November - 2004

Bounded Community: Designing and facilitating learning communities in formal courses

Brent G. Wilson
University of Colorado at Denver

Stacey Ludwig-Hardman
Western Governors University

Christine L. Thornam
Nurse-Family Partnership

Joanna C. Dunlap
University of Colorado at Denver


Learning communities can emerge spontaneously when people find common learning goals and pursue projects and tasks together in pursuit of those goals. Bounded learning communities (BLCs) are groups that form within a structured teaching or training setting, typically a course. Unlike spontaneous communities, BLCs develop in direct response to guidance provided by an instructor, supported by a cumulative resource base. This article presents strategies that help learning communities develop within bounded frameworks, particularly online environments. Seven distinguishing features of learning communities are presented. When developing supports for BLCs, teachers should consider their developmental arc, from initial acquaintance and trust-building, through project work and skill development, and concluding with wind-down and dissolution of the community. Teachers contribute to BLCs by establishing a sense of teaching presence, including an atmosphere of trust and reciprocal concern. The article concludes with a discussion of assessment issues and the need for continuing research.

A version of this paper was presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), San Diego, April 2004. Please send inquiries to Brent G. Wilson ( [Additional contact information: Brent's phone: 303-556-4363; fax 303-556-4479]

Keywords: learning community; instructional design; emergent systems; collaborative learning; teaching presence; sense of community

Bounded Community:
Designing and facilitating learning communities in formal courses

New theories of culture-mediated cognition and advances in distributed-learning platforms have prompted interest in learning communities among instructional technologists. Lave and Wenger's (1991) communities-of-practice model led to a number of workplace innovations, but also to instructional environments that rely on collaborative forms of learning, sharing, inquiry, and group participation. In common with communities of practice, learning communities are instances of complex emergent systems wherein control is distributed among participants rather than centered in a hierarchical authority (Backroad Connections Pty Ltd, 2003). According to Ludwig-Hardman (2003):

An online learning community is a group of people, connected via technology-mediated communication, who actively engage one another in collaborative learner-centered activities to intentionally foster the creation of knowledge, while sharing a number of values and practicesp (p. iv).

While a hands-off approach may work with some Web-based interest groups and groups sharing a common business purpose, establishing community within formal courses is often problematic. Educational courses, online or classroom-based, are not wholly voluntary, self-organizing groups. Rather, courses typically serve as required, encouraged, or elective components of a larger program of study – a degree, certificate, or credential of some kind. These programs may be voluntary in the sense that people freely choose to enter, but once in, they must adhere to the regimen mandated by the state, accrediting organization, or employer.

Bounded Communities

This leads to a different notion of learning community within a curriculum framework – bounded by the expectations inducing participation, but also by the timeframe of a typical course. Course participants come together for a standard, pre-determined period of time, sometimes a term or semester in length, but often for a shorter duration, especially for workplace learners. Course participants thus find themselves in a situation where:

These parameters affect the nature of community that may or may not take shape within a formal learning context. The formation of community within a course takes leadership, support, and facilitation. An instructor or facilitator needs considerable skill in this area, as well as resources, 'ools, and structures to assist the effort. Most teachers will affirm that emergence of community depends on a group's collective personality or character, and the distributed participation of group members. That participation, however, is mediated by the rules, incentives, and structures that together form the course infrastructure. Some rules and structures will contribute to the formation of community, while others work against its creation, for example, mandated individual assignments graded on a curve and other competitive structures.

Our use of the term bounded learning community denotes certain constraints placed on the community formation within course-based learning environments. The community experience is bounded by the parameters listed above. While parameters are normally thought of as constraints, they may also serve as affordances that enable certain kinds of learning and activities to transpire; for example, safely removed from work responsibilities, students may be able to share concerns or practice skills more freely. When appropriate conditions are met, a level of community can, indeed, be established in courses.

The purpose of the present paper is to develop the idea of bounded learning communities with reference to the professional literature, and to suggest strategies for supporting learning communities within formal courses, particularly those distributed to learners at a distance.

Why Learning Communities?

Interaction within courses often occurs between the teacher and the class, with individual students asking and answering questions while others listen. When those forms of interaction predominate, a sense of community does not really develop, yet students continue to attend, listen, interact occasionally, study, learn, and pass tests. Based on this teaching experience, many teachers, in classrooms and online, may question the need for learning communities, especially in content-intensive courses with a fixed curriculum. While we acknowledge and respect a number of different approaches to teaching, we offer three reasons why bounded e-learning communities should receive serious consideration:

Learning communities provide a social context for the material

Through collaborative work, students experience and develop an appreciation for multiple perspectives; refine their knowledge through argumentation, structured controversy, and the sharing of ideas and perspectives; learn to use colleagues as resources; and are more willing to take on the risk required to tackle complex, ill-structured problems (Dunlap and Grabinger, 2003).

Students feel more connected within a community

Students taking online courses often feel isolated and disconnected from the instructor and other enrolled students. Fostering a sense of community can reduce feelings of isolation, improve the learner's attitude toward the course and the content, and ultimately boost student retention (Ludwig-Hardman and Dunlap, 2003).

Learning communities can serve as a bridge between school and work environments

Solving authentic problems collaboratively within a course environment offers a safe but authentic practice field for acquisition or skills that will transfer to work situations (see Barab and Duffy, 2000). By participating in a learning community, students engage in the authentic culture of the discipline they are studying using the physical and mental tools of the discipline, thus preparing them for entry into communities of practice beyond the course (Dunlap and Grabinger, 2003). Similarly, a BLC provides opportunity for reflection, analysis, and study that often is neglected in a busy workplace environment.

In summary, we believe that most courses are richer and more authentic learning environments when learning communities are encouraged and supported. Even students in self-paced courses can benefit from linkage to a larger community of students. Granted, some courses focus entirely'on skill acquisition, and the skills in question may be technical and not collaborative in nature. On closer observation, however, those skills will need to be applied in a practical context, and then, almost surely, social variables will enter into play. Designers and instructors rightly should determine strategies most appropriate for their situation, but we do believe the use of a bounded learning community is a fairly robust teaching approach suitable for a wide range of situations and needs.

Components of Learning Community

Learning communities share essential qualities with Wenger's notion of communities of practice. Figure 1 presents Wenger's foundation for communities of practice. Essentially, participants must 1) be engaged in a joint enterprise, some compelling purpose or project that draws them together; 2) have common access to a shared repertoire of resources, including stories, concepts, and tools; and 3) maintain relationships through mutual engagement in trust-building activities. In classic form, communities of practice take shape within and around work organizations, playing off their structure and generally facilitating organizational ends.


Bounded learning communities also depend upon the organization, in this case that of a training unit and a course for an underlying purpose and context of operation. Indeed, course-based learning communities can be seen as a special case of a community of practice, wherein:

  1. The major enterprise is intentional learning, completing required activities, and performing well on course assessments

  2. The group membership is based on course enrollment and team assignment

  3. Resources are shared and interactions conducted under the guidance of an instructor

In contrast to classic communities-of-practice formulations, substantial supports for course-based communities can and should be designed ahead of time by the instructor, anticipating the learning and collaborative needs of students. Based on Ludwig-Hardman's (2003) comprehensive review of the learning-community literature, we have identified seven features that seem to facilitate its creation: 1) shared goals; 2) safe and supportive conditions; 3) collective identity; 4) collaboration; 5) respectful inclusion; 6) progressive discourse toward knowledge building; and 7) mutual appropriation. These features are not strict criteria to be satisfied to develop a learning community, but they are qualities or features associated with learning communities, which should be considered when attempting to establish or support such communities in courses and programs.

Shared Goals

A learning community forms, in part, when individuals from multiple perspectives willingly collaborate as a larger collective whole toward a shared goal or vision (Barab and Duffy, 1998; Palloff and Pratt, 1998; Senge, 2000). “The sense of shared community requires that the participants be sympathetic to the ideas around which the group is based; even if they disagree, there needs to be some fundamental common ground” (Donath, 1999, p. 31). When members of a community share goals there is a greater desire to participate in activities and to contribute to the group's goals (Wilson, 2001). For example, students in a course may be assigned into working groups to complete a project, with a grade based on both individual and group performance. By establishing goals and rules that mandate interaction and co-dependence, students can develop a shared goal that gives real purpose in collaboration.

Safe and Supporting Conditions

A learning community provides caring and nurturing conditions that foster the development of trust and respect among the learners (Coombe, 1999; Retallick, 1999). This, in turn, encourages risk-taking, the exchange of ideas and feedback, shared responsibility and'support for learning and outcomes, and distributed or negotiated control (Barab and Duffy, 1998; Downes, 1998; Etzioni and Etzioni, 1997; Grabinger and Dunlap, 1996; Hiltz, 1998; Jonasen, Peck, and Wilson, 1999; Lawrence, 1997; Scime, 1994; Wells, 1999). The teacher's role in modeling respectful behavior in interactions is important, as is monitoring of interactions between students. Students often benefit by participating in establishing rules and norms for group interaction to ensure a safe and respectful environment.

Community Identity

The symbolic construction of a community is accomplished by:

. . . ensuring that the group is apart from and different from other social groups through the establishment of a group identity recognizable from within and outside of the group. The boundaries of community comprise the “face” presented to outsiders, “its collective public identity.” (Calderwood, 2000, p. 12-13)

Clearly defined boundaries provide for inclusion and exclusion of members. Maintaining clear boundaries may encourage ongoing interaction and greater intimacy, and assurances that the learners' efforts will not be reaped by others who have not contributed to those efforts (Kollock, 1996). Boundaries also delineate roles between old-timers who have been stable members of the community and newcomers, allowing for the process of legitimate peripheral participation as newcomers move toward full participation in the community (Lave and Wenger, 1991).

A learning community's identity is largely formed by the community's history or heritage, including the shared goals and belief systems, rules and norms of the community that is reproduced as new generations of members enter the community to assure that it continues to function (Barab and Duffy, 1998; Scardemalia and Bereiter, 1996). A shared history also encourages the development of group identity, which enhances reproducibility as new members contribute, support, and eventually lead the community into the future (Barab, Barnett and Squire, 2000; Barab and Duffy, 2000; Lawrence, 1997).

On this point, however, bounded learning communities differ from more emergent varieties. The challenge for course designers is to establish nearly instant traditions that draw on traces of history but do not depend on a continuing line of group members. Achieving a rapid sense of community is a formidable challenge, according to the conventional wisdom:

[If members of a] group will not meet each other in the future, if there is no stability in the names and identities that people adopt, and if there is no memory or community record of previous interaction, it will be very difficult to create and maintain a cooperative online community (Kollock, 1996, p. 235).

The limited nature of contact and interaction in online courses can inhibit students identifying with the group. At surface levels, students may identify with the group and see themselves as partners and collaborators. Establishing deeper levels of identity change is rarer and may depend on the intensity of the learning experience and whether students encounter one another in continuing courses. Larger contextual factors may also be important, for example, students' sense of belonging within an academic or work program. In any case, identity remains an important consideration for learning communities, and can serve as a continuing goal for e-learning courses and environments.


Involvement in a learning community requires high levels of social interaction. Salomon and Perkins (1998) state: “learning to learn fundamentally involves learning to learn from others, learning to learn with others” (p. 17). Collaborative online learning communities provide community members the chance to learn from and with others and to contribute to others' learning.

Collaboration in e-learning environme'ts is often a challenge for students. Essential preconditions such as getting everyone's contribution in a timely way can be difficult, depending on the mix of group members. Students' preconceived notions of what happens in an online course can also interfere with collaboration; many students still believe that online learning is like correspondence and, therefore, individualized and self-paced. “Weak” forms of collaboration, such as threaded discussion of assigned topics, are generally easier to sustain than stronger forms that require true negotiation, management, and decision-making. These stronger forms of collaboration may test a group's coherence, but if the group is successful in their work, bonds are strengthened and a true sense of connection established.

Respectful Inclusion

A learning community values and seeks to accommodate diversity of membership, opinions, and perspectives, along with authentic expression of those perspectives (Barab and Duffy, 2000; Brown and Campione, 1994; Jonassen, Peck and Wilson, 1999; Reil, 1996; Sergiovanni, 1999; Wellman and Gulia, 1999; Wells, 1999; Wenger, 1998b). At the same time, deep differences between group members can be a threat to coherence, especially if a means of resolving differences is not worked out. Online courses need clear rules and supports for including all group members in work and decision processes. Dewey (1916) asserted:

A society which makes provisions for participation . . . of all its members . . . is democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and controls, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder.

The topic of diversity and inclusion is a challenge for e-learning, perhaps more so than other environments because of the natural distancing felt by many learners. Some aspects of diversity (such as gender, age, ethnicity, learning challenge/ disability, etc.) are masked in an online setting. As in all forms of education, however, some learners' needs are not clearly addressed by the course, and these individuals will likely be lurking at the margins and not participating fully in collective tasks. People at a particular disadvantage include those not fluent in reading and writing; those unskilled in independent problem solving; and those lacking prior knowledge of the subject matter.

Based on best cases, successful learning communities can accommodate surprising levels of diversity in safe and supportive environments that invite risk-taking, learner control, and agency. Getting to that point of full engagement by every learner, however, will always be a challenge for course designers and instructors. And in general, finding effective means for respectful and full inclusion of all learners remains one of the challenging tasks in need of further research and development.

Progressive Discourse Toward Knowledge Building

Bereiter (1994) proposed the term progressive discourse to describe the process by which the sharing, questioning, and revising of opinions leads to “a new understanding that everyone involved agrees is superior to their own previous understanding. Such discourse is based on four commitments that all participants make: a) to work toward common understanding; b) to frame questions and propositions in ways that allow evidence to be brought to bear on them; c) to expand the body of collectively valid propositions; and d) to allow any belief to be subjected to criticism if it will advance the discourse” (Bereiter, 1994, p. 6). Scardamalia and Bereiter (1994) further indicate that intentional learning is “fundamentally a matter of goals rather than strategies. It is a matter of having knowledge as a goal” (p. 201). It is the active and intentional pursuit of knowledge that distinguishes learning communities from other chance encounters or purely social ne'works (Palmer, 1999). Progressive discourse and intentional knowledge-building both help to differentiate learning communities from communities with other kinds of discourses and performance goals.

Mutual Appropriation

Brown and Campione (1994) define mutual appropriation as the process by which “learners of all ages and levels of expertise and interests seed the environment with ideas and knowledge that are appropriated by different learners at different rates, according to their needs and to the current state of the zones of proximal development in which they are engaged” (p. 237; see also Vygotsky, 1978). Mutual appropriation refers to the bi-directional and reciprocal nature of learning in which members of the community are both learners and teachers (Butt, 1999; Sergiovanni, 1999).

Since active participation in a learning community takes time and effort, distance learners must perceive that there is some benefit to be gained from participation in a learning community and that they are getting a “personal return on their investment in the group” (Wilson and Ryder, 1996; see also Levin, 1995). Rogers (1995) calls this relative advantage, a sense that there will be some payoff or benefit to adoption of the new practice. Further, learners that perceive there is a mutual benefit will more likely feel a sense of obligation to “participate in activities and contribute to group goals” (Wilson, 2001). Mutual appropriation can provide intrinsic rewards and incentives to members who continue contributing as both learners and teachers within the community.

For design purposes, the seven features outlined above can serve as an organizing framework for interventions and strategies aimed as increasing community, offered later in the paper. Or, more holistically, course resources may be analyzed and determined to be strong or weak in one or more of the seven features, leading to adjustments in the environment, tasks, or support structures.

The Teacher's Role

Teachers are a critical component of bounded learning communities. They must:

This last task, establishing trusting relationships with students, can sometimes be neglected in online environments. We believe this is a mistake, because online learners need to have confidence in their teachers as guides in their journey toward new learning.

The remaining focus of this section is a discussion of teaching presence and its contributing role in bounded learning communities. To some extent, this discussion balances the technical features of learning communities established above and serves as a reminder of the qualitative, interpersonal foundations of course experiences.

Upon entering a new course environment, students observe and establish schemas for the course and instructor, adjusting their existing schemas, which are based on years of observation and experience in school situations. Depending on the design and details of the course and the messages sent from the instructor, students may feel varying levels of safety and trust. Because community-building depends on student initiative and willingness to take risks, establishing a trusting relationship with the teacher is an important precondition for successful learning communities.

Much of the current literature on presence is based on either psychometric notions of social distance or technical notions of presence as an illusion that a mediated experience is not'mediated (Lombard and Ditton, 1997). Thornam (2003) describes teaching presence focusing on the teacher-student relationship, grounded in the existential view of the obligation imposed when people make interpersonal demands on the other (e.g., Hand, 1989). Teaching presence is defined as:

. . . an intersubjective experience during which a teacher and a student willingly move together toward valued learning. By being there with the student, the teacher reduces the student's educational vulnerability and by knowing the student, feelings of helplessness or abandonment are allayed. Both submit to the power of the other to influence, penetrate and engage, and are equally willing to be changed by the experience. (Thornam, 2003, p. 7)

Indicators of teaching presence are presented in Table 1 below.


Teachers should model community participation skills and values, including turn-taking, netiquette, thoughtful responses to peers' posts, and organization and facilitation of community events or chat. They should actively monitor the community discussions to answer questions, resolve conflicts, and guide discussion as needed. Students quickly pick up on the “absent” instructor, and take tasks less seriously when they sense its lower priority. Instructors can be deemed “absent,” both literally and figuratively. Teachers can avoid being viewed as figuratively absent by relating meaningful personal and professional experience.

The schemas students use to make sense of classrooms and online learning environments are largely based on the interactions they have with teachers and other students. Attitudes, actions, and beliefs associated with these two themes give us clues about strategies teachers can use to foster a strong sense of presence with students. Students then feel safer to engage in progressive discourse toward knowledge building, mutual appropriation, respectful inclusion, and collaboration, all of which are important elements in community formation.

Ritualized Forms for Communities-in-Progress

A key observation of Ludgwig-Hardman (2003) was that bounded learning communities have a developmental life cycle. Students are asked to engage in a pre-defined sequence where they first learn the ropes, then enter into intensive interaction with peers, then conclude the experience with reflection and some kind of ritualized closure experience. These three stages can be termed: initiation, participation, and closure respectively.

The developmental form of the course may become clearer to students if guiding symbols and artifacts are presented as part of the course structure. Cultural anthropologists have studied local communities for many years and have observed ways that communities express meaning and values through language and rituals. These cultural artifacts help community members make sense of their worlds and participate meaningfully in group activities. Trice and Beyer (1984) analyzed corporate cultures within business organizations, looking for rituals and rites that defined the community.

In Figure 2, we apply these ideas to the design of courses. We present a set of questions intended to stimulate thinking about various forms of cultural artifacts and how they might be related to a bounded learning community. Designers of online courses could establish a number of signs, symbols, rituals, and language pointers to strengthen the developmental arc of the course and to encourage positive engagement in community interactions.


Points 1-3 in the job aid acknowledge the power structures within a class, and the important roles that particular class members play in achieving community. Instructors are well-advised to identify early on informal leaders, including those who may not'participate as actively, but whose beliefs and attitudes are influential within the group. Instructors who are able to assess the talent and resources within a group, and then tap that talent for the good of the group – these instructors will be more successful in establishing a strong sense of community.

Point 4 of the job aid asks instructors to reflect on various functions that happen within community – passage, renewal, conflict reduction, and so forth – and look for outward forms and rituals that could relate to those functions. Rituals or symbols relating to these critical functions could help orient the student toward the rhythm, pacing, and expectations of the course. An instructor, for example, may pace the course to rise to a climax of participation and challenge, to be followed with a calmer time of reflection and consolidation (see Parrish, 2004, and Parrish, in press, for more on dramatic pacing in courses). A specific ritual such as a poster session could denote closure on one phase and movement toward the next.

The remaining points in the job aid consider stories, symbols, heroes, and language, all of which may be used to strengthen community. Instructors who are cognizant of local culture may specifically design the course with these items in mind, particularly at early stages. One instructor in an on-campus Master's program begins a leadership class by decorating a classroom with a Polynesian theme and having students engage in a number of ritual-type activities. This sends a clear message to students that the course is different from others they have taken, that they need to loosen their schemas, pay attention, and be prepared to exercise their imagination and do things differently. Students in that class are likely to develop a distinctive sense of community based on the unusual rituals and symbols used by the instructor throughout the course.

Strategies for Strengthening Bounded Communities

Table 2 presents a number of strategies within each of the seven features of learning communities. Instructors experienced in supporting learning communities will doubtless have additional ideas and strategies to add to the list.


We encourage consideration of these strategies within the three phases of the development arc discussed above. For instance, the initiation stage may focus on developing safe and supporting conditions and community identity. During the participation stage focus may turn to identifying shared goals, collaboration, and respectful inclusion. With most of these elements in place, learners may be prepared to engage in progressive discourse and mutual appropriation in support of knowledge building. Closure can be a time to re-examine community identity and reflect on the intensive activities of the participation phase. Students can further link knowledge together and consolidate gains, ensuring a better match to performance expectations beyond the course.

Tools for Assessing Community

Students in a bounded learning community would be expected to report a sense of belonging to that community. A research instrument has been developed to formally measure sense of community (Rovai, Lucking, and Cristol, 2001; see also McMillan, 1996, and Rovai and Lucking, 2003). This instrument is based on a somewhat different conceptual base than our seven features. Moreover, instructors need a shorter, more focused instrument for routine use in classes. Figure 3 offers a draft of a simple instrument for assessing levels of community within courses.


Having access to a measure of community seems critical for instructors, if they are to make iterative improvements in their courses. We are presently working to refine and validate a short measure for this purpose, and will report on that effort in the future.


If learners have truly identified with a learning community within a course, the closure phase may actually lead to further interactions outside of the course as students stay in touch and continue correspondence. Thus closure on a bounded group may initiate an un bounded community beyond the confines of a course. While this kind of continuing engagement cannot be strictly expected as an outcome, conditions can be encouraged to facilitate lasting relationships.

Course-based learning communities can bring the experience of schooling closer to everyday life by grounding experiences in community participation. Through course activities, students can establish contact with outside communities of practice, beyond the walls of the school (Wenger, 1998). This transfer to practice may be rare, but it is more likely to occur within active learning communities.

This, indeed, is one of the strengths of a learning-community approach to coursework: The participation skills gained relate very well to the lifelong learning roles expected of adults in society (Dunlap and Grabinger, 2003). Very similar skills are needed for successful participation in communities of practice. Having begun with specific consideration of bounded participation, we are nonetheless reminded that courses are not – or should not be – fully self-contained, closed systems. Rather, course boundaries should be porous – sufficiently defined to establish a clear sense of community within, but flexible enough to accommodate outside resources, including people, information, and field interactions.

The idea of community within courses is partly an issue of what works, and developing appropriate models and strategies to help things work better. Design research and instructional-design theories can help us develop strategies that “work” effectively. Community is also a value, however, a commitment toward valuing certain learning over other outcomes. Technical skill acquisition is doubtless of value, but even more valuable is the ability to use a skill to solve an authentic problem. Helping people in the transition to the workplace is a high value, and this transition is aided through work-like collaboration in courses. Teachers are valuable information sources, but even more valuable as they help students construct understanding through activity. In this respect, instructional design converges with curriculum concerns of what should we be teaching, how should we be preparing students for roles outside the classroom. This convergence of technical/ theoretical and value/ political concerns is actually a very positive condition. By directly confronting the value questions surrounding ideas of community, teachers are more likely to see their concerns addressed. With the practical support of strategies and technologies, teachers are then more likely to find success in their efforts.


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