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Building an Online Learning Community

What is a learning community?

The term, learning community, has multiple definitions. A contemporary definition includes both formal and informal learning, crosses social and knowledge networks, and goes beyond the classroom and academia. Kilpatrick, Barrett, and Jones (2003) express the following definition deemed ideal for the 21st Century:

Learning communities are made up of people who share a common purpose. They collaborate to draw on individual strengths, respect a variety of perspectives, and actively promote learning opportunities. The outcomes are the creation of a vibrant, synergistic environment, enhanced potential for all members, and the possibility that new knowledge will be created (p. 11).

Learning communities are social and knowledge networks fostering opportunities for people to work together, solve problems, and generate ideas.

Learning communities are Communities of Practice where members are informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a common endeavor (Wenger, 1998).

Learning communities are fluid and provide opportunities for informal discourse with the intent to achieve a deeper understanding of content, to exchange experiences, and to support the socialization process among members (Seufert, 2002).

Learning communities are not place-based, nor simply defined by its size or proximity of its participants. For example, a learning community could be geographically dispersed professionals connecting with a common interest; a faculty organization sharing experiences, knowledge, and resources (e.g. learning objects); and students forming study groups, etc. The intent is to stage the means for participants to reap the benefits of social learning and the added value through sharing both explicit and implicit knowledge.

Why build learning communities?

Researchers have demonstrated that learning is most effective when learners (students/employees) work in groups, verbalize their thoughts, challenge the ideas of others, and collaborate to achieve group solutions to problems. Businesses succeed and prosper when people connect through shared content and dialogue. It is predicted that social and knowledge networks are going to be the "intellectual combustion engine" that drives future successful institutions and companies. (Gartner Voice, November 9, 2005). Further, Gartner Research predicts that by the year 2015, many workers will spend only 15% of their day on individual output. The other 85% of the work will be done in projects, small teams, collaborative process groups, and asynchronous virtual work or synchronous work occurring across geographical locations.

Effective learning communities facilitate action-learning to advance exploration of thoughts and find solutions to problems. The online environment provides a platform to connect with others, share information, exchange ideas -- cultivate life long learning. These social interactions and experiences (properly facilitated) coalesce to benefit the community at large and its members individually.

Why take a learning community online?

There are several motives for taking a learning community online (Internet/Intranet) whether entirely or in part. The Internet continues to grow as an integral part of how individuals communicate, conduct business, and learn. Taking learning communities online is a resourceful and strategic approach to share and/or manage knowledge while combining work, education, and technology. Providing occasions for individuals to work online afford participants (students/employees) opportunities to learn and adjust to the nuances of virtual collaboration. This helps to prepare individuals to communicate and navigate effectively online (as well as face-to-face). It is speculated that one's ability to navigate the Internet may one day be a measurement of a "new literacy" - one beyond text and images. Considering the existing popularity of Wikis, Blogs, and personal Internet sites (e.g., myspace.com), it could be argue that any lack of online initiative would be a disservice to the future interest of an institution and its stakeholders. Online communication and navigation skills and the ability to build community are genuine and measurable assets. Additional motives (given the technology infrastructure exists) include:

Convenience -- Asynchronous communication, common to discussion boards, allows individuals to participate when it is convenient for them.

Diversity -- Increase opportunity for diversity of thought and approaches. This is inherent to the online environment due to stretching boundaries of geography, culture, and even personality styles (e.g., individuals otherwise considered introverts are likely to engage with others more).

Learning styles -- The internet is the only medium that affords the ability to hear, see, read, and do activities - appealing to multiple learning styles.

Cost effective - It is cost effect to implement and maintain online learning communities in contrast to conducting similar scenarios face-to-face.

How to sustain an online learning community?

There is a philosophical shift that is necessary, but may not be apparent in order to optimize the intent of learning communities. The root of this transformative approach weighs degrees of independence against interdependence (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). While a traditional learning approach emphasizes independent achievement and a linear teacher-to-student(s) instructing strategy, a learning community encourages collective success, and dynamic instructing strategies of teacher to student(s), student to student(s), and student to teacher. In a classroom, this would be represented by an instructor taking the role of a guide on the side participating at times as an equal player. In the work environment, this would include management soliciting input from the bottom-up to create a company's mission statement, develop policy, and participate in strategic planning. Interdependence must be developed and taught starting first by creating an appropriate environment.

Establish proper foundation/framework.
Effective virtual communication recognizes that real people are on the other side of the screen - each with unique personalities, different learning styles, and interpersonal skills. It is imperative to create a trusting, civil, and respectful atmosphere. Stipulate guidelines for acceptable netiquette; create a charter for specific group work.

Share facilitation.
It is helpful to share the responsibility of facilitation among participants. Facilitate dialogue without dominating it - allow the volley of views to occur.

Maintain social presence.
In the virtual environment it is important to be present, to model behavior and process, to be timely and consistent.

Ask expansive questions.
Promote deep exploration of a topic and the development of critical-thinking skills. Welcome critical discourse to stimulate thinking; no right or wrong answers; agree to disagree.

Encourage (if not require) participation.
Insist on constructive feedback to one another. Embedding context in every day life would help to engage participants. Provide online team building interactions. If possible, periodically bring virtual teams together for a face-to-face community building activity.

References:

Gartner Voice (2005). Managing the virtualized workforce. Host: Dale Kutnick, Guess: Diane Morello. Betsy Burton. Podcast November 9, 2005 - Retrieved April 2, 2006 from http://www.gartner.com/it/products/podcasting/asset_139224_2575.jsp

Kilpatrick, S., Barrett, M. & Jones, T. (2003). Defining learning communities.
AARE 2003 Conference Papers. Retrieved April 21, 2006 from http://www.aare.edu.au/03pap/jon03441.pdf

Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge creating company. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Seufert, S. (2002). Virtual learning communities. Presented January2 29, 2002 at NLII Meeting in San Diego, Californai. Retrieved April 11, 2006 from http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/powerpoint/NLI0211a.pps

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning as a social system. Systems Thinker. June 1998. Retrieved March 18, 2006 from http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml