The study and implementation of online learning communities emerges from two approaches related to the idea of “community.” The first approach was how people began to think about learning community, but not restricted to online settings. Learning community incorporates the idea of a cohesive, collaborative culture among members with the purpose of supporting individual learning by facilitating shared knowledge creation. The idea of a learning community, and its importance for improving learning, pre-dated most online learning, and the focus was on building communitiesto support learning regardless of setting. The second approach was that people began to inquire whether it was possible to build community online, but not for purposes restricted to learning. The idea that true community was possible via computer-mediated communication (CMC) was, and still is, contentious. However, as the years have passed since this question first emerged, the idea that community can be formed online has been increasingly accepted.
The first step in understanding how learning communities could be developed online was to establish that the online environment could appropriately support the social dimensions and outcomes of learning (Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff, 1995; Hiltz & Wellman, 1997; Wegerif, 1998). Once these baseline claims were supported, attention could turn to the processes of building and maintaining community within online learning. It was important to understand the process of community building in online learning, and also to begin to figure out how to support it socially and pedagogically in online settings (Hiltz 1998; Palloff & Pratt 1999; Haythornthwaite, Kazmer, Robins & Shoemaker 2000; Renninger & Shumar 2002; Rovai 2002; Swan 2002; Palloff & Pratt 2007).
Once a greater understanding was developed about how online learning communities could be created and supported, the time was also ripe for re-examining the technological design of learning systems. The interactions of system design, pedagogy and community had to be explored so we could better understand how to design learning systems to support community and pedagogy simultaneously, and also how to let the needs of learning communities inform modifications to learning systems (Preece, 2000; Bruckman, 2004; Barab, Kling, & Gray, 2004). At the same time, attention also shifted from understanding how to build online learning communities to how to assess their success and effectiveness (Harasim 2002; Hiltz & Turoff 2002).
More recently, researchers and educators have begun exploring various models and methods of online learning (Haythornthwaite et al, 2007); instead of addressing online learning and its communities as uniform activities, the literature begins to tease out how online learning community works differently when different pedagogical methods, educational levels, and delivery modes are used (Lim, Morris, & Kupritz, 2007; Twigg 2003; Palloff & Pratt, 2005; Bruckman, 2002; Haythornthwaite & Kazmer, 2004). This trend acknowledges the shift over time from online learning as primarily asynchronous to combinations of synchronous and asynchronous delivery, and to combinations of online and face-to-face modes such as hybrid or blended learning.