Online Learning Communities: Their Importance and their Development

Online learning can be a daunting challenge for many students. The traditional face-to-face mode of teaching is very effective for creating a connection between both instructors and students, and students and other students, due to their proximity and consequential immediacy. The very fact that in face-to-face learning environments instructors are in such close contact with their students ‘lessen[s] the psychological distance between themselves and their students, leading, directly or indirectly depending on the study, to greater learning’ (Swan, 2002, p.12).  It is a challenge for both developers of online studies and instructors in online classrooms to strive towards the creation of a similar sense of community. This sense of community between members of classrooms is important for the effectiveness of instruction.  Palloff and Pratt explain that if a student feels part of a learning community it increases their satisfaction with studying, it increases their perception of learning and they feel part of ‘something larger’ with more social pressure to succeed, making them more likely to persevere with their studies if any difficulties arise (Laureate, 2010).

Palloff and Pratt explain that to create an online community you need to have three elements: People, Purpose and Process. The people element is self-explanatory; of course, you can’t have a community without people to be a part of it. The people need to be gathered (digitally) for a specific purpose; it’s not just a chance coming together of online entities, it is people working together towards one goal. Finally, there needs to be a shared process for working towards the reason the people have gathered together for.  There needs to be a process by which learners can engage with one another. Classroom discussions within a Course Management System are an example of processes through which learning community creation can occur.

Once a sense of community has been formed, attention needs to be turned to how to maintain the learning community. Paloff and Pratt make it clear that everyone in the learning community has a responsibility for sustaining the community, both students and instructors. The instructor’s role cannot, however, be minimised. Anderson (2012) writes that one of the main functions of an instructor in an online classroom is the ‘critical task of facilitating discourse’ (p350); the instructor need to nurture and environment in which the learning community can grow. Continued interaction between students and instructors can help sustain a learning community where individuals can build a ‘sense of shared understanding, knowledge of one another and mutual support’ (Boettcher and Conrad, 2010, p104). The instructor is instrumental in these interactions because of their task in providing a ‘shelter and safe place’ for community interactions (ibid).

A key piece of learning to take away from a study of learning communities is the importance that a well-developed orientation course can play in facilitating new communities. Paloff and Pratt (Laureate, 2010) are both enthusiastic about the benefits a dedicated time for orientation can have. Students can get to know each other, can learn how to use the Course Management System correctly and get orientated to ‘online learning philosophy’. I believe that explaining to students how important being an active and contributing member of the learning community will be to their success in their studies could play a big role in hastening the rooting of a new community. Orientation can serve as a vehicle for educating students on the purpose behind interactions with their classmates online and the benefits they can take away from ‘becoming a part of something large’.

References

  • Anderson, T. (2008). Theory and practice of online learning (2nd ed.). Edmonton: AU Press.
  • Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Laureate Education (Producer). (2010). Online learning communities [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu
  • Swan, K. (2002). Building Communities in Online Courses: The Importance of Interaction (1st ed., Vol. 2, pp. 23-49). Education,Communication and Information.
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