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About "Building sense of community at a distance"

The choice of the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL)
Terry Anderson

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Rovai, A. (2002). Building sense of community at a distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1) from​content/​v3.1/​rovai.pdf.

1Many of us had been arguing since the turn of the last century that there was growing evidence that “community” as both an assemblance of individuals and a distinct social entity, was not restricted to face-to-face interactions. Nearly two decades later, this seems to be an obvious fact given the proliferation of online communities using social media. However, back then, all networked distance education was text based and delivered asynchronously. Researchers and designers began to focus on what kind of physical structures (content, schedules of activities, gradebooks etc) and as importantly what kind of interpersonal connections we thought would support and nurture a high quality, online learning experience. For many distance education theorists and practitioners also found that the term community resonated with them. Unfortunately the term community was then and still is defined by many with little consensus – except for the warm fuzzy feeling that it connotes for educators!

2Scholars and researchers from fields as diverse as ecology, health care and etymology (to name a few) have been struggling to come up with a meaningful definition of Community. Sociologist George Hillery (1955) famously collected 94 different definitions of community and tried to make sense of it- with only moderate success. In the 63 years that followed Hillery’s publication, likely as many new definitions have been proposed. Thus, we needed distance education scholars to not only define but extract the salient features, benefits and costs of the unique context of distance learners supporting and learning together, while separated by geographic distances.

3In this 2002 article Rovai provides a theoretical rationale for the development of community. As you will note in this article, he too scoured the literature from education but as well from other disciplines looking for an appropriate defintion. He claims that “classroom community can be constitutively defined in terms of four dimensions: spirit, trust, interaction, and commonality of expectation and goals, in this case, learning.” Rovai’s model has been widely used (1412 citations) by researchers – both online and in classrooms. Later that year he published and field tested a survey instrument designed to measure ‘learning’ and ‘connectedness in both campus based and online classrooms (A. P. Rovai, 2002). This 2002 Classroom Community Scale has become a widely used and cited instrument (853 citations). As importantly Rovia’s model of community has been used by learning designers and teachers to diagnose and then remedy problems in many mode of distance education.

4Specifically, in the article Rovai sets a goal of a functioning educational community and the four dimensions of that learning community. He then extracts seven factors that are known from the literature to enhance the formation of a community. These include community size; social presence, teaching approach and others. For each of these dimensions he provides rationale and examples of how these community forming dimensions can be structured or socially supported in an online, distance education course.

5Rovai was not the first to recognize the importance of a sense of community in overcoming the perennial problem of non-completion of distance education programs, that, in 2002 and still today plagues distance education. Is model and testing instrument seek to eliminate or at least reduce “barriers that prevented students from connecting with the school and to developing a sense of belonging, membership, and engagement”.

6This article presents the theoretical basis, constituent factors that give validity (from the literature) and he makes a convincing convincing case, that communities can and should be created by students and teachers studying at a distance.

7In his review of earlier work, Rovai’s notes the tension between dialogue and structure that Michael Moore (1993) used as a basis for his transactional distance theory. He finds that community is associated with enhanced interactions. He also cautions that engaging in community support and development takes work – just like growing a garden and “extra demands are placed on both facilitators and learners”

8Of course given my own involvement in the genesis of the Community of Inquiry Model (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000), I have had to consider how the COI relates to Rovai’s model of community. Both of these models and the associated instruments have been widely used to assess and stimulate community creation. Both instruments relate directly to the development of both learning and the social components of community support. Finally both models share strong and common roots in social constructivism. Although covering much common territory, the COI focus on “teaching presence” seems to highlight the structural components of formal education more so than Rovai’s model. It is interesting to speculate why the COI instrument has chalked up considerably more citations than Rovai’s model. Perhaps it has something to do with the simplicity and communication power of three-factor Venn diagrams, that visualize the COI model. Or perhaps it true, as my colleague Randy Garrison noted, ‘Venn diagrams make careers!’

9This 2002 article was certainly not the last contribution that Rovai has made to distance and online education. His career at Regents University in the USA is marked by solid scholarly work with a nice focus on both qualitative and quantitative research methods.

10It is thus, that the editors of IRRODL, proudly nominate this work for this important issue of DMS.

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Garrison, R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical thinking in text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87-105.

Hillery, G. (1955). Defintions of community: Areas of agreement. Rural Sociology, 20(1), 111-123.

Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical Principles of Distance Educationpp. 22-38). New York: Routledge.

Rovai, A. (2002). Building sense of community at a distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1). Retrieved Oct. 2005 from

Rovai, A. P. (2002). Development of an instrument to measure classroom community. Internet and Higher Education, 5(3), 197-211

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Terry Anderson, « About "Building sense of community at a distance"  »Distances et médiations des savoirs [En ligne], 23 | octobre 2018, mis en ligne le 09 août 2018, consulté le 09 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Terry Anderson

Editor Emeritus, IRRODL

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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