Building Community into Online Learning Environments

I really enjoyed reading the three articles for this week’s module. They included Building Sense of Community at a Distance (Rovai, 2002), Technology in Support of Collaborative Learning (Resta & Laferriere, 2007) and Representing Authentic Learning Designs Supporting the Development of Online Communities of Learners (Oliver, Herrington, Herrington, & Reeves, 2007). 
As Rovai 2002 notes, a sense of a learning community may be viewed as consisting of four related dimensions: spirit, trust, interaction, and commonality of learning expectations and goals. Rovai 2002 discusses a strategy that enhances these four dimensions should result in stronger feelings of community. Rovai 2002 further notes that a review of literature suggests instructors teaching at a distance may promote sense of community by attending to seven factors: a) transactional distance, b) social presence, c) social equality, d) small group activities, e) group facilitation, f) teaching style and learning stage, and g) community size. If we can design and deliver courses at a distance that build and sustain community by drawing on these factors, perhaps our actions will help promote satisfaction and retention in e-learning programs. Community equals a feeling of being connected to someone or something.
As I continue to read about the importance of building community in online courses, it makes me think about the effectiveness of Massive Online Open Courses, also called MOOCs. MOOCs tend to have a large number of participants, sometimes up to 100K enrollees. Rovai 2002 talks about creating a community within a certain class size or number of students. His argument is that smaller class size promotes a sense of community. Then, does this mean that MOOCs do not have any community built into them, and lack the effectiveness of integrating interaction and collaboration? How can MOOCs provide more interaction and collaboration between students and the instructor?
For another example, at the University of Minnesota, some undergraduate courses have up to 200 students. For example, introductory physics, chemistry, math, and psychology to name a few. These courses also lack the ability to create an effective community of students, including social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence, also known as the community of inquiry (Garrison). Can technology be integrated effectively into an online course to help build community? YES! Technology, simple as the mobile phone, can help build a relationship between an instructor and student in a large lecture style course at the University of Minnesota. I attended a Teaching and Learning conference at the University of Minnesota this past Friday, and one of the presentations described a math professor using his text messaging as a communication medium to interact with his students. Students used the text application to ask questions in and outside of the classroom. The math instructor felt more connected to his students by using text as a communication tool. Success!
I had several good takeaways from the authentic learning article as well. As Oliver, Herrington, Herrington, & Reeves, 2007 notes, effective learning communities need to be designed around activities based on deliberate learning designs that have been shown to be able to deliver learning outcomes. Successful learning design must include meaningful contexts that include collaboration, enables good interaction and communication, and provides effective moderation or facilitation by the course instructor.
I also wanted to mention an article (http://www.startribune.com/local/226611161.html) posted in the Star Tribune on Sunday, October 5 titled, Where’s the Teacher, Online College debuts self-paced courses. The article discusses a new competency-based approach to learning called FlexPath being utilized by Capella University.  It doesn’t matter how a student learns the course material; all they need to do is a pass a series of assessments that show they understand the material. A quote in the article that really caught my eye was,  “There’s not a lot of interaction, and quite honestly I like it that way,” she added. “I can just get in there [and] get my work done.” Does this mean that interaction is not needed in an online course? I disagree, and point back to the community of inquiry and the need for social presence in online courses to make them effective. Even though the FlexPath courses do have facilitators or coaches that help guide students through the course, there is a complete disregard for the use of interaction and collaboration in these courses, and I don’t feel students are becoming “smarter” or better learners through the process. It will be interesting to see what research unfolds from this new approach. The University of Minnesota was interviewed for the article, and there is much skepticism so far from them.  It will be interesting to see the future of FlexPath. Like any new disruption in higher education, it’s difficult to predict its future.
As I noted in my podcast ( http://picosong.com/yiSB/), there are several key components needed to successfully build community into an online learning environment.  These include:
 
Build an extensive introduction (using Flipgrid)
-Incorporate surveys (build community by learning about each student — what is working, how is the class, etc.)
-Incorporate chat (Twitter or other social media tools) and discussions (require students to respond to another student); if course involves group work, assign groups and require them to discuss relevant topics among the group throughout the course – help build collaboration)
-Video engagement (instructor posts videos each week to discuss material, things I learned from previous class)
-Technologies (I mentioned some of them, but Flipgrid, and Twitter can be used to create community in my course. I’d also use podcasting as a tool to provide students an opportunity to express themselves using audio.)
-Self-learning/Constructivist Approach (I’d like to provide opportunities for students to use their experiences and apply them to the learning community, and become facilitator’s of the community further along the course schedule. Create meaning for the students.)
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