Community: What impact, if any, has teaching online had on course learning communities?

One area of pedagogy that has been significantly affected during the pandemic has been the sense of community that students experience on their course. While the strength of students’ sense of community will naturally vary from course to course, a course learning community can play a significant role in engaging and students and helping learn core knowledge and skills. Team Maté’s research sought to investigate the potential ways in which teaching online during the pandemic had affected course learning communities.

PUBLISHED ON 30th August 2021 | Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

The sudden shift from face-to-face to online learning due to the pandemic created an entirely new set of circumstances for students whose expectations of life at University were fundamentally challenged. For teaching staff, there was a focus on practicalities around learning new technology platforms. Existing teaching schedules and processes were re-imagined for the online environment. There were varying degrees of guidance from each higher education institution on how the existing curriculum and timetable could be redeveloped. In some instances, there was limited strategic direction or guidance behind this process.

Team Maté: Laura Holme, Lucia Lu, Emily Hawes, Jennifer Scott, David Brook and Ruth Paton

Team Maté poster

In their literature review, Team Maté noted the findings from a study by Marshalsey and Sclater (2020) which investigated the impact of the move to online delivery on art and design practice. One of the key findings is that the loss of social connection and community has had detrimental effects upon both staff and students’ mental health, and participants describe feeling ‘distant’, ‘alienated’, as if ‘a wall had been put up’ (Marshalsey and Sclater, 2020, p.388). The authors suggest that a strong sense of place is inherently linked to a sense of belonging and the ‘friendly, informal, day-to-day social interactions with peers and staff in their situated studio community are integral to their collective and individual learning and practice’ (Marshalsey and Sclater, 2018, p.77).

Team Maté collected data via in-depth interviews with 14 students; 5 male, 9 female; across L4, L6 and L7; 60% UK students, 40% International Students from India, Pakistan, China, Sweden, Czech Republic and USA, from 3 different Higher Education Institutions. There were three key questions asked of all respondents:

  • Question 1: How has the last year been compared to what you were expecting of university?
  • Question 2: Can you describe your experience of communication and collaboration online?
  • Question 3: Some people say they have felt part of a group. Some people say they have felt isolated. Can you tell me how you feel about it?

The findings were analysed and organised into 6 themes: Community, Collaboration, Formal Learning, Informal Communication, Domain, and Mental health and wellbeing. The poster provides a summary of the findings in each theme.


Course learning communities play a vital role in facilitating students’ academic and social experiences in the university. The findings of this research indicate that online learning cannot fully satisfy students’ creative, emotional and social needs, especially for studio-based courses. A variety of digital platforms have been adopted to deliver teaching activities, such as Teams, Zoom, and Facebook. However, these kinds of online learning methods appear to have various benefits and difficulties in terms of the ways of learning. Educators need to make the most use of digital platforms wisely and effectively to motivate active learning. Otherwise, students may suffer from the digital learning environment where students may not feel comfortable with the virtual experience of learning.

Educators need to be aware of students’ wellbeing and mental health when delivering courses and learning activities in online learning communities. Respect, support, and social connections are key in managing online learning communities to provide a better learning experience. Students need more support and encouragement to achieve authentic expression and express negative feelings and experiences. Further research could recruit students widely from different courses by using questionnaires to generalise the findings from this research.


Leaver, T., Highfield, T., and Abidin, C. (2020) Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Orr, S., Yorke, M., and Blair, B. (2014) ‘The answer is brought about from within you’: A Student‐Centred Perspective on Pedagogy in Art and Design. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 33(1), pp.32-45.

Monet-Viera, M. (2021) Making the Massive Intimate: Building a Lasting Learning Community. Hybrid Pedagogy. (accessed 11 June 2021)

Marshalsey, L. and Sclater, M. (2020) Together but apart: creating and supporting online learning communities in an era of distributed studio education. The International Journal of Art & Design Education . 39 (4)

Williams, J. and Murdock, A. (2011) Creating an Online Learning Community: Is it Possible?
Innovative Higher Education, 36: 305–315

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