking and problem solving
  • Peer review activities that guide students to interact with each other’s work
  • Open forums for students to share ideas with each other such as wikis, blogs, Discussion Boards, etc.

In recent years with the ongoing emergence of new technologies, some researchers have added a fourth type of interaction related to specific learning technologies and how they impact student learning and interaction regardless of the modality.

The Technology-Student component refers to the impact on learning when students interact with course technology (learning management system, multimedia tools, etc.). This includes how they engage with and learn from the course material.

When learning is centered among these four types of interactions, it is important to consider promoting each type of interaction in students’ online learning experience. Keep in mind that these interaction types are not isolated, independent activities but very often overlap with each other. The ability to understand and appropriately apply these types of interaction will help to create an engaging and dynamic online learning environment. High levels of interaction can also help generate a higher quality of online learning and high levels of online satisfaction.

Teamwork and Collaboration

Teamwork and collaboration involves students working together one-on-one or in small groups. Typically, an instructor will assess teamwork based on the final project instead of evaluating contribution from each student. However, students in the online environment frequently express concern that not all members contribute equally when working in groups.

Group of students in a computer lab

Therefore, developing a transparent assessment process that evaluates both individual and team based learning can encourage student collaboration. Some of the strategies to effectively assess teamwork involve using student self evaluation and peer evaluation. Using the combination of individual assessment and team project assessment can provide the instructor with valuable information on how teams function and how to provide feedback and grading. Some strategies for collaboration among students might include, group discussions, role playing, case studies, or the Jigsaw technique (refer to our list of Successful Strategies on our Active Learning page).

References and Research


The research done on Learning in an Online and Hybrid environment is extensive. From meta-analyses to literature reviews, online learning has been studied for over two decades. ITDS offers a handful of research examples to support this section. To review these resources, please visit our References page.

Person sitting in a chair with laptop in his lap

For more guidance on designing or managing an online/hybrid course we encourage you to meet with our Instructional Designers by setting up a one-on-one appointment using the ITDS Appointment Scheduler.

ITDS has a useful guide for students interested in taking online or hybrid courses at Montclair State University and wishing to learn more about what they are like. It provides essential information for students to get prepared for taking online courses. The guide is located in the Student Services section of the IT website and can be accessed by visiting the Student Guide to Online Learning.