This article was first published on Futurelab in January 2008. I've reproduced the text of the article here. Some links to resources are now no longer current.
What is an online learning community?
Since the end of last century, government initiatives throughout the world have sponsored the development of online learning communities in schools and other learning institutions.
A community can be classified as a group of people, each with different expertise and with access to diverse resources, in which a sharing occurs so that individuals within the group can benefit from each other.
Wikipedia defines an online community as “a group of people that primarily interact via communication media such as letters, telephone, email or Usenet rather than face to face”.
An online learning community can be described as a common place online where its members can engage in community activities in areas of learning guided by a leader. It is widely accepted that such communities hold promise for the effective sharing of skills and knowledge. This review looks at a number of key factors important to growing successful online learning communities and provides some relevant strategies for this.
Non-participating members of an online group
One behaviour in online groups that has been extensively studied is that of the non-participating members, termed the ‘lurkers’. Etienne Wenger calls them Legitimate Peripheral Participants.
Lurkers are widely known to be among the majority of defined members and they have been found to make up over 90% of most online groups. They are perhaps the most important members in view of their potential to contribute to online groups.
Blair Nonnecke and Jennifer Preece have studied the ‘silent participants’ of discussion forums and have extensively researched many of the reasons why lurking occurs. Though these have implications for the expected success of collaborative learning, it would appear that lurkers are not necessarily non-learners.
Takahashi et al have found that intentional learning seems to occur with so-called active lurkers. If lurkers can be identified, it is found that some of them can be enticed to become active participants. Non-active lurkers are apt to be members with online capability but who do not log on. Though proportions vary from group to group, non-active lurkers tend to make up the largest proportion of all members in an online group.
Perceptions of online student communities
In a series of in-depth studies with online student communities,
Caleb Clark examines and identifies key learning success factors in working with those. He cites findings confirming that the technical infrastructure and user interface (the online environment) “must provide the means to communicate social cues and information”, and other studies by Kaplan and by Schwier reinforce these results. For instance, Clark asserts that “just because it's online, doesn't mean the effects of (page) design disappear.”
Clark’s work is well sourced, and within it he develops three guiding principles:
online learning communities are grown, not builtClark identifies that “online learning communities grow best when there is value to being part of them”. He further elaborates that, “one of the hardest things to do in any online community is to get people to give information. One reason is that people just don't naturally think their way of doing things has value, when in fact it is the very heart of a community's value! This is especially true in online learning communities where the exchange of information is key to keeping students coming back.” He stresses the need for doing the groundwork that makes for successful student engagement in online collaboration, an opinion also shared by Mohr and Nault.
online learning communities need leaders
personal narrative is vital to online learning communities.
Clark contends that “leaders are needed to define the environment, keep it safe, give it purpose, identity and keep it growing”. He gives a set of mantras for teacher/leaders in any online community:
all you need is love
control the environment, not the group
lead by example
let lurkers lurk
short leading questions get conversations going
be personally congratulatory and inquisitive
route information in all directions
care about the people in the community; this cannot be faked
understand consensus and how to build it, and sense when it's been built and just not recognised, and when you have to make a decision despite all the talking.
He cites confirmation that “personal narrative is vital to online learning communities. Personal stories and experiences add closeness, and provide identity, thus strengthening online communities.”
William Klemm has a more pragmatic approach[9, 10] to student participation, one that tends to coerce the engagement of post-secondary students in online collaborative learning. A minimum level of online participation as well as a deliverable piece of work relevant to the community activity is a mandatory course requirement. Many universities adopt a similar approach in order to ensure minimum online engagement of each student in collaborative study.
Challenges to student learning in online communities
Marcy Bauman reports on the challenges posed in working with online communities. She identifies that “many of the interaction strategies both [teachers] and students use face-to-face simply will not work online” and she gives reasons for these.
She identifies that “students often do not have the necessary skills to survive in an online class” and that persistence, application and other key skills that are required to learn from the online platform may not be there in every student. These are quite different from the assumed equivalent skills required of the student in a face-to-face environment.
Bauman recognises that “in face-to-face classes, it is rare for students to be put in the position of having to rely solely on the written word in order to perform the work of the course”. She further justifies this by outlining that “when all the information comes to students via texts, they need to become proficient in reading those texts for meaning, and in order to be able to use the information they read in another context”, a circumstance not unknown to distance educators. She asserts that “this kind of reading is demanding in a different way than the kinds of reading students usually do in their classes; it requires considerably more effort and commitment than students may be used to giving to their reading.”
Bauman elaborates on the difficulties faced by the teacher, highlighting the lack of verbal and visual clues from students leading to a lesser understanding of student “attitude” while there is a need to monitor this feature. She explains her guidelines for growing communities within a class of students:
communicate frequently with the class
make as much interaction public as possible
create a space for non-classroom-related interaction
understand the limitations and strengths of the technology you're using in terms of fostering interaction
ask questions often, and interact with students in the forum you have devised for class interaction.
E-learning manuals and e-books elucidating much of the common practice upheld by Clark and also by Bauman are becoming more numerous. Many of them are freely available online such as the eBooks from The eLearning Guild.
References (some links are no longer current)
6. now not available - www.learningcircuits.org/2002/aug2002/kaplan.html
10. now not available - cid.byu.edu/tutorials/EightWays.pdf
11. now not available - kolea.kcc.hawaii.edu/tcc/tcc_conf97/pres/bauman.html