Online communities – notes from the reading group

Amy read Professors share ideas for building community in online courses. The over-arching narrative of this piece was that ‘humanizing learning’ was the most effective was to build online learning communities, which occurs when students connect on a emotional and social level when engaging with the community. The author, Sharon O’Malley, suggest six methods for achieving this:

  1. Let students get to know you – instructors need to present themselves as ‘real people’ – this can be done by appearing goofy or telling genuine anecdotes in videos, for example. Students should also be encouraged to reveal their non-academic lives, in order for others to feel more like they know them personally, rather than just in the learning context
  2. Incorporating video and audio resources and feedback
  3. Meet in real time – students can talk to each other in real time and make instant connections
  4. Work in small groups – students get connected with others in their group – instead of feeling like they’re in a class of fifty, they feel they are in a class of 5, 10 etc.
  5. Require constant interaction – group projects and collaborative writing assignments force students to engage with each other out of the session
  6. Rise to the challenge – building community takes time – it takes planning and experimentation. Stick with it if it doesn’t immediately work!

Roger introduced a Building learning communities card activity. This is an activity from QAA Scotland, designed to stimulate discussion about what helps an effective learning community. The activity cards suggest the following factors:

  • Clearly defined and inclusive values
  • A clearly articulated and shared purpose
  • Clearly articulated and shared purpose goals
  • Active and vibrant interaction
  • Owned and managed by its people
  • Dedicated structure
  • Collaboration
  • Adequate and appropriate support
  • Understood and respected expectations
  • Adequate and appropriate resources
  • Built in evaluation

The instructions ask the group to consider which of these are essential and which are “nice to haves”.   The activity was certainly effective in stimulating discussion in reading group.]

Suzi watched Building Community: A Conversation with Dave Cormier – a recording of an edX webinar from 2014 – video. Here Cormier, who coined the term MOOC, talks to edX about how they could and should use online learning communities.

Cormier talks about four models of learning that you could scale up online:

  • One-to-one (adaptive learning, tutoring on skype?)
  • One-to-many (video lectures on MOOCs)
  • Cooperative learning: many-to-many, all working on the same thing
  • Collaborative learning: many-to-many, shared interest but each with own project

Collaborative learning is the one which he thinks is particularly – perhaps only – served by online communities. The real life equivalent being chaos, or maybe conferences (which, arguably, don’t work well for learning).

He draws the distinction between mastery learning (where skills can be ticked off a list as you progress) and complexity. Communities are not a particularly useful tool for mastery, or for checking who has learnt what. They are much better suited for complexity. This seemed to echo discussions we’d had about the difference between using gamification and using playfulness in learning – gamification being more for mastery, playfulness for complexity.

Cormier offers some tips on building a successful community.

  • A community should have, should move people towards building, shared values and a shared language.
  • Drive participation by having a famous person (but this can become one-to-many) or by asking annoying questions that people can’t resist engaging with (eg “how do we recognise cheating as a valuable part of education?”).
  • Shape participation by assigning roles to people and having course leader presence to set the tone.
  • Give people ways to get to know each other and make connections: recognising who people are and recognising aspects of yourself in them.

His view on evaluation and measuring success might be more specific to the MOOC context. He suggests borrowing techniques from advertising to demonstrate their value (but he doesn’t give details). The outcomes he suggests you might hope for are things like building more interest in your research area, or building the brand of an academic / department / institution.

He also asks some interesting questions. About the authenticity of work we give to students – how will their work persist? Can it be right that so much of students work is destined to be thrown away? About life beyond the community – how will the community persist? Communities are emotional – you shouldn’t just pull the plug at the end.

Lots of this is challenging in an educational context. For instance, communities take time to build but we generally work with units that last for a teaching block at most. Our online Bristol Futures courses only last four weeks. I wonder if this is to do with setting expectations. Perhaps we need thin and thick communities: the thin communities being time-bound but with much more scaffolding and a narrower purpose, the thick communities being more what Cormier is talking about here.

I also read The year we wanted the internet to be smaller (on the growth of niche communities in 2017) and 11 tips for building an engaged online community (practical advice aimed at NGOs). Both are interesting in their own right and worth a read. In both the idea of shared values, shared language and a sense of purpose came up. They also talk also recognition: communities as a place where you find “your people”. This resonates with my positive experiences of online communities but is, again, challenging in an education context. As Suzanne pointed out I think – if the tone and being among “your people” is important you must be able to walk out and find something different if you don’t feel comfortable. And it may be far better that you work with people who aren’t just  “your people”, or at least who don’t start that way.

Suggested reading

Online communities in education

From other sectors

Education communities – articles that are 10+ years old

Suggested listening

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