In most institutions, distance learning is not a novel strategy of instruction. Murphy 1 stated that the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) affected education systems globally; moreover, health professionals’ education and training were negatively affected by the lockdown due to the ongoing pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, all courses switched to the online medium to reduce transmission of the causative virus and enhance social distancing between students. To achieve learning outcomes and sustain the learning process, several programs shifted all their classes to distance learning using varied online educational platforms. Taylor et al2 reported that distance learning was an effective strategy for delivering course content.
The use of e-learning in higher education has grown rapidly in the last decade.3 E-learning is a valuable learning method, as it allows students flexibility in their learning experiences and enables them to study at a time and location that is convenient for them. According to several studies, students consider distant learning to not only be simple to use,4 but also comfortable and accessible due to readily available learning materials.5
Similar to other programs across the globe, the nursing programs in Saudi Arabia (SA) moved to a distance-learning mode due to the rise in COVID-19 cases to help students complete the required courses. The sudden shift to distance learning was a new experience for many nursing students.6 Assessments of the effectiveness of e-learning have been well documented in the literature. However, there is a dearth of research that assessed nursing students’ sense of community and its impact on their satisfaction.
Along with being an essential requirement for retaining students, developing a sense of community is a factor influencing students' success in distance learning.7 The concept of a classroom community refers to the sense that members matter to one another and to the group, that they have responsibilities and obligations to one another and to the school, and that they have shared expectations, through which members' educational needs will be satisfied through shared learning goals.8
Connectedness and learning are two components of the sense of a classroom community in online classes. Rovai8 identified the following four essential prerequisites to support the development of a sense of community in an online class: spirit (recognition of membership), trust (willingness to rely on other team members), interaction (either task-driven or socio-emotional in origin), and the commonality of expectations and goals (learning). A sense of community in online classes is essential to promote students' satisfaction and help them feel connected and engaged. Instructors and faculty members are responsible for building students' sense of community in online classes by designing interactive learning experiences.9 Collaborative activities,10 discussions,11,12 sharing resources and personal experiences, and creating opportunities for introductions13 are e-learning strategies. Online discussions facilitate student interaction and provide them with opportunities to discuss academic and personal experiences with their peers.13
Learning occurs when students participate, engage, and collaborate with each other.11,12 The instructors enhance students’ sense of community through regular communication, quality feedback, support, and interactions with the students.11,14 Furthermore, synchronous activities allow students to learn and interact with their peers and instructors.15 Different methods have been identified to enhance students’ sense of community in online classes, such as social networking platforms, 15 video conferencing,16 asynchronous discussion boards,12 and collaborative tools such as Google Workspace (Google LLC, Mountain View, CA, USA).17
Prior studies report a positive association between a sense of community in online classes and student satisfaction .13,18 Perceived learning, satisfaction, engagement, and achievements were also positively influenced by the sense of community in online classes.8,19 LaBarbera14 reported that students' satisfaction with online classes was greater among those who felt engaged and got along with classmates and instructors. However, studies comparing students’ sense of community between online and face-to-face classes found that they experienced a higher level of satisfaction in the latter.20 The unexpected switch to online teaching may have affected students’ sense of community and satisfaction with online classes, especially when instructors lacked the skills required to implement strategies to create a classroom community in this context.21,22
Student responses are vital guidelines of concern within online courses, as they reflect many variations regarding the sense of community, especially in distance learning. A sense of community can be achieved desirably in a well-structured manner to facilitate the satisfaction and comfort of online learners regarding knowledge acquisition. Therefore, this study aimed to assess students’ sense of community during e-learning, while determining its impact on their level of satisfaction.