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.

17 thoughts on “neither here nor there

  1. In my experience, community in the online learning sense, comes from the blogging posts that are read and reacted by other members of the community. Additionally, an instructor that takes an open interest in the responses from students can create a sense of community by acknowledging that all voices and responses within the community are heard and absorbed.

    • Totally agree, Drew! One thing to consider is how to do that and maintain a handle on “instructional time”. For example, in a class that has 100 students, I think that could require different ways of instructional responses just because of the time involved in responding to folks, and I haven’t figured out a good way to do that (I mean I’ve read some interesting ideas about how to do that, but I haven’t found what seems to work for me yet). It’s a challenge!

  2. Hello Claire,
    I enjoyed reading your post. I agree that in an online setting, it’s important to find that sense of community. I’m still trying to find it…
    I believe discussion boards could be useful for that. In the textbook, I enjoyed the term “student lounge” for students to create their own posts/threads. Also, depending on the city in which the college is/the instructor lives, perhaps an event held at the college (even if it’s an online class) such as a movie playing (in the target language) or another “class/group” activity could be a way to have that sense of community.

    • Hi Rachele,
      Thanks for the nice note! I think community is one of the hardest things to do (well) online. I’ve not done a good job with discussion posts in the past but am having to rethink my stance on them. It seems that if done well, they really could be a good way to get students talking to each other (the ways in which I’ve done it, not so much…to formulaic…”post, respond to posts…” and it makes students crazy when they have to respond and no one has posted. plus all those posts for the instructor to respond to! am thinking it could be done better, by having a little less structure and having students take ownership of digests or summaries or some such). The student lounge idea seems like a good one…a way to let go of control a little bit.

  3. If we know it when we see it, then I know it when a class is very active in the discussion forums. But I can have the exact same exercises set up in two classes, and one class will have a very active discussion and one will not. There seems to be a norm set in the forum, and it’s set by them rather than me unless I deliberately participate. Ironically, if I do participate, the norm becomes an instructor-led environment. If I don’t, they lead but it varies widely from class to class. In general, people tend to post how their neighbors are posting – lots of conversation if it starts that way, little conversation if it doesn’t.

    • That is an interesting question, isn’t it? How much instructor participation is a good idea? I like the idea of relinqushing some control to students for their own learning, but then I don’t want to feel like I”m abandoning them either. Have yet to strike a good balance with discussion boards…could use some good tips on that!

    • Good points you share here!! I think if we can get the student feel confident in the online environment and we can build the space to let them stay in contact and intereact with other students, teachers and tutors, It is also important to lead the space to try to encourage them to participate, but the results are going to be different each time, because the sense of community and group is not only created by our intention, It has to be born in the mind and actitudes of the participants and sometimes the expectations of the students and their needs are not to involved theirselves in a community to get the title they really want or need.

    • I think the idea about student responsibility for the community is an important one. A question for us then is how to put out opportunities and let them run with it. Another is what to do if the community doesn’t seem to be happening. How to encourage and motivate without overstepping then I think can be a challenge!

  4. Great post; community in a class is a new perspective for me, but when I think back in my f2f class , I can recognize when it has existed, but it was like a self evolving ecosystem; not sure what I did, if I did anything to make it happen.

    Yes creating an online class community is a different animal; also who has the biggest burden teacher or student to say if a knowledge transfer happens between a course and a student ?, and what affect dose the state of the online class community really has on learning.

    • Those are great questions, Felton. It is difficulty to say both onsite and online what it is that makes community happen or not. Sometimes I’m suprised when I get a class that really gels, and then sometimes I’m suprised when the class doesn’t gel (and yes the individual students still seem to learn, even if they don’t seem to have that sense of shared owndership of the course and content). Not sure what I’m doing, if anything, to make community happen or not.

      I’ve actually been reading some research related to what community does for learning online, but so far folks seem to be defining community in different ways so that researchers measure different things in different studies. I think there are at least a few studies that show that if students are interacting regularly (not sure that’s exactly community, but that’s at least one description of it in the research) that students are more likely to show up and stay in the course.

  5. How about assigning one or two student moderators each week. Give them the role of monitoring, commenting, etc to promote the discussion group. Each week rotate in new moderator(s) giving each student a chance to get a turn.?

    • Hi Norm,
      This sounds like a great idea. I’ve used group roles in my onsite courses before, and I think it helps students figure out the kinds of jobs they can do/comments they can make. I haven’t done it with online courses, but I think it has great potential. Could serve the same function of helping them understands different ways they might contribute to the discussion (e.g. summarizing, extending, supporting, critiquing and so forth). Thanks for the suggestion!

  6. Hi, Claire: Your post reminds me of a book discussion some of us did last Spring semester. Did you ever look at this book (information below)? I am just curious. Your conversation here sounds similar to some of the things we talked about. It was fun reading your post! Book Reference: Richard Schwier’s Connections: Virtual Learning Communities.

    • Hi Laura,

      I had not seen this book. And I’ve been looking for books and articles on online learning community but have failed to turn this one up. Indeed, I’m working on (struggling with) a book chapter on community in online courses right now (trying to finish it in the next few days), so your comment could not be more timely for me!

      I’ve had a quick look at it, and it looks really, really interesting! I will definitely cite this source.

      A hearty thanks to you for your comment and your suggestion to take a look at this ebook! I definitely owe you one!


  7. I like the idea of the responsibility for community lying with the student, but I think you would have to be very intentional in how that’s organized. And then, well, are you really giving them the responsibility if you are the one organizing it? I like Norm’s suggestion of assigning different moderators each week. The moderator could decide how they want to communicate with classmates, and lead discussion on a message board or a blog / website.

    • Thanks for your thoughts! I think it can get contrived if you over structure it, but at the same time, I think the instructor needs to build something that can allow for it. I like the moderator suggestion too.

  8. Pingback: free the fractals–but tell us where we can find them | Claire Major's Blog

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