Much research has been done into the impact that learning communities have on online students’ learning and satisfaction, with many researchers concluding that active participation in a learning community helps online students develop metacognitive skills, a sense of ownership of and responsibility for the learning process and the learning outcomes (Simonson et al, 2012), become more self-directed and reflective, as well as develop their own, independent position on the topics studied (Laureate education, 2010). In a nutshell, being an active participant of a learning community is, perhaps, the shortest way to developing the skills and attitudes that characterize a lifelong learner.
Trying to find at least one example of how participation in an online learning community contributes to a student’s learning, I remembered what research says about each learner grounding his/her perception of a topic in his/her background:
“No two learners are identical even though they may have similar needs and share common experiences. Learners construct reality in terms of their prior experiences, their conceptual knowledge, their procedural schemas, their values, their attitudes, and their preferred way of knowing” (Jenkins, 2006, para.5).
This essentially means that a learner’s own initial perception of a topic is limited by his/her inherent or acquired perception selectivity. Moreover, this limited perspective of the topic will stay with the student unless he/she is introduced to and ponders on the perspectives of others.
“By learning together in a learning community, students have the opportunity to extend and deepen their earning experience, test out new ideas by sharing them with a supportive group, and receive critical and constructive feedback” (Palloff & Pratt, 2007 p.157).
It is through communication with peers and instructors that we, as online students, can overcome what Kuhn refers to as a paradigm paralysis and attempt at a paradigm shift. It is thanks to sharing ideas and perspectives that learners start seeing the rabbit behind the duck (or the duck behind the rabbit).
We need to have a multi-perspective view of things relevant to our profession (and, hopefully, beyond the profession) to be able to serve a diverse customer population. The images that follow demonstrate the selective character of human perception. Although these are but simple tests while real life situations are a lot more complex, do you think you can always grasp all the dimensions and unravel all the mysteries on your own?
An online learning community is also a potent tool for addressing a learner’s affective domain, i.e. a learner’s emotions and attitudes. Ormrod, Schunk, and Gredler (2009) state that “learning is – and should be – an affective as well [as] cognitive enterprise” (p.259) – learners develop “feelings about the things they study” (p.259), “affect is clearly intermingled with learning and cognition” (p.246):
“As we are thinking about, learning, or remembering something, our very thoughts and memories may have emotional overtones – a phenomenon known as hot cognition. Often the nature of the material we are trying to learn induces hot cognition and, as a result, affects cognitive processing. … The emotional nature of what we have stored in long-term memory may influence our ability to retrieve it later on” (p.247).
I daresay, it is not only what the students learn but also how they learn it that contributes to the affective side of a learning experience, “the context becomes an important part of the knowledge associated with the learning” (Jenkins, 2006, para.31). As Boettcher and Conrad (2010) concisely put it, “we shape our tools and our tools shape us” (p.34). The importance of relationship-building is emphasized in most distance learning theories, according to Holmberg, for example, “personal relations, study pleasure, and empathy between students and those supporting them (tutors, counselors, etc.) are central to learning in distance education” (Simonson et al, 2012, p.49).
But how is it possible to create an effective and productive learning community online? This task is a responsibility that is shared by the learners and the course instructor (Laureate Education, 2010) – as Scott Fitzgerald has it in The Great Gatsby, “It takes two to make an accident”. However, it is primarily the responsibility of the instructor to induct the students into the social constructivist learning. First of all, the students need to be acculturated to the online collaborative learning environment through a thorough orientation course (Laureate Education, 2010). It is also important to create and maintain an area within the CMS used for the course that would give the learners an opportunity to engage in safe, ungraded, personal, and informal communication (Laureate education, 2010). To engage the learners, a dedicated instructor will model the behavior appropriate for a learning community (Laureate education, 2010) and practice activities that help bring the students together in an environment created in accordance with their own vision of mutual responsibility and accountability, expectations, and productive routine (Laureate education, 2010).
The phases of student induction and monitoring, as well as the activities appropriate for each stage, are well described by Conrad and Donaldson (2011):
Phase 1: instructor as a social negotiator who provides activities that “help learners get to know one another”, sets orientation for the course, and keeps the learners “on track” through ice-breaking activities and “discussions concerning community issues” (p.9);
Phase 2: instructor as a structural engineer who “forms dyads of learners and provides activities that require critical thinking, reflection, and sharing of ideas” (p.9);
Phase 3: instructor as a facilitator who “provides activities that require small group to collaborate, solve problems, reflect on experiences” (p.9);
Phase 4: Instructor as a challenging community member who welcomes learner-designed or leaner-led activities.
Dr.Pratt (Laureate Education, 2010) astutely remarks that it is necessary for an online instructor to consistently observe all the stages of a learning community building – the instructor is never on vacation even when he/she feels that an effective learning community I being formed.
Moreover, a learning community helps to reduce the distance an online learner may feel and to break the feeling of isolation and abandonment that so many online learners are likely to suffer from if they do not identify themselves as valuable members of a community (aureate Education, 2010).
As a future online instructor I have come to realize the importance of student induction and the instructor’s continuous presence on course site (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). I feel it of paramount importance to communicate with the students about the office hours and coming absences (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). I have come to see and value the progression of the community building process and the imperative to always be there for the students so that they feel they are not alone.
I thank my classmates for the many insight and personal experiences they have shared this week. Without the learning community I am currently a member of, my own perspective would much impoverished.
Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction (Updated ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Jenkins, J. (2006). Constructivism. In Encyclopedia of educational leadership and administration. Retrieved from http://knowledge.sagepub.com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/view/edleadership/n121.xml
Laureate Education (Producer). (2010). Online learning communities [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu
Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson.
Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.