The third topic in #ONL191 is concerned with learning in communities, obviously with the focus on the networked aspect. There is a lot of interesting evidence for the advantages of online working, most interestingly to me how this can promote higher-order thinking, meaning that students have more time to reflect and develop their ideas. A very nice discussion of this is given by Katrina Meyer in an article on threaded discussions. This was also recognised very early on in the history of online interactions, as illustrated by this article from 1996, which looked at prisoner’s dilemma type games mediated by online interaction. Elena Rocco found here that online discussions were not as dominated by a small number of participants. However, this only worked out if the groups had alread established a sense of community prior to participation in the game. In the article, this was done by prior face-to-face meetings. Today, there are many tools to try and replace this, with success.
In the specific learning context, one question that arises is the question of collaborative learning. It is well-documented that students benefit extensively from strong peer networks to support individual knowledge construction. In the online context, we therefore want to replicate this, building on the strong points of online interaction. Accordingly, in the course we have looked at online principles for working together, and also discussed a hierarchy of interactions, progressing from discussion, to the simple welding together of individual pieces of work, to actual sharing of ideas and common work together, albeit with each individual having their own purpose, through to the development of a common purpose and identity. This type of description can be found in many places – I have borrowed from Siemens here, and have deliberately avoided using the words cooperative or collaborative. One of my colleagues on the course, Elisabeth Öhman, has addressed this issue on her blog.
So, how do we build this community? There are a lot of guides out there on the internet. I link to one here, but there are many examples, often talking about netiquette, group contracts, rules of engagement, etc. One thing that is less well developed is the question of light social contact, or serendipitous exchange. In professional contexts, the value of this is well recognised including the possibility of forcing random communication. Legitimising non-work related discussions helps to build community feeling. The guidelines for online learning communities that I have found tend to focus on purely transactional interactions, with a focus on the importance of an online photo and small profile, consisting of a couple of sentences. I must admit I fail to understand how this helps in the building of community!
Taking the example of my group in #ONL191, I think that we have established a good rapport, with generally good attendance, and interesting discussions on the various topics at home. However, our interactions are mainly limited to our scheduled video meeting slots, which have a limited time. Accordingly, we have tended to be course- and task-oriented in our verbal exchanges, with limited opportunity for one-on-one interaction. Our sense of community is built on the framework of the assigned tasks; I am not sure if this constitutes the type of community that the literature encourages us to aim for.
Looking through a selection of online information, I have also found some literature from the student’s perspective, in particular a piece by Richard West at Brigham Young University. To quote,
Many online communities have a designated space for members to socialize about topics not related to course content. Often these spaces are most beneficial if they are for students only, not instructors. This allows students to have the kinds of informal discussions that they might normally have in the hallways before an F2F class begins.
The article then gives some examples of this using TappedIn – a US-based project that terminated in 2013, funded originally by the National Science Foundation and then by participating institutions. I haven’t investigated further as yet to see what descendants of this exist, but I think that it is important that such spaces should not be relegated to the purely commercial sphere (the Facebook group, the Whatsapp group, etc) as that can restrict access. Just as the physical University provides the physical corridor space, perhaps it should also provide the equivalent online space.