Social contact and forming a remote community

Sociaal contact en communityvorming op afstand

When redesigning courses to an online format, it is important to also shape online social contact. A Utrecht University student evaluation of remote education during the third period of 2019-2020 showed that students are concerned about contact with fellow students and teachers. Teachers are faced with the task of making students feel welcome and give them a feeling of involvement in an online setting.

Hanne ten Berge, Frans Prins and Willemijn Schot describe how to shape social contact and community-building in an online setting and explain why this is important for the learning outcomes, motivation, and personal development of students.

The importance of social contact in education


Relatedness is a basic human need

According to the self-determination theory of Deci and Ryan, having a sense of relatedness, competency, and autonomy are basic human needs. If all three of these basic needs are met people feel motivated. Motivation allows for more in-depth learning, which in turn has a positive effect on learning outcomes. From research by Tinto, we know that social and academic relatedness prevents dropout in the first year of study (Kappe, 2017; Tinto, 1993; Tinto, 1975). Good relations with fellow students (social relatedness) and with staff (academic relatedness) help students feel at home in the programme and safe to ask questions or request help.

The importance of social contact is not only indirect through motivation, but also direct as it is needed for learning several competencies and skills. Think of, for example, collaboration skills, oral presentation (including interaction), and giving and receiving feedback. Furthermore, students learn when discussing with each other, when they are stimulated to present their ideas and receive questions about them. As such, contact with fellow students and the teacher is important for meeting the qualification descriptors of academic education.

Finally, growing in a certain discipline is also about socialisation and personal development. Students become part of existing traditions and practices through education and develop into independent and responsible professionals. Contact with lecturers and fellow students is essential for this. Students mirror role models, see how others make decisions and choices, and test ideas against others. A place for these formative processes will also need to be created in remote education.

Two theories about building an (online) community

Trust and teambuilding are necessary for effective collaboration. Tuckman (1965) describes the specific order in which groups develop: forming (orientation phase), storming (power phase), norming (standardization phase), performing (presentation phase), adjourning (farewell phase).

In a group, participants first adopt a wait-and-see attitude (forming). Everyone tries to take their place in the group, which can lead to conflict if participants have different ideas (storming). Rules are determined, goals are tightened, and a more mature form of cooperation is created (norming). The team is now functioning effectively. Team members complement each other, and the team works towards the common goal (performing). After achieving the goals, the team is disbanded (adjourning).

Stimulate group building by providing students with time for group development

These phases, in which interpersonal conflicts are resolved and (power) relationships are determined, are essential for successful cooperation. You should stimulate group building by providing students with time for group development. When designing group assignments, you also need to consider that a group will not immediately function effectively. It is furthermore beneficial to inform students about the different phases and to incorporate reflection on the collaboration.

Salmon's 5 stage model (2010) describes other aspects of group building that enable participants in an online learning environment (OLE) to arrive at knowledge construction and reflection. The model is aimed at teaching professionals, but the first 4 steps also fit students' learning situation.

Step 1: Ensuring everyone has access to the OLE and the learning materials (everyone knows where to find it), students know where they can get help working with the OLE, and you as a teacher are welcoming and encouraging your students. 

Step 2: Getting acquainted and community building.

Step 3: Students work on less challenging assignments, which concern the exchange of knowledge. In doing so, they work on their skills in online interaction and experience trust in the group. According to this model, this is conditional for the next steps in the model that slowly build up to more challenging learning tasks. 

Step 4: Students work on more challenging assignments in which students develop, evaluate, and reflect. 

Step 5: The online learner can translate the ideas they have acquired in the OLE to their own (work) environment and take up new online courses.

Het 5 stage model van Salmon
Bron: Salmon

Tips for social contact in your online course

Below we list a few ideas for shaping social contact between students and between students and the teacher in remote education.


The amount of online interaction is challenging for most of us, both technically and because of its intensity. It is therefore important to keep it manageable for students and yourself. Find what fits best with your teaching style. Experiment and be sure to mention to the students what you are trying to achieve. For instance, set specific times where you ask your students how they are experiencing the process, this also provides an opportunity for levity about the situation.

Finish with the fifth phase of Tuckman (adjourning or sometimes called mourning), where students (if all went well) might find it difficult to have to leave the group again at the end of the course, they might have made friends and felt connected all those weeks to the programme and the university. 


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Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of educational research, 89–125.

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin.

Sjirk Zijlstra (2020). Korte kennisclip van de webinar: Interactie in het onderwijs, HU, april 2020.