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Six Ideas for Building a Vibrant Online Professional Community
Effective eLearning (Special Series)

By Katie Sprute, Crystal McCabe, Lynn Basko, Paul Danuser, Jean Mandernach / October 2023

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Despite the widespread prevalence of online education, teaching in this modality can be isolating. Online teaching experiences are often void of the networking and collaborative interactions readily available in a face-to-face, campus environment. As such, it is important for online programs to design dedicated opportunities for faculty to connect and engage outside of their individual courses. Online faculty need community engagement through professional learning communities (PLC) [1], non-course related message boards, and interactive communication systems (such as Microsoft Teams or Slack). It is essential that we build vibrant, collaborative communities to assist online faculty so they can collectively grow in their profession. The following six suggestions will help institutions build a vibrant, value-added PLC for online faculty:

1. Prioritize relationships and community. Community occurs when people feel a part of something bigger than themselves; when they have shared goals, challenges, and commitments. In an online teaching setting, faculty may feel disconnected [2]; as such, you need to design programming and structure that ensures online participants feel like valued, contributing members. As such, a successful PLC must have a primary focus to connect faculty on an individual, personal level. Create opportunities for faculty to engage, get to know each other, make personal connections, and find common ground that helps to create an environment that is safe and supportive. For example, schedule online faculty retreats with dedicated time for virtual icebreakers and small-group breakout rooms; or utilize synchronous social hours with networking games or discussion prompts. As faculty connect with one another, it lays a foundation for each person to feel valued and heard. 

2. Empower all faculty with a voice. Faculty need to know that their ideas and opinions matter, and they are safe to share them. It is important that initiatives are designed to actively solicit ideas and feedback from all faculty (from the long-term adjunct to the tenured full-time faculty to the new hire). Incorporate intentional strategies for giving all faculty a space to contribute; for example, providing a root topic each week and then opening it up to conversation from all faculty, or pairing all different ranks of faculty together based on content and giving them the space to collaborate. Extending their voice further, ask various faculty to lead a conversation on a topic, or to share their experiences or teaching strategies. When someone is specifically asked to share, it helps them to feel like they are valued and that others recognize their contributions, expertise, or strengths. 

3. Provide recognition. In addition to creating a sense of community and belonging, PLCs are a great place to recognize faculty achievements and contributions. The positive contributions faculty make toward student success and achieving institutional goals should be highlighted. PLCs can serve as a space to showcase outstanding faculty. One way of identifying faculty to recognize is through institutional metrics, such as end-of-course feedback, student surveys, or satisfaction reports.

4. Ensure activities are relevant, targeted and content based. Asking a faculty member to join an online PLC requires them to evaluate the benefits of doing so in relation to other time commitments. Faculty are busy and need to see a clear value-added benefit to participate in something that requires more of their time. Building your professional community around content and topics that are relevant to faculty is key to making it successful. One easy way to do this is to create faculty groups based on courses taught or discipline. Another option is to create topic-based groups in which educators could discuss themes that are included across courses, such as social justice, ethics, time management strategies, etc. It can be helpful to annually survey PLC members about needs and interests to guide programming.

5. Teach best pedagogical practices. One focus of a PLC should be supporting faculty in applying the best pedagogical practices. At its very core, pedagogy is the art and science of teaching children. When we are working with the adult model, our focus turns to andragogy [3, 4]. Here are some PLC discussion topics for teaching the adult learner:

  • Discuss strategies to determine students’ prior knowledge and ways to activate prior knowledge.
  • Incorporate the adult learners’ prior experiences to connect with topic objectives and material.
  • Apply a variety of engagement strategies to support class participation in the online environment.
  • Collaborate over resources and materials to support student learning.
  • Identify formative assessment techniques for measuring student learning.

Provide opportunities for students to apply their new learning, in class discussions, assignments, and assessments.

6. Accommodate all faculty. One advantage to an online PLC is the ability to engage from anywhere, anytime. However, online faculty are often geographically dispersed which limits some aspects of engagement and collaboration. To accommodate all faculty, PLC initiatives should include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous events and activities. Therefore, when planning events, it is important to consider the format, timing, and accessibility, for example:

  • Poll stakeholders to determine a time for synchronous events that works for the majority.
  • Allow participants to register in advance and share any questions or needs in advance.
  • Send email reminders to registrants.
  • Record any synchronous events for faculty to view at a more convenient time.
  • Allow for engagement to continue after the event asynchronously using forums, chats, or discussion boards; this allows for deeper connections and reflection.
  • Use a variety of tools for fostering community and engagement: email, discussion boards, discussion prompts, video chat, webinars, on-demand workshops.
  • Consider accessibility needs of stakeholders; include close captioning, language translation, and transcripts. When creating slides use easy-to-read fonts such as Arial, Verdana, or Helvetica at a size 24 or greater.
  • Keep content on slides brief and use speaker notes to elaborate if needed. Refrain from using slide transitions, be mindful of color contrast, and use a presentation translator to add foreign language translations in captions.

Creating a vibrant online PLC is vital for the success of online faculty. Remote teaching presents a host of challenges not found in campus environments, so it is essential that institutions provide dedicated spaces to intentionally connect geographically dispersed faculty.  The development of an online PLC connects online faculty to the people, resources, and support that they need to be more effective instructors… and, equally important, to be personally and professionally fulfilled with their role as an online educator.


[1] Sprute, K., McCabe, C., Basko, L., Danuser, P., and Mandernach, J. Virtual Professional Communities: Integrative Faculty Support to Foster Effective Teaching. Journal of Instructional Research 8, 2) (2019), 34–43.

[2] Terosky, A. L. and Heasley, C. Supporting online faculty through a sense of community and collegiality. Online Learning 19, 3 (2015), 147­–161

[3] Knowles, M. S. Andragogy: Adult learning theory in perspective. Community College Review 5, 3 (1978), 9–20.

[4] Knowles, M. S., Holton, I. E. F., and Swanson, R. A. The Adult Learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Taylor & Francis Group, 2005.

About the Authors

Katie Sprute is a faculty chair and assistant professor at Grand Canyon University. As a faculty chair she leads a team of talented and innovative faculty. Sprute is passionate about advocating for and fostering positive relationships among all GCU full-time and adjunct faculty. She is an experienced presenter, and author on articles on the topics of the use of video feedback, humor in the classroom, and strategies to support online adjunct faculty. Current research interests include structural empowerment, job embeddedness and online faculty. 

Crystal McCabe, Ph.D., is a full professor for the College of Education at Grand Canyon University. McCabe has been published on the topics of virtual professional communities, increasing student persistence in first college courses, using humor to build relationships and increase learning in online courses, and promoting students’ self-efficacy in the online classroom. She has presented nationally on the topics of increasing engagement and building community in the online classroom, teacher self-care, effective online classroom management strategies, the power of recognition, fun, and gratitude in online environments, feedback students will see and use, and the magic of teaching to name a few.  In 2020, McCabe was the co-recipient of the Shauna Schullo Award for Best Distance Teaching Practices.

Lynn Basko, Ed.D., is a full professor at Grand Canyon University in the College of Education. In addition to teaching courses full time, she presents at education conferences, including the National Association of Teacher Educators Conference in 2023. She has published articles on various topics, including online teaching tools, efficiency tips for online educators, and volunteer motivations. She continues to research strategies for reducing stress for teachers, helping online instructors reach their students in a more relational way, and how to encourage teamwork in the education field. 

Paul L. Danuser, Ph.D., is a fulltime faculty member for Grand Canyon University’s College of Education.  His research has focused on teacher self-efficacy and the nature of being a charismatic teacher. Dr. Danuser has spent 41 years in the classroom and has experience teaching in the K-12 system as well as higher education. Danuser is also working with students in GCU’s Honors College and the College of Doctoral Studies where he is the chair for six learners working on their own dissertations. Along with being a lifelong educator and learner, Danuser has always been a sports fan and currently serves as the public address announcer for most of GCU’s Division 1 athletics program. Danuser loves writing, presenting, and sharing his passions for education with anyone who is willing to listen to his stories and share a laugh or two along the way.

Jean Mandernach, Ph.D., is executive director of the Center for Innovation in Research on Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on enhancing student learning experiences in the online classroom through innovative instructional and assessment strategies. She explores strategies for integrating efficient online instruction in a manner that maximizes student learning, satisfaction, and engagement. In addition, she has interests in innovative faculty development and evaluation models, teaching and learning analytics, emergent instructional technology, and faculty workload considerations. Mandernach is an active researcher, author, presenter, and consultant in the field of online education.

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