Learning through friendship

This entry is part of the course ONL192 (topic 3 Learning in Communities)

Online teaching and learning can be a very distanced, detached experience – high drop out rates and incomplete assignments haunt the online learning environments in many conventional distance courses. Taking this course, the ONL 192, helped me to understand why this happens and how to avoid this problem. The online learning environment, even more than the face-to-face classroom, needs to be guided by emotional presence in the teaching practice and the learning activities of the participants. Online small-group work, similar to PBL groups, guided by a tutor or the course facilitator, can help to avoid this and create better learning and a stronger commitment in the students.

According to the article by Bindley/Blaschke/Walti article (2009), small group learning experiences are a vital tool for creating a lively and engaging online learning environment. It increases the sense of community and deepens the learning and the achieved skill sets.  

I want to add here seven points highlighted in the article which help me as a teacher to consider the importance of online learning groups for my own courses. How can these groups be assembled and structured so that they are a productive experience for the course participants and students? The article emphasises seven important aspects:

 1.     Facilitate learners’ readiness for group work and help with scaffolding, e.g via instructional design (sequencing activities within the course that build towards a final assignment).

2.     Establish a good balance between structure and learning autonomy – (instructions need to be clear – but also allow a certain amount of autonomy of the learner to adapt it flexibly to their interest and direction of discussion).

3.     Nurture a sense of community (create informality, honesty, familiarity, openness, heat, passions, empathy, trust, humor; Chapman, Ramondt, and Smiley 2005) if facilitators help introduce and model these items – the students can learn better and have a better learning experience.

4.     Monitor group activities actively and closely (not via formal assessment but through continuous feedback for instance, that helps students to develop specific skills).

5.     Make the group tasks relevant for the learner (authentic real-world environment and relevant content).

6.     Chose tasks that are best performed by a group.

7.     Provide sufficient time.


Small online-learning groups help to :

·      develoment of critical thinking skills

·      co-create  knowledge and meaning

·      provide a reflection space

·      help to experience transformative learning


I would add to this list also the vital element of friendship, responsibility, and care as aspects of supporting and deepening the learning in online classrooms. In my own experience of online learning, feelings of commitment are created through sympathy, of slowly knowing the other, getting to know them, feeling interested and respect for them as a person. This is a significant element in the learning and is particularly vital when considering a norm-critical and transfeminist learner space. Community and collectivity are significant for many gender-nonconforming students who otherwise often experience resistances, violence, and stigma on campus and in different classrooms. The importance of friendship and the support and respect gained from this, are a vital instrument of establishing oneself as a subject in the academic environment and build a reality in an environment that is usually not prioritizing “minority students”.



Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. and Walti, C. (2009).“Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment”. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 10 (3). Available online.

Chapman, C., Ramondt, L., and Smiley, G. (2005). “Strong community, deep learning: Exploring the link”. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 47 (3): 217- 230.

Further reading:

Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



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Teacher and researcher in Gender Studies with a specialization in the field of Transgender Studies!