Bounded Community: Designing and Facilitating Learning Communities in Formal Courses


  • Brent G. Wilson
  • Stacey Ludwig-Hardman
  • Christine L. Thornam
  • Joanna C. Dunlap



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

Author Biographies

Brent G. Wilson

Dr. Wilson is a professor of Information and Learning Technologies at the University of Colorado at Denver. Brent’s current research relates to strengthening the instructional-design profession and framing principles to support teachers and learning technologists in their efforts to create effective instruction – particularly technology-mediated and online instruction. Brent can be reached via email at: His website address is:

Stacey Ludwig-Hardman

Dr. Ludwig-Hardman is the director of Academic Services at Western Governors University (WGU). Stacey’s doctoral dissertation examined the design and impact of an intensive four-week course designed to build skills in community and collaboration. At WGU, she continues research in academic and institutional support for self-directed learning. Dr. Ludwig-Hardman can be reached at:

Christine L. Thornam

Dr. Thornam is the director of Education and Communication Technology for the Nurse-Family Partnership ( in Denver Colorado. Chris’s doctoral research developed the construct of teaching presence from a phenomenological perspective. Her research interests include online teaching strategies, teaching presence, and evaluation of online teaching. Chris’s email address is:

Joanna C. Dunlap

Dr. Dunlap is an assistant professor of Information and Learning Technologies at the University of Colorado at Denver. Joni received recognition in being named the University’s Teacher of the Year for 2003. Her recent research has examined teaching excellence, innovative online teaching strategies, and capstone projects as a means of professional enculturation.




How to Cite

Wilson, B. G., Ludwig-Hardman, S., Thornam, C. L., & Dunlap, J. C. (2004). Bounded Community: Designing and Facilitating Learning Communities in Formal Courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 5(3).



Research Articles