Visual Metaphors as Creative Expressions for Human Connection to Build Learning community in an Online Course

Concurrent Session 1

Brief Abstract

As many students experience isolation in online courses, community building is crucial to students’ engagement in online courses. This presentation will share a creative way to make human connection and build learning community in an online course. Participants will take away new ideas with resource to enhance their online courses.



Hong Wang is a professor and serves as Associate Director of Instructional Technology Training at NOVA Online in Northern Virginia Community College, one of the largest community colleges in the United States. She has been working in higher education for over 20 years with extensive experience in course design, online teaching, technology integration, training and development, and grant and program management. She has been managing faculty training programs such as blended learning and online teaching for the college. As a Quality Matters certified online facilitator and peer course reviewer, Hong enjoys collaboration with faculty and colleagues to build a community of effective practices in online and blended courses to support student success. Hong holds a doctorate in educational technology from Kansas State University with master’s degrees in both English and educational technology. She has been active in the field through professional services and presentations at national and international conferences on educational technology and online learning.

Extended Abstract

Online higher education enrollment has grown substantially because of its increased access and flexibility. According to Distance Education Enrollment Report (2017), more than one in four students (29.7%) take at least one online course and public institutions command 67.8% of all distance students. As many students experience online courses as more isolating than in-person ones, community building is crucial to students’ engagement in online courses (Castañeda & Selwyn, 2018; Kilgour et al., 2019). The Community of Inquiry Framework describes how instructors can foster a sense of community online (Garrison et al., 2010; Garrison & Akyol, 2013). The framework has three interconnected components: teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. Teaching presence refers to the instructor’s role in designing learning environments and selecting content that can enhance both social and cognitive presence. Social presence occurs when students are socially and emotionally engaged in the online classroom and feel comfortable participating and contributing. Cognitive presence involves constructing and confirming meaning through collaboration and reflection in a learning community. In fact, the community of inquiry framework is “one of the most extensively used frameworks in online teaching and learning” (Castellanos-Reyes, 2020, p. 558).

Each of the three presences relies on the other two to effectively improve engagement and motivation in an online course. Social presence is critical to community building to connect students and engage them in learning. It has been reported to reduce feelings of isolation, improve retention rates, improve academic performance, and increase self-efficacy (Collins et al., 2019; Lederman, 2020). Social presence is much more than showing up for class. It shows students each community member is a real person behind the computer screen who is willing to be there connecting, participating, learning, and contributing.

Recognizing the importance of social presence and learning community in online courses grounded in the community of inquiry framework, we tried a new way to help participants get to know each other to increase human connection in an online course. The new way of sharing visual metaphors is simple, fun, and engaging, rich in information and easily connecting all participants to build learning community through which learners can use throughout the course. A scan of data throughout courses in the past three years showed eight categories of information participants shared to make human connections and build learning community in the online course. Course evaluation data has showed overwhelmingly positive learning experience from learners in this online course. 

Level of Participation

Participants will get a chance to view the learning activities and see examples of learners’ postings under each of eight categories. They can watch a live demonstration of the digital tool used for the interactive activities. There will be also time for questions and discussion between the presenter and the audience as well as among the participants.  

Session goals
This interactive session will show how the activities are created to make human connection and build learning community in the course. After the session, participants will be able to

  • explain importance of learning community in online courses grounded in the community of inquiry framework
  • adopt a new way to connect students and build learning community in online courses
  • take away a useful online resource to apply in their own online courses to build social presence and learning community.  


Castañeda, L., & Selwyn, N. (2018). More than tools? Making sense of the ongoing digitizations of higher education. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15(1), 22. 

Castellanos-Reyes, D. (2020). 20 years of the community of inquiry framework. TechTrends, 64(4), 557-560. 

Collins, K., Groff, S., Mathena, C., & Kupczynski, L. (2019). Asynchronous video and the development of instructor social presence and student engagement. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 20(1), 53-70. Distance Education Enrollment Report.

Garrison, D. R., & Akyol, Z. (2013). The community of inquiry theoretical framework. In M. G.
Moore (Ed.), Handbook of distance education (3rd ed.) (pp. 104–119). Routledge.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2010). The first decade of the community of inquiry framework: A retrospective. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1), 5–9. 

Kilgour, P., Reynaud, D., Northcote, M., McLoughlin, C., & Gosselin, K. (2019). Threshold concepts about online pedagogy for novice online teachers in higher education. Higher Education Research and Development, 38(7), 1417-1431.

Lederman, D. (2020). The shift to remote learning: The human element. Inside Higher Education.