be there or be square

I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between instructor presence and community. I think there must be a very fine balance to achieve between “being there” and letting community happen (in other words, not squashing community by virtue of “being there” as instructors).

In a response to Felton Square’s interesting post about community, I mentioned that in a course I was recently teaching, a student said that when instructors had “gone missing” in  courses, community had really developed as students had to cling together to survive the courses. I was suprised, not only by the fact that instructors (notice the plural word form there) would “go missing” in the middle of a course, but also that doing so would open up opportunities for community. The instructors left the virtual building, but the course and students went on…

Lisa Lane notes that she does not intentionly structure for comunity. She states that it either happens or it does not. She asks the question whether community is up to the students anyway. Perhaps it is. And perhaps it should be. A more natural, virtual approach to community is an appealing idea.

For me, all of this has raised some questions:

  • In online courses, how do we know when we have moved from communication to community?
  • Who is responsible for developing community in online courses?
  • Can a strong instructor presence be an impediment to community in online courses?
  • How do we balance between “being there” and “being square” (squashing community)?
  • Do we need to let students know that community is at least in part up to them? If so, how do we do that?
  • Do we need to prepare students to assume roles in a community? Or at least make them aware of the possibilities? How would we do that?

Tough questions to be sure, but I hope to hear some of your thoughts about how to (at least in part) answer them!

neither here nor there

Given our assignments and readings and Todd Conaway’s synchronous session (as well as some academic writing I’m doing at the moment), I’ve been thinking a good bit about community  in online courses this week, both what it is and how to get it.

It seems to me that community in an online class is something of a different animal than other kinds of community that we think about as teachers. It is not the same as community in an onsite course, which we establish quickly by sizing each other up by appearance, telling jokes, agreeing or disagreeing with each other, either verbally or non-verbally, etc. Yet it’s not the same as online communities which are based on interest (and sharing knowledge and information, and thus learning, if informal) and are completely voluntary. These take a long time to establish, and members can engage in legitimate peripheral participation, or lurk (as Lave and Wenger suggest), prior to moving to engagement and then ultimately involvement and leadership in the community. So community in online courses seems to me to have characteristics of these two types of communities, but it cannot be characterized as either.

So what is that different animal?  That is something I’m not at all sure about. And it seems to me that it’s difficult to figure out how to get/establish “it” if you don’t know what “it” is.

That said, I think community in an online course is one of those things that you seem to know it if you’ve got it and that you sure know if you don’t. And I think some of the activities in the book and some of the things Pilar suggested in the video are great, and they seem like legitimate/useful suggestions for how to get “it”.

It might be an interesting exercize to look at what our practical experiences suggest works and sort of reverse engineer a definition of what community in an online course really is, which might in turn help us come up with even more ideas about how to accomplish it.

Open and distributed learning

MOOCs are receiving considerable attention from those of us who study higher education these days. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to browse the Chronicle of Higher Education without seeing an article or a blog post about MOOCs. This flurry of attention in the media is making for some interesting discussions in a “Technology in Higher Education” course I am teaching this term.

Related to this, I showed the following video in the course a couple of weeks ago:

We had an interesting discussion about the distributed nature of MOOCs, and many thought it was interesting that having folks on different pages is a feature in at least some MOOCs (although those offered through for-profit ventures seem to be much more structured and much less distributed).  We discussed the value in allowing flexibility and ownership of learning, but we also discussed whether students could end up feeling out of the loop, missing out on the conversation, missing out on the learning. Is distribution an asset to or detractor from community? It was a very good discussion in which folks who hold a variety of different perspectives were able to share ideas and information.