Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Online learning communities as an integral part of blended learning strategy

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Online learning communities as an integral part of blended learning strategy


Introduction

Nowadays, the concept of an online community is becoming increasingly popular in education as it encourages collaborative learning. While building a learning community continues to be one of the challenges in online education, a blended learning approach, that integrates the strengths of face-to-face and computer-mediated instructional modes (Graham, 2006), enables one to develop a sense of community and enhance the quality of interaction among community members (Guldberg & Pilkington, 2006; Owston, Wideman, & Murphy, 2008). In blended learning environments, an online community creates opportunities for learners to interact informally, network, mentor, and learn from one another. Students’ engagement in an online community enables them to share tacit knowledge and increase individual effectiveness (Kaplan, 2008).


Concept of an online learning community

A community usually refers to a group of people with common interests living in a particular area (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2008). The emergence of computer conferencing tools, social networking platforms and web-based collaboration technologies has shifted a physical place-based concept of community building to a web-based concept (Bringelson & Carey, 2000; Palloff & Pratt, 1999). There are currently many different terms designating the meaning of an online learning community: virtual or online, web- or Internet-based learning communities, communities of practice, or knowledge networks.


An online learning community (OLC) is a web-based learning environment replete with the latest digital technologies where interconnected learning participants communicate, collaboratively construct their knowledge, and share their personal experiences (Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Preece, 2000; Richardson, 2006). OLCs are often characterized by active interaction, collaborative learning, socially constructed meaning, sharing resources, and expressions of support and encouragement (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Powazek (2002) describes an online community as a group of connected individuals with a strong emotional bond provided with web tools, for instance, bulletin boards, chat rooms and threaded discussions, for continuous participation and open discussion among members of the community. In contrast to social networks, OLCs utilized in educational practice incorporate the process of learning, knowledge construction, and community building with the purpose of developing a strong sense of community among learners and achieving mutually the intended learning goals (Downes, 1999; Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Rovai, 2001). Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff (1997) describes an online learning community as “a group of people who use computer-mediated communications (CMC) to learn together, at the time, place, and pace that best suits them and is appropriate to the task” (p. 4).


Online communities are created on the basis of shared common interests, collaboration and with the aid of CMC. They evolve through the same stages as face-to-face communities (Palloff and Pratt, 1999; Shaffer & Anundsen, 1993). However, in the process of achieving group connectedness and collaboration, the participants of online communities often feel less nervous and reserved, compared to the members of face-to face communities. Such liberation of the online participant is explained by the absence of verbal, physical, social, racial and other discriminatory cues that appear in a natural communication (Macduff, 1994; Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Trend, 2001).


From a design perspective, online learning communities can be emergent and designed. An emergent, or natural, OLC is developed by learning participants themselves for the purpose of information sharing and exchange of personal experience. The functioning of such community is characterized by an unscheduled engagement, a high level of learners’ intrinsic motivation, and a specified interaction context which is based on common interests of the community members. The designed, or customized, OLCs are developed for educational needs by technology corporations, e.g. Tapped In©, My e-coach©, etc. The customized online community platforms are previously equipped with a set of different communications and collaboration tools, storage and sharing capabilities, technical and moderation support. Instructors often use these community solutions to build online groups for their students to meet particular learning goals (Harasim et al., 1997; Mayer, 2005).


Components of an online learning community

Besides appropriate digital interactive and collaborative facilities, an OLC has the following attributes: (a) a common vision of a community agenda, (b) active participation and collaboration, and (c) establishment of trust (Preece, 2000; Rovai, 2000; Wang, Sierra, & Folger, 2003). Considering the physical separation of participants in OLC, it is necessary to form a sense of community at the beginning of its development (Rovai, 2001). Often, the participants are expected to introduce each other to the community and share their own experiences, needs, interests, goals and expectations with the rest of their members. In the further process of community development, the learners strengthen their community identity through their acceptance of responsibilities inherent in OLC membership and active participation in mutual knowledge building, collaborative activities, problem-solving, decision-making, peer evaluation and others (Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Preece, 2000; Wang, Sierra, & Folger, 2003).


While participating in activities designed for OLC, learners and instructors share various roles. Instructors serve as facilitators, community builders, instructional managers, coaches, and moderators. Wenger (1998) emphasizes that teachers are learning resources not because of their institutionalized status and pedagogical intentions but because they share the same membership with their students and embody their identities as participants in a learning community, “[a teacher ] … brings into the subject matter the concerns, sense of purpose, identification, and emotion of participation” (p. 276-277). Learners, in turn, take on knowledge construction, collaboration and process management (Palloff & Pratt, 1999).


Lastly, it is necessary to develop the feeling of trust among members within an online learning community (Rovai, 2001; Wang, Sierra, & Folger, 2003). Rovai (2001) describes trust as the feeling of safety and support. Trust is associated with reciprocity of personal experiences, emotions and beliefs with one another (Wang, Sierra, & Folger, 2003). Palloff and Pratt (1999) point out the importance of discussing with each other such issues, as openness, honesty, safety, and privacy, in order to maintain a secure and well-integrated environment.


Use of an online learning community in blended learning environments For online learning communities to be effective in blended learning, they must be integrated fully into its pedagogical framework (Kaplan, 2008). Building an online learning community usually starts with engagement of learners in well-organized introductions through web-based technologies prior to a face-to-face meeting. This provides an opportunity to reinforce the personal relationships between learners, establish community etiquette and ground rules, and speed up the processes of openness, sharing, and collaborative learning when learners eventually meet in person.


Following a face-to-face meeting, OLC should provide opportunities for learners to be engaged in structured interactive experience, for instance, guided online discussions, brainstorming, sharing group projects, discussing findings from literature review, team research, and receiving mentoring from peers and instructors. It makes possible to extend personal relationships, strengthen group interaction and, on the whole, enrich students’ learning experience:

Once learning communities are truly functional and connected to the world in meaningful ways, teaching events can be designed around them as resources to their practices and as opportunities to open up their learning more broadly. Again, there is a profound difference between viewing educational design as the source or cause of learning and viewing it as a resource to a learning community (Wenger, 1998, p. 271).


Benefits of online learning communities for blended learning

Recent studies have revealed several benefits of the application of online learning communities in blended learning environments. The incorporation of OLC in blended learning programs brings out new alternatives to build a sense of community, advance conventional ways of communication, collaboration and knowledge building. Initial face-to-face sessions motivate students to online interaction and strengthen the connections among students for their continuous collaboration and learning success in the online community (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). For example, a strong majority of participants reported that given opportunities to share experience and innovative ideas in face-to-face sessions assisted them not only to strengthen professional connections, but also to decrease the feeling of isolation (Owston, Wideman, & Murphy, 2008).


Students indicated the importance of the reflections in order to be successful in the learning process. In particular, they refer to the use of discussion boards as an interactive facility of OLC where they can express their opinions, comment on their peers’ postings and provide critical feedback (Menchaca, 2006; Owston, Wideman, & Murphy, 2008). While evaluating the work of their peers, the students adhere to collaborative rather than competitive positions and, therefore, they build respect for others’ beliefs and develop a supportive learning community (Wang, Sierra, & Folger, 2003).


In OLCs, students are exempt from any discriminatory cues of face-to-face communication and, thus, concentrate their learning on the meaning of message (Harasim et al., 1999). Also, OLCs allow learners to receive the same and elaborated messages from several sources in various media formats over time. For instance, a topic discussed in a face-to-face classroom, can be elaborated on in the online community, and actual examples are stored in the online shared repository (Rossett, Douglis, & Frazee, 2003). Through the use of OLC interactive properties, a teacher can foster different learning styles while teaching students (Menchaca, 2006; Richardson, 2006; Rovai, 2001). As an illustration, “social learners” prefer to collaborate with other participants in synchronous chat discussions. In contrast, “readers and writers” prefer to reflect on their learning through asynchronous discussion boards (Menchaca, 2006).


Conclusion

The incorporation of online learning communities in blended learning is gaining in popularity at a rapid rate. The reviewed literature suggests that the use of online communities in blended learning opens up the opportunities for informal learning and mutual engagement in the creation of learning products. Even though researchers have studied intensively the structure and impact of online communities on the student learning process, learning through an online community is still a new field and much needs to be examined to better understand the learning architecture of an online community and what factors influence a common sense of community, meaningful interaction, active engagement in knowledge construction and sharing.


References

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