Building CommUNITY through Peer Engagement Online

By Michelle E. Bartlett, Ph.D., Faculty Scholar Belk Center for Community College Leadership & Research, Coordinator for College of Education Competency-Based Initiatives

Importance of Peer-to-Peer Engagement

Online teaching and learning are under immense focus during these times, with many shifting to online teaching and online learning suddenly. With this current focus on ‘what is high-quality online education?’ and a sense that we need to improve and build upon the structures from the quick transition to remote learning, faculty are wondering how they can build a sense of community and belonging in the online classroom. Peer-to-peer engagement is a vital piece of the online engagement puzzle. Peer engagement has been shown in research to increase student satisfaction levels (Gray & DiLoreto, 2016), student completion rates (Price & Tovar, 2014), and student learning (Wang, 2011). Beyond the classroom, engaging with peers can lead to improved networking opportunities and better labor market outcomes.

Designing to Promote Peer-to-Peer Engagement

Three of the most common ways to get students interacting with each other online is through teamwork, breakout rooms via web-conferencing, and online discussion board forums (Damm, 2016).. An engaging option to the traditional discussion board post is to hold a Discussion Forum Debate. Students are randomly divided into two or more groups and assigned their ‘stance’. Depending on the topic or level of instruction, opinions can be required to be supported by citations.

Another way to help build a sense of community is to embed a Flipgrid into your course. This free tool is ADA compliant and helps give a voice and face to the words and people in the course. Students who aren’t comfortable with being on video can hide the camera and record only their audio. Flipgrid is helpful as an introduction forum, a way for students to respond to guest experts in the course and can also be used as an asynchronous option for student presentations, where their peers can watch and provide critique, feedback and praise. All synchronous course requirements should have asynchronous options, for low bandwidth students, students who work odd schedules, military students who may have limited access to wifi, or students (especially during this pandemic) that are sharing internet and technology with others living with them.

Another free online tool to look into is Goosechase, an online scavenger hunt that can send teams looking for things on a list. Teams get points for submitting pictures that can be specific to the course topic. Padlet and Dotstorming are impactful, free, online brainstorming tools where students can share their thoughts on a topic, comment on each other’s ideas, and even vote on their favorite contributions. Sketchnotes is an excellent tool for students to sketch out notes while they are reading or watching a course video and share those doodles with their peers. Students can learn from their peers as someone may have takeaways that others missed. ZeeMaps, is a free tool, where groups of students can build a spreadsheet around a course topic and then use Zeemaps to map the information in the file. Projects can include mapping community services, institutions, chronological points of a migration or where someone has lived through their life. The applications to different class topics are numerous.

Coffee & Conversation, works a lot like a book club and can be done in face-to-face classrooms and online course environments. This hyperlink is an invitation that I send to students inviting them to the book discussion. Pre-written questions, from the instructor, are made to prompt and guide discussion of the book. Students end up learning more about the reading than recalling back facts and information through a quiz or test. Also, even the best student can have a rough week and not get to the assigned readings. Book discussions are a way that all students can learn the information from the readings, which is the overall goal. Also, peers learn from one another as they apply the concepts of the reading to real-life examples.

Concluding Thoughts

Building community can be done in online environments with some effort and the benefits are worth the time. Online students can be resilient through the rigor of online education but they learn more, retain more, and apply more learning when they learn as a community.


  • Bartlett, M. (2018). Using Flipgrid to Increase Students’ Connectedness in an Online Class. eLearn, 2018(12).
  • Bartlett, M. E. (2017). Integration of e-service learning: The trials and triumphs. Presented at the Lilly National Conference on Designing Effective Teaching, International Teaching Learning Cooperative, Asheville, NC
  • Damm, C. A. (2016). Applying a Community of Inquiry Instrument to Measure Student Engagement in Large Online Courses.
  • Gray, J. A., & DiLoreto, M. (2016). The effects of student engagement, student satisfaction, and perceived learning in online learning environments. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 11(1), n1.
  • Jeong, W. (2019). FlipMe: Exploring Rich Peer-to-Peer Communication in On-Line-Learning.
  • Price, D. V., & Tovar, E. (2014). Student engagement and institutional graduation rates: Identifying high-impact educational practices for community colleges. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 38(9), 766-782.
  • Wang, S. (2011). Promoting student’s online engagement with communication tools. Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange (JETDE), 4(1), 8.