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Communities of Learners

Supporting Communities of Learners in Online Courses

Claire Burgoyne ETEC 511 University of British Columbia

Communities of Learners Introduction Distance education theory is noted as being the least frequently studied topic according to, “A Review of Trends of Distance Education Scholarship at Research Universities in North America” (Davies, Howell, & Petrie, 2010). Perhaps it is due to this inattention to online learning theory that some online courses are designed with a focus on content and therefore revert to objectivism and accordingly the philosophy that knowledge can be absorbed. Such courses ignore the value of community in successful online course design (Falvo & Solloway, 2004; So, 2009; Tu & Corry, 2004). Without opportunities for sharing, collaboration, and


discourse with peers and mentors course design regresses. Rather than creating courses based on sound pedagogy and theories commonly relied upon the objective becomes transferring content to an online space. The result is the creation of a course equivalent to a correspondence course (Blocker, 2005; Perry & Edwards, 2004). In order for online courses to be much more than repositories for content this paper relies on social learning theories to describe the value of participation in a community of online learners and it outlines the highlights of learning in community. A definition of participation is included, for without a clear definition it is not possible to design for participation (Hrastinski, 2009). Next, an outline for online course design as well as the requirements for guiding and maintaining online communities are provided. The paper concludes by summarizing the benefits of online communities. Social Learning Theory: The Value of Learning in Community
In recent years education has relied predominantly on constructivism and social learning

theories that describe learning as being constructed while participating in dialogue Ouzts, 2006;

Communities of Learners Schwartzman, 2006). Social learning theroies are related to Vygotsky’s developmental theories.


Vygotsky described learning as being situated in community; meaningful learning does not occur without community and context. His sociocultural view can be understood by defining the zone of proximal development as being the difference between the learner’s developmental level and that learner’s potential development under the guidance of a more experienced person. While completing tasks in collaboration with a mentor the learner develops skills beyond a level possible while learning independently (Drouin, 2008, Miller, 2002). It is through “prompts, clues, modeling, explanation, leading questions, discussion, joint participation, encouragement, and control of the [learner’s] attention” (Miller, p. 377) that these skills are acquired. While interacting with peers, mentors, and experts, learners engage in problem solving, synthesizing, and assimilating concepts and ideas. Learners who employ critical thinking skills are more likely to value their learning experience and succeed in attaining their learning goals. Furthermore, online learning that includes interaction and collaboration with teachers and peers has a beneficial effect on achievement (Hrastinski, 2009; Liu, Gomez, & Yen, 2009)
It is the ability to connect with experts that gives well designed online courses an

advantage over face-to-face courses. These courses can more easily and cost effectively accommodate connections between learners, course instructors, and experts which in turn contributes to the creation of authentic learning communities (Liu, et al., 2009). In such communities there are opportunities to learn as one does in practice and to learn with participants from a divergent range of cultures (Brown, 1989). Through asynchronous communication there is opportunity to extend learning beyond the time and space restrictions of the traditional classroom walls to further encourage discourse amongst learners (Blocher, 2005, Ouzts, 2006).

Communities of Learners While there is research to support the reliance primarily on constructivist and social learning theories in online learning, there appears to be a struggle to design online courses that achieve the level of discourse described by these theories. Hrastinski, (2009) argues that we cannot totally understand online learning until we have a theory that views online learning as online participation (p.2). Without such theory it becomes difficult to understand what is meant by participation or what is expected from learners regarding participation. Participation According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, participate is defined as “to take part, to


have a part or share in something.” For the purposes of course design and outlining expectations for participation this definition must be elaborated on to include talking with others and forming connections by contributing thoughts and ideas, gaining a sense of belonging or feeling attached to a limited number of people with common goals and culture, and the willingness and desire to contribute to community and help others. In these communities positive experiences create trust, shared values and goals, caring, and interactivity. In addition, activities take place that are less harmonious but are nevertheless engaging including; conflict, competition, and political experiences (Hrasktinski, 2009; Liu, Magjuka, Bonk, & Lee, 2007). A clear definition of participation also proves invaluable when assessing participation. Frequently low level participation is assessed as it can be measured. Examples of measurement may include the “number of times learners access software for education purposes,” or “the number of times learners read or write” in discussion threads (Hrastinski, 2009, p. 5). In contrast, contributing to community by building relationship with others and communicating, thoughts,

Communities of Learners


ideas, and feelings, are indicators of high level participation. The degree to which learners attain this level of participation may best be self-assessed. Anderson, (2008), outlines components required for high-level participation by describing interactions that occur between learner and learner, learner and content, learner and instructor, and learner and assessment. These interactions lead to a description of participation as reflection on relevant content, as indicated by text contributions to forums, wikis, blogs, or other social media; reflection on contributions made by other learners and responses to these contributions and instructor responses to student contributions and summary of discourse at the conclusion of the discussion period (Liu et al., 2007). High level participation results in the sense that one belongs to a community and “feels attached to a group” (Jaldemark et al, 2006, in Hrastinski, 2009, p. 6). It is this high level of participation that course designers and teachers should be striving for in order to create knowledge building communities (Ngwenya, Annand, & Wany, 2008). Online Course Design
The primary goal in course design is to create a learning environment in which students

are motivated and rewarded by learning. By integrating content with learning activities and assessment, learning occurs in a logical manner (Bird, 2007; Fung, 2004). This design applies active learning for the creation of new knowledge and considers discussion in a community of learners to be of primary importance to learning (Drouin, 2008). It is a model that varies significantly from correspondence courses and distance education courses which rely on selfdirection, lack a communication component, and assume that knowledge is acquired. Models of passive course design are inadvertently created when course design begins with an overview of the content to cover. In contrast, successful design begins with a clear description of what the

Communities of Learners student experiences can be or how and what students can learn (Balaji, & Chakrabarti, 2010; Bird, 2007).
The challenge in designing online courses is determining how to incorporate social


learning theory and active learning in an asynchronous online environment. While there is much discussion about online etiquette, the value of community and discourse in online learning, a need for online learning theory, and comparisons between learning in the traditional classroom and the online classroom, there are few practical models describing how to design for online courses (Schwartzman, 2005).
Bird, (2007) outlines three components of an online learning experience in the article

“The 3 ‘C’ design model for networked collaborative e-learning: a tool for novice designers.” These are; content or basic knowledge required to participate in the course, knowledge construction through thought and discussion, and “consolidation of learning through reflection” (Bird, p. 155) or the process in which learners create new meaning from an existing body of knowledge. In incorporating these components it is important to achieve a balance between the three components while understanding that the basis of the course design focuses on social interactions in order that there can be discussion (Bird, 2007, Jones, 2011).
While striving for this balance it is important that all three components be interconnected.

Prior to engaging students in collaborative activities students need to be clear on what it is they are to collaborate about (Fung, 2004). In order for the content to be relevant the purpose for exploring the content needs to be made clear to learners. For example reading text should be connected to an activity such as participation in an asynchronous discussion forum or contributing to a group wiki. As with the first two components learners benefit from the opportunity to participate with a learning community during consolidation. Additionally, this

Communities of Learners final component is connected to the others as it is during activity that assessment is also


completed (Bird, 2007). Examples of activities that incorporate all three components are project based learning, such as the completion of a group presentation or wiki, and discussion forums for the purpose of assimilation and new understanding.
In designing online courses with an objective to balance the three components the focus

on content and the urge to upload large quantities of information, thereby creating an online text, can be avoided. The task of course design is still somewhat daunting, however in beginning with a grid, that breaks the course into weekly chunks and divides each week into three sections to accommodate each of the components, the creation of a learning environment to encourage learning in community can be achieved. Once weekly planning for content, construction, and consolidation has been achieved more detailed planning for activities and assessment can occur (Bird, 2007). During this stage of planning the designer should continue to focus on achieving objectives through participation in the learning community. Active learning can be achieved with the inclusion of case studies, discussions, games, project studies, and problem-based learning. (Anderson, 2008; Balaji & Chakrabarti, 2010; Brown, 1989; Chickering & Gamenson, 1987).
In the final stage of design, activities can be divided into manageable sections. The size of

each section should be determined by the needs of the students. Younger students will require a highly structured environment that includes required reading and contributions to online activities while older students can be afforded less structure (Bird, 2007). Leadership in Online Communities
Even with well designed courses there are no guarantees that students will participate in

learning communities. Leadership in the form of modeling is required to encourage and nurture

Communities of Learners participation. It should not be assumed that educators accustomed to teaching face to face will naturally transfer their leadership skills to the online environment (Liu et al., 2007; Schwartzman, 2005). Through a review of literature some key points of effective methods for encouraging and inspiring student participation have been identified. These findings are broken down below into three basic categories including: student needs, student resistance to participating, and teacher modeling. A. Student Needs: Preparing to Participate Technical requirements and the level of ability required for successful navigation and participation in the course should be clearly defined. It is sometimes assumed that students labelled as Generation Y are tech. savvy (Black, 2010). However, there are students who have not made technical literacy a priority and for this reason courses should be designed to accommodate participants with less than basic computer skills. Courses that are designed for student participation consider the ease of use of each option provided. Students’ ability to use tools influences learning, therefore aiding students in understanding how to use physical tools


including computer, software and internet, and psychological tools, or language, are required for student success (Brown, 1989, Miller, 2002). Beginning courses with a description of requirements for technical tools and the expected level of competence in using these tools allows students who lack the requirements to seek assistance (Deepwell, & Malik, 2008, Santhiveeran, 2005). Tutorials designed to teach basic skills can be provided by the school’s technical department. A final point is to consider the varying learning styles and preferences of individuals by providing multiple resources (e.g., forums, wikis, glossaries for asynchronous communication and Skype, chat, Elluminate for synchronous communication). Although tools for asynchronous communication are the options

Communities of Learners most frequently relied upon, synchronous tools for orientation, and presentation are of benefit (Jones, 2011, Liu et al., 2007). B. Student Resistance; Encouraging Participation Welcoming students to online courses and outlining expectations for participation is a first step in introducing students to a new course but it is insufficient motivation to encourage participation (So, 2009). Some of the most common obstacles that hinder participation include: lack of relevance or usefulness of content and activities, confusion, anxiety, apprehension (e.g., lack of confidence regarding writing ability), and time constraints (Balaji & Chakrabarti, 2010).


When courses are designed with a primary objective of capturing students’ attention and making learning purposeful, and are structured in a logical sequence some of these obstacles are eliminated (Liu et al., 2007, Santhiveeran, 2005). Some educators suggest that students can be encouraged to participate by including rewards or penalties, however, students generally prefer to remain silent as their opposition to participating is often a lack of confidence. The option of earning marks for participation is not a sufficient motivator for these students (Falvo & Solloway, 2004). Rather than being offered rewards or extrinsic motivators students require guidance from educators prepared to model expectations required for participation in online communities (Drouin, 2008). Courses designed with icebreakers at the beginning of the course help students to gain confidence. It is helpful to reserve the first week of the course for introductions and getting to know the participants as well as becoming familiar with course expectations, content, and activities. During this initial warm-up period students are encouraged by personalized welcome messages. As the course progresses short warm-ups at the beginning of each unit are

Communities of Learners recommended. Immediate feedback to individuals and groups is also critical in encouraging participation (Brown, 2001; Liu et al., 2007) C. Teacher Modeling


Experienced teachers know that the teacher sets the tone in class. They lead by example and understand that students follow their example. When instructors model expected levels of participation and provide samples of the quality expected for contributions, students are encouraged to participate (Brown, 2001, Fung, 2004). Surprisingly in online courses this idea, that the teacher is responsible for establishing a positive and welcoming atmosphere, is somehow lost. Teachers should be asking themselves, “How often do I show up for class?” If communication with students is restricted to individual contact through email or other private messages then it is time to make an appearance to the class as a whole. Instructors passionate about teaching and learning post relevant and interesting topics and share their stories and expertise thereby inspiring students to participate. Such educators are eager to guide discussions and affirm student contributions encouraging them to explore topics deeply. These are teachers who are concerned about student comfort and recognize the value of warm-ups in allowing students to become familiar with one another and develop a level of trust prior to sharing content related ideas (Ku, Lohr & Cheng, 2004). They value and encourage student autonomy clarifying that the objective is not to arrive at any pre-determined conclusion but to reflect on content, express thoughts and ideas, and share in the creation of knowledge that can occur when working in community (Perry & Edwards, 2004; Tu & Corry, 2003). These teachers are “challengers, affirmers, and influencers” (Edwards, Perry & Janzen, 2011, p. 107). They guide discussions keeping them focussed and on topic and maintain group

Communities of Learners harmony by posting encouragement and noting valuable contributions. They congratulate the


group, weave discussion threads by providing a wrap-up that serves to summarize the discussion, and in doing so confirm their presence throughout the discussion (Liu et al., 2007). They provide individual feedback on how to improve to students requiring assistance (Santhiveeran, 2005). With the teacher modeling the expected level of participation, guiding discussion, and monitoring the quality of posts there is little room for confusion regarding what is expected and students feel supported. Conclusion
The model of online learning provided here is supported by theory. It offers educators

clear direction allowing them guidance while creating online courses where students learn in community. It is clear that with a sound model educators and course designers will recognize the obstacles that lead them to create online courses as though they are repositories for content for the purpose of training students. Instead they will be able to transition and create vibrant communities that encourage meaningful learning (Ouzts, 2001) and meet expectations for 21st Century learning.
This is a learning environment that is rich and meaningful affording opportunities for

participation in authentic situations and encouraging life long learning. Participation in a community of learners allows students to engage in activities that require critical thinking skills leading to the construction of new knowledge and extending learning beyond the level learner would reach if learning independently. While contributing to a community of learners student learning is relevant leading to higher occurrences of achieving goals and satisfaction in achievements (Drouin, 2008, Liu, et al., 2009).

Communities of Learners
In contrast, without a model of online learning, supported by theory, and offering clear


direction, educators will continue to struggle as they transition from face-to-face instruction to online instruction. Providing educators with a strong level of support for course design will enable the creation of online courses designed from a sound pedagogical position (Rovai, & Downey, 2010). Such support will prevent educators from loosing sight of the importance of learner-centered options, and the power of learning in community.

Communities of Learners References


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