Socialization in Online Learning

Online courses have become an increasingly common way for students to access course content. They present both unique opportunities and challenges, particularly in relation to student socialization. For an overview of the opportunities and challenges of transitioning a course from a face-to-face to online context, the reader is referred to this brief article.

The concept of socialization can be used in a number of ways. But here, it refers to the process by which individuals establish connections with others and adopt the standards and values of society needed for fruitful social interactions (Irwin and Berge 2006; Maccoby, 2008). The information below addresses the opportunities, challenges, and best practices related to student socialization in online courses.

Opportunities in online learning

Online classes undeniably offer unique opportunities to students. They afford educational access to students who otherwise would not be able to take desired or required courses due to schedule, distance, or other factors. Online courses also provide a chance for more students to meaningfully participate in, and engage with, course discussion and activities. For example, students who are less likely to speak up in class may be more forthcoming in online forums, and online peer-review may be less intimidating for female students compared to face-to-face peer review (Moneypenny et al., 2018).

Both online and on campus classrooms can be communities where every student is able to productively engage with one another in an environment where well-structured learning successfully refines the knowledge of the participants (Abercrombie, 1979). A big difference between “communities of learning” and some traditional forms of education has to do with varying perspectives on who holds knowledge in the classroom. Traditionally, the emphasis has been on individual knowledge and performance, with the expectation that students will acquire the same body of knowledge at the same time (Bielaczye and Collins, 1999). In a community of learning, however, it is not necessary for each individual to assimilate everything that the learning community knows; instead, everyone knows who has the relevant expertise to address any given problem (Bielaczye and Collins, 1999). Research indicates that students participating in collaborative learning tend to perform better than those completing independent work (Means et al., 2010) because peers serve as an additional learning resource by sharing personal knowledge in discussion. Sharing amongst peers may facilitate the adoption of multiple perspectives on task completion or subject matter within the class (Weinberger et al., 2007). Prioritizing community building in the design of online courses have the potential to improve both student experience and learning outcomes.

Challenges of socialization in the online learning setting

Despite the advantages of collaborative learning, online learners can experience frustration associated with online learning experiences. Capdeferro and Romero (2012) found that students’ frustration in online collaborative learning experiences adversely affected their emotions and learning outcomes. Student attitude was a significant predictor of frustration. For example, students who join an online collaborative learning environment with a negative view of group work can be apathetic or resistant to it, experiencing a higher level of frustration. Potential barriers to student learning and socialization in the online setting include: time lapses between interactions, lack of clear communication norms, the absence of visual auditory conversation cues, and a perceived imbalance in commitment, responsibility, and/or effort amongst members of a working group (Irwin and Berge, 2006; Capdeferro and Romero, 2012). Transitioning students from sharing and explaining information to building knowledge, which may include more challenging ways of thinking or pressing for deeper understanding, can be difficult in online classes (Wallace, 2003). Additionally, while work has been done to conceptualize and understand the social interactions and limitations of online learning, more work is required to connect these concepts to subject-specific learning (Wallace, 2003). For example, different challenges may exist for an online course in philosophy versus biology and require different strategies to mitigate them.

Mitigation and best practices

Diversity can exist in what appear to be unlikely places, such as online classrooms and very small cohorts of students. Consequently, freshmen taking online courses can interact with perspectives unlike their own. The key to success is creating an environment where those interactions successfully occur. Several researchers have highlighted the role of the instructor of online courses as critical for fostering an environment where everyone has a voice and mitigating the limitations of online courses (Irwin and Berge, 2006; Wallace, 2003). By introducing thoughtful questions, mediating discussions, facilitating student-student interaction, and encouraging participation by all students, instructors can create a platform for the exchange of differing ideas and expanding perspectives. Good pedagogy, leading to positive online learning experiences, can impact students’ attitudes, resulting in greater willingness to adjust expectations and engage in online learning (Irwin and Berge, 2006).

Developing a sense of social presence and community can be important for student satisfaction and learning in online settings (Wallace, 2003). One specific way to begin establishing a community of learning and idea exchange in online classes is through introductory forums, welcome discussions, or personalized homepages. As the course instructor invites students to introduce themselves, share their background, and verbalize their goals in the course at the beginning of the semester, students may be better able to establish rapport, trust, tone, expectations, and etiquette in the group (Xie and Ke, 2011; Delahunty, 2012; Brookfield and Preskill, 2012). The instructor can also participate, which allows students to get to know the instructor as well as see expected behaviors and etiquette modelled (Hulett, 2019). Similarly, one study found that student blogging is an effective way to increase emotional connections between students online (Lee and Bonk, 2016).

Once a community of learning has been established, classroom discussions can draw attention to greater diversity of viewpoints and help students learn how to formulate and critique arguments, distinguish fact from opinion, distinguish assertion from evidence, judge the relationship between assertion and evidence, organize thoughts, and more (see ATL web resource on Discussions). While the specific mechanisms may differ depending on context, effective discussion-based teaching—whether online or face-to-face—employ four principles: research (continuous evaluation of the effectiveness of teaching strategies and adjusting as needed), responsiveness (particularly instructor responsiveness to student concerns), respect (acknowledging each student as a real, distinct individual while recognizing appropriate boundaries), and relationships (creating ways for students to get to know the instructor and vice-versa). Brookfield and Preskill (2012) provide detail on applying these principles in the online classroom.

Summary and conclusions

Online classrooms present both unique opportunities and challenges to instructors and students. Overall, the literature emphasizes that the instructor is critical for encouraging socialization and a sense of community in online learners. Facilitating effective discussion is a vital pathway to socialization, whether in a physical classroom or online.


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Xie, K., & Ke, F. (2011). The role of students’ motivation in peer-moderated asynchronous online discussions. British Journal of Education Technology, 42(6), 916-930.