Distant, Not Disconnected: How to Create Vital Online Communities

In this time of social distancing, many wonder how we can establish and maintain our Penn communities.

Community is a critical aspect of the Penn experience. Whether you support a college house, manage orientation for new students, or contribute to other co-curricular initiatives, you know that students choose to come to Penn because of these communities and the life-long connections that they form. In fact, in spring 2020 81% of undergraduates reported that disconnection from classmates and courses was their biggest concern. Finding ways to connect new students and other new members of our community to Penn can help ensure that returning community members maintain their sense of connection with the University.

At the Online Learning Initiative, we know from our work with Penn’s online programs that it is possible to develop thriving online communities when the right strategies, structures, and tools are in place.

8 Strategies for Developing Online Communities

The following strategies and practices have emerged from the work of Penn’s online degree programs, lessons learned from the Spring 2020 semester, and practitioners in digital engagement. 

As you think about these strategies, reflect on what worked well for creating community on campus and consider how you can adapt that for the online environment.

We are continuing to build on this work as we learn about innovative ideas from Penn staff, faculty, and students. Contact us to learn more or share what’s worked for you.


OLI is Here to Help

The Online Learning Initiative is a hub for information and best practices related to online learning at the University of Pennsylvania. We are collecting stories, strategies, and examples from within and beyond Penn to promote best practices in community building and to support opportunities for connection and collaboration within the Penn community. 

Contact us for consultations, custom workshops, and curated resources tailored to your needs. If you have examples or practices to contribute, please share them via the form below.  


Additional Resources 

Below are some of our favorite resources. Contact us for more resources related to these strategies and practices. 


Community Building Practices

Creating Community in your Online Course - Penn Center for Teaching and Learning

Fostering Fun: Engaging Students with Asynchronous Online Learning - Faculty Focus

How to Build a Vibrant Global Community, Virtually - IDEO

Reimagining Your Campus Communities in Digital Spaces - Dr. Josie Ahlquist

Virtual Community Building - Brown University


Virtual Activity Ideas and Examples

120+ Virtual Engagement Strategies for Incoming Students - EAB

Equity Unbound Community Building Activities - OneHE

Examples of Online Ice-Breaking Activities - Professors at Play

Virtual Knowledge Café - Conversational Leadership


Tools and Technologies



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