Conversation Cafe: Designing an online Third Place to Foster Student Community, Creativity, Joy, and Deep Learning

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Designing an intentional “third place” in online programs seems promising to address student-voice, student-led learning, connection, and critical dialogue. Third places may also help students make connections between courses and show up as their “real selves”. This session aims to engage participants in exploring how third places could be structured.



Dr. Chery Lucarelli is Professor and Chair of Doctoral and Graduate Education Studies at The College of St. Scholastica. She has facilitated the design of several online graduate programs, including the Doctorate in Educational Leadership, the nationally-ranked Master of Education, and the Certificates in Computer Science Education, Educational Technology, and Online Learning. In addition to being certified in design thinking, she is trained to support women in leadership positions. She has expertise in creating online communities, creating and supporting cultures of innovation, mentoring, and providing effective professional development.

Extended Abstract

A “third place” is a term first provided by sociologist Ray Oldenburg (2013) to describe social spaces in communities such as community centers, coffee shops, restaurants, churches, and other businesses. Oldenburg notes that a third place is separate from a first space, typically a person’s home, and a second space, a place of work. Oldenburg (2013) provides insights into the potential and value of third places. At its core, third places are places to socialize, gather, collaborate and build relationships. While third places exist as physical spaces in communities, how might a third-place be leveraged to support online courses and communities? 

Elements of third places include the leveling of power structures where people can feel welcome regardless of their socio or cultural background. Third places also embody a playful atmosphere and where people can be creative, participating without worrying about a structured agenda. Oldenburg points out that third places are important because they provide space for leveraging the power of the community where people can accomplish things that are difficult to do alone. Ultimately, third spaces help members establish a sense of place and community. Oldenburg (2013) goes so far as to state that, “nothing contributes as much to one’s sense of belonging to a community as much as membership in a third place” (p. xxiii).  Therefore, it seems worthwhile to explore the potential of building online third place options that can capture these benefits. Additionally, there appears to be possible connections with the elements of third places and Garrison’s (2016) Community of Inquiry Framework, particularly the social presence component.

Online courses can sometimes feel too formal and structured for students and faculty alike. For example, there may be a real or perceived lack of organic and spontaneous opportunities for discussion and collaboration. Typical required discussion and assignments may seem fixed and inflexible, hindering student-led learning and social constructivist learning pedagogies. These course structures may inhibit social presence and the ability of online students to participate as their authentic selves, and to see others as “real people” (Garrison, 2016). In addition, students in an online program may lack opportunities to experience the program wholistically with other students, participating in siloed courses without opportunities to bridge the learning experience from one course to another. Other barriers to building community and opportunities to make deep connections to learning may be difficult outside of the course. Could the implementation of a third space help address these challenges as well? 

The planning for an intentional “third place” in online learning programs seems promising to address student-voice, student-led learning, connection, and critical dialogue. In 2022, in a new online doctoral program, the program director created and implemented optional weekly Zoom sessions (a possible third place) called “Conversation Cafe.” All of the program students and faculty were invited to these optional weekly online drop-in sessions. Some Conversation Cafe sessions included topics for discussion, skill-level tutorials, or program information, but most sessions were open-ended. Students were invited to share topics for discussion or just drop in to check in. Anecdotal feedback, observations, and reflection from the weekly Conversation 

Cafe sessions revealed several unintended benefits and surprising opportunities for students and faculty. For instance, students were often engaged in informal conversations about their work and family life. Conversations often focused on students’ projects or content from multiple courses.  Students were able to ask questions, provide support for each other, and suggest Conversation Cafe topics.  As a result of this positive experience with weekly Zoom Conversation Cafe sessions, the program director wondered what other elements of building community and deep learning could be realized in creating an online third place. Can an online third place provide additional possibilities for learners to expand their ways of knowing and increase student engagement? This session aims to provide an opportunity to explore the idea of a third place.


Third place theory has been adopted in education by reframing the first place as a person’s home and community and the second place as a formal educational space. The third place in this paradigm is another educational place and opportunity for students to embrace other ways of knowing and connecting without the formal structured curriculum. In online learning, it may be important to provide a virtual gathering place to help foster a third place. 

The online Conversation Cafe sessions in this example, appear to support the educational third place, prompting questions to frame further exploration.


  • How might the intentional design and implementation of a “third place”  in online programs strengthen the opportunities for students and faculty to build collaborative, inclusive relationships and engage in student-led critical dialogue?  

  • Could implementing a third place also help create environments to support and strengthen social presence and address inclusive learning environments? 

  • Can we capture the idea and benefits of social engagement in third places in the online spaces? 

  • How can we best design online third places to level power structures and inclusion?

  • Who should lead or facilitate online third places? Should it be faculty, students or both?

  • Are there opportunities to further utilize the third place to embrace social constructivist learning theory? 

  • Should third places be synchronous or asynchronous, or both? What technological tools would be beneficial to supporting online third places?

  • What other strategies have programs implemented that might have potential to support a third place?

Level of Participation

This discovery and dialogue session will implement a design thinking strategy called “unhurried conversations,” created by Johnnie Moore, a visiting tutor at Saiid Business School at Oxford University. Participants will be able to choose from questions and ideas about online third places to share ideas and engage in an active listening session in small groups.  The session will conclude with a collaborative closure discussion to help further the ideas of implementing effective online third places. The benefits of unhurried conversations provide opportunities for all to be involved and empowered to share. 

An asynchronous option for those who would like to continue the discussion on online third places will be provided, hoping that a collaborative group could be established for those who would like to continue exploring the implementation of an online third place.

Session Goals:

Individuals attending this session will be able to discuss and contribute their ideas for implementing a third place. They will provide new ideas for consideration on effective third places addressing potential challenges, barriers, and opportunities. Finally, participants will provide insights and share their experiences in online programs that may provide new ideas for exploration. 



Garrison, D. R. (2016). E-learning in the 21st century: A community of inquiry framework for research and practice. Taylor & Francis.

Oldenburg, R. (2013). The Café as a Third Place. In: Tjora, A., Scambler, G. (eds) Café Society. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.