All Collections
(Better) teaching and facilitating
Building an online community
Building an online community - Tier 1, Scene-setting
Building an online community - Tier 1, Scene-setting

Three different group discussion activities to help set the scene and begin to build an online community.

Caitlin Foran avatar
Written by Caitlin Foran
Updated over a week ago

This article is one in a series about how to build an online community. For a description of online communities and tiers of involvement and interaction, see the first article in the series: Building an online community.

What happens at tier 1?

The focus of the first tier is making sure we’re all in and roughly on the same page in terms of what’s expected. Without this, there is no tier 2.

Learners are… exploring, getting comfortable. They’re asking: Do I know how to use the system? Do I know what is expected of me? Why would I engage?

Facilitators are… welcoming learners, setting the scene and encouraging learners to participate.

For tier 1 we’ve got three different activities you might like to try:

  • Online orientation where learners log in, find their way around and figure out how to make their first introduction post.

  • Shared purpose where we bring to the fore the reason for the group and what we think learners will get out of it.

  • Ground rules where the group feedback on and discuss some example principles for communicating online.

Online orientation

In this activity we want to give learners a chance to find their way around the learning platform. But we don't want this to just be instructions on where to find things. We want learners get used to features by using them. And using them in relevant and authentic tasks that involve others. To keep it clear and low stakes we focus on step-by-step activities and procedures for learners to follow.

Message from facilitator

I’m your facilitator, [Name]. 

If you’re reading this, you’re currently in the Talk part of the course. This is a forum-type space where we can communicate as a group.

Throughout the course, we’ll be communicating about different topics. This is why we’ve got different channels.

  • Channel 1 – Short description.

  • Channel 2 – Short description.

  • Channel 3 – Short description.

Now that you know about talk and channels, we’d like to give you a few “orientation tasks” to help you find your way around these channels and get used to using them – posting and replying to others in our community.

Task 1: You won’t want to miss out on announcements for this channel. Luckily you can opt in to get notifications. Your first task is to find how to get email or text updates for this channel so you’ll never miss an important announcement.

Task 2: You’ll need to know how to switch between these “channels”. 

  1. Take a moment now to head into each “channel” (we have four)

  2. Open up the first “post” in that channel then try navigate back to the list of all channels.

Task 3: You’ll need to know how to show your appreciation with likes

  1. Pop into the [x channel] and open the first post “Title”. Under it you’ll see three replies.

  2. Read each reply and vote with a thumbs up to show which reply you like best.

Using these likes in our messages is a really quick and easy way for us to give feedback to others in our group. If someone likes your message, you know they’ve seen and read it and are telling you “Nice one!” or “Too right!”. It’s great to know that others appreciate your words (and want to let you know they do).

Task 4: Communication needs replies.

  1. Head over to the  [y channel], and open the Introductions post where I’ve introduced myself.

  2. Reply to that post with your own introduction.

  3. Find another learner with a similarity/difference or interesting point in their introduction and reply to them.

After you’ve completed these three tasks, you’ve got the building blocks of getting around these channels and chatting to others. Remember, you can always use Show me how at any point for guidance around how to use things.

Note: Task 3 requires that you or others have popped in and added some replies before you send this message out.

This first activity is about navigating around, actually doing the introductions is covered in more detail in Tier 2 – Presence.

Shared purpose

In an online learning context, "community" may not be based on geography or whakapapa, but instead on “unity of purpose” i.e. that we're all here for the same reason. This activity includes describing what an online community is and how being part of a community can support their learning. We do this because being explicit about what the shared purpose is can instill a sense of belonging, focus learners, and let them know "what's in it for them". 

Message from facilitator
What's this online discussion all about?

We're here for learning, and interaction is a really important element of the learning process. Researchers in online learning have found that when learners connect online, they do better. Better in terms of achievement and grades. But also research suggests learners in online communities are more motivates and satisfied with their studies. They say that in joining in you'll:

  • get a better flow of information and resources from your fellow learners

  • have a more in-depth understanding of concepts from needing to explain your reasoning

  • likely to feel better about your study and your effort

  • learn more from hearing from others’ experiences

  • have a larger group to call on for support. 

You’ve probably found this before, but often people who are in the same boat as you are really effective at explaining and helping when you’re stuck on an idea. This is definitely part of the magic in discussing and connecting with other learners.

So, in short, connecting online with others in your course can lead to better learning.

So tell us, what was the last thing you learned from chatting with someone online? It might be sharing a gardening tip with someone from a facebook group, a discussion with that reddit user about the local elections, or perhaps you've already done some online discussions in a previous course?

Ground rules

Sometimes in the rush to get online, we skim over the socialisation part of discussion. Learners may well be involved in other online social groups. But these groups could follow very different norms than what you’d expect for this learning group. 

In an online community, we need to promote “webs of trust” that do not depend on physically meeting. Learners need to feel safe. If they don't, they're not sharing. One way to help learners feel safe, is to talk about how we'll agree to treat one another.

Message from facilitator
Most of us have probably had some experience of online chat through things like Facebook, Linkedin, and Instagram - even the comments section of Stuff! Sometimes these discussions can be a bit fraught. We don’t want our community to end up like a comments section. We need this space to be a safe and productive space. So, as a first discussion, it’d be good to talk through the principles we live by when we connect:

We’ve come up with these principles:

  • We are kind.

  • We help and learn from each other.

  • We value diverse perspectives.

  • We value curiosity and cooperation over competition.

  • We actively attempt to understand the viewpoints of others.

But, principles can be a bit abstract… So, my questions for you are, when we’re living these principles:

  • What does that actually look like in our messages?

  • How does it make people feel?

  • Why is it important?

And, of course, if you feel like we’ve left something off please do let us know what principles we should add for our group.

For this activity you should get in reasonably early (after the first few responses) and give some encouragement or acknowledgement. This shows all learners that you are there and engaging. 

To get the most out of the discussion you should also encourage learners to be specific about actions. For instance, if someone says something like: 

“It means being nice or saying kind things” 

You might encourage them to elaborate by saying: 

“Could you tell us a bit more [name]? What sorts of things show you that someone is being nice or kind? What do they say?” 


“Thanks [name]. I'd like to ask... for you, is it mostly about encouragement, the tone they use or the fact that they build on your comments and ideas rather than criticise?"

You can encourage participation with messages like:

“I’m enjoying reading through people’s thoughts. [Learner A] your comment about [w] made me think about [x]. And [Learner B] your thoughts align really well with [y – principle]. Nice stuff!”

“I encourage others to keep contributing [can include time period e.g. “over the next week”]. It’s really worthwhile to see how each of you [approach/interpret z] and you taking the time to reflect and write your response will really help you us connect and be able to help each other as a group”.

Or if the discussion hasn’t taken off: 

“I see we’ve only got a few contributions so far. For those yet to post, please take a moment to add your own thoughts – even if it’s only to say you agree with someone. It’s really worthwhile to see how each of you [approach/interpret z] and you taking the time to reflect and write your response will really help us connect and be able to help each other as a group”.


We can make a start on getting an online community by focusing first on setting the scene. We need to make sure learners can get in and use the system (online orientation), know why they should join in (shared purpose), and when they do join in – know what's expected of them (ground rules).

Once you and the group have achieved tier 1, scene-setting you can begin to move into tier 2 where learners start having a presence.

Did this answer your question?