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Building An Online Learning Community

by Kevin Wilcoxon

October 3, 2011

Feature

by Kevin Wilcoxon

October 3, 2011

“One thing is certain, learning communities are more engaging and members more engaged than is the case with traditional instruction.”

How can an instructional designer (ID) leverage social interaction online to engage learners, increase exchange and dialogue, and get better results, without losing the purposeful focus provided by an instructor or traditional course content and structure? Many IDs are intrigued by the potential of communal experiences online, but there is a great deal of uncertainty about how to proceed. Here are a couple of cases that you may find interesting. Afterward, I offer a roadmap for producing similar results.

Online Statistics course

Michelle Everson teaches a Statistics course online. At the beginning of each cohort, she assigns students to asynchronous discussion groups of five members each. Students work within their particular group all semester long, using their own discussion board. To assign members, she looks at the class roster and tries to include a mix of different majors or areas of study within each group. “I hope that students will bring unique perspectives to discussions and learn more from one another.”

Each group is required to work on eight small-group assignments during the course or series. For each assignment, she gives them a particular topic to discuss, and questions to answer based on the topic. For example, student groups get a description of an experiment and must critique it and come up with a better design. For another assignment, after learning about a particular analysis technique, she asks students to come up with unique examples from their own fields of study in which they could use that technique.

Online Operations Management course

Joel Mencena teaches Operations Management online. He uses specific case examples throughout the semester to bring course concepts to life. These cases might describe a company situation and the associated management decisions. Or they might present the situation, but leave the decisions to course students.

Joel creates discussion boards for each case example, asking students to critique the decisions in the case or post their own decisions. They also argue for their perspective, share their experiences from similar circumstances, and cite research findings that support their positions. There is generally no one right answer, but this method generates many workable ideas. For this reason, Joel does not ask the students to come to consensus.

He has found, however, that the full group of 30 students makes for chaotic discourse and uneven participation. Since he began dividing the full group in half, each with its own discussion board, the process seems improved and he is better able to monitor the discussions. Since he wants full exposure to individual perspectives, Joel remixes the groups once or twice during the semester.

Learning communities

Both Michelle and Joel have created online learning communities within their courses, using different approaches to fit the subject matter and their learning goals. For our purposes, a learning community is “a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct meaning and confirm mutual understanding.” (Garrison, 2007) As such, you base learning communities in constructivist principles. A learning community is directed toward learning in a social environment, not socializing.

 


Figure 1. The elements of a learning community. (Garrison, et al., 2000)


Figure 1 describes the relationship between the three elements of a learning community.

  • Teaching presence is the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes toward the goal of meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes.
  • Social presence is the ability of participants to identify with the group, communicate in a trusting environment, and develop social relationships by way of expressing their individuality.
  • Cognitive presence is the exploration, construction, resolution, and confirmation of understanding.

We can further specify each element of a learning community.

Teaching presence involves the elements we might normally think of when we consider teaching: design and organization, direct instruction, and facilitating discourse. Modeling of expected behavior and form, and their enforcement are integral to teaching presence. Direct instruction includes scaffolding – providing extra assistance – for individuals in need of help by the instructor and by other students. Thus, teaching presence is not the sole responsibility of the instructor within a learning community. Advanced courses may even involve students in their design and organization. The facilitation function, unsurprisingly, contributes the most to a sense of community and learning. It's useful, for understanding the model, to separate teaching presence and instructor presence. The instructor or facilitator is omnipresent throughout the process, orchestrating the entire experience.

We can understand Social presence in terms of social context, interactivity, and a sense of privacy.

  • One can understand social context in terms of perceptions by the individual about the experience:
    • sociable — unsociable
    • sensitive — insensitive
    • personal — impersonal
    • warm — cold
    • humanizing — dehumanizing
    • informal — formal
  • To appreciate social context, think about attending an unfamiliar party or professional gathering by yourself where (1) everyone stays within their chosen circle, and (2) people come up to you and introduce themselves and others nearby.

  • Interactivity is a sense of participation, dialogue, and reciprocity, and of being a part of something beyond oneself. Interactivity can happen spontaneously in the classroom. You must build it in during course design for the online environment. You build interactivity using a combination of these three avenues: Instructor – Student, Student – Student, and Content – Student. An important contributing factor is awareness of others in the course. Learning Management System tools such as Class Roster, Who’s Online, Discussion, and Chat encourage interactivity by promoting awareness of others, among other benefits.
  • Trust issues center on privacy. Privacy and trust hold a symbiotic relationship – privacy builds trust, and trust eases privacy concerns. Privacy means we have the power to reveal information about ourselves selectively and to negotiate social relationships in a manner we feel comfortable with. Trust involves the choice to expose oneself to risk before others, in the expectation that they will not disappoint your expectation. In the online learning environment, you build trust through positive experiences and familiarity – getting to know others in the course. To make past experiences positive, we live up to the privacy and security expectations of others in the present.

You can think of Cognitive presence as the process of inquiry by the group – active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in terms of supporting evidence and the conclusions or consequences that follow (Garrison, 2007). Cognitive presence is carried out, ideally, in four phases:

Triggering event > Exploration > Synthesis > Resolution


A triggering event can be a question or problem presented to the group, or the recognition of a problem: an expressed sense of confusion or uncertainty. Exploration involves divergent thinking where group members express opinions, make suggestions, and where brainstorming and intuitive leaps occur. Synthesis moves toward convergent thinking, where the integration and summarizing of ideas occurs and you identify a solution. Finally, resolution comes from arriving at consensus conclusions, or group commitment to and application of a solution.

Without the direction, commitment, and teaching presence of the instructor, discussions most frequently end at exploration or, more accurately, “serial monologues” devoid of true interaction. To achieve cognitive presence, instructors need to be more directive in their assignments for threaded discussions, charging the participants with resolving a particular problem, and pressing the group to integrate their ideas (Garrison, 2007). 

To move through integration and resolution, instructor and students alike must work to diagnose and correct misconceptions, ask probing questions, provide additional information, and model critical thinking. Progression requires direction. When you task learners with formulating and resolving a problem, the time spent on the four phases tends to even out, or even favor the latter phases. The ability of groups to take full advantage of cognitive presence is directly related to group size, as we will see in a while.

Are they all equally important?

All three elements (Social, Cognitive, and Teaching) are very important to the learning community. Without all three, we have something less than “learning” + “community.” There is, however, a hierarchy of need, so to speak. Teaching and social presence are more foundational to basic learning tasks. We could say that cognitive presence takes learning beyond basic knowledge and into deeper understanding, application, and appreciation.

Because social presence addresses our most basic needs for security and belonging, we could argue that social presence is the most foundational to a functional learning community. However, as the model shows, the instructor/facilitator is most responsible for establishing the appropriate climate. Increased comfort levels create the conditions that allow for open expression of individual opinions, ideas, and positions.

Of special note is the finding that once social presence is established, as measured by the frequency of supportive messages, the group moves on toward higher expressions of group cohesion as supportive messages decrease in frequency (Garrison, 2007). Social presence remains, but becomes the backdrop, not the focus.

Met-needs reinforce attention and learning whereas unmet needs distract us. When social presence is high, learners are more satisfied, perceive the instruction as more effective, and their achievement is improved. Lack of social presence can lead to high levels of frustration, disengagement, critical attitudes toward the instruction, and lower levels of learning. Gorsky & Blau (2009) cite a number of studies attesting to the importance of teaching presence. “The consensus is that teaching presence is a significant determinant of perceived learning, student satisfaction, and sense of community.” At the least, the instructor is first among equals. Students rank instructor modeling as the most important element in building online community (Vesely et. al., 2007).

Building a learning community

 

Figure 2. Learning-community structure


How does an instructor go about building a learning community online? Figure 2 presents one conception of how it’s done.

Beginning the learning experience, the instructor’s first job is orientation. An overview of the content is a given, but just as important is social orientation. Who’s in the course or series? What are they like? How will we interact? Are we in this together? How do I know I can trust the instructor and other students?

With social presence underway and growing, we establish our teaching presence and build cognitive presence through direct instruction, facilitating discussions and application activities, and timely feedback.

Group size

Quite a bit of research has focused on the ideal group size (Berry, 2008; An, et.al. 2008, Cann, et. al.; 2006, Caspi, et. al., 2003). The goal is to have a sufficient number of members to encourage ongoing interaction without having so many that individual voices disappear. While there is no “perfect” number, the research appears to have settled on two answers. For general discussions that begin and end with exploration, the recommended group size is 10-15, where members can see a sufficient diversity of views. Smaller groups of 4-6 are recommended for structured group assignments, encouraging higher-order thinking, and problem solving.

Community evolution

Learner engagement develops over time. Interaction and collaboration are not intuitive for many adult learners who were educated in a predominantly lecture-based environment. Initially, these students may be more comfortable in a passive role and will need guidance and opportunities to become involved. Conrad and Donaldson (2004) developed a framework for understanding and applying phases of engagement. Here we see the phases and their approximate timelines, and student and instructor roles. Time frames can be condensed depending on the frequency of interaction and makeup of the membership. (Table 1)

 

Table 1. Community evolution

Phase

Weeks

Learner Role

Instructor Role

1

1 to 2

Newcomer

Social Negotiator

2

3 to 4

Cooperator

Structural Engineer

3

5 to 6

Collaborator

Facilitator

4

Beyond

Initiator/Partner

Challenger/ Partner

Managing Discussions

Here is a summary of discussion management issues. Note how issues come and go along with the phases of development.

  • Asking good questions and providing complete initial instructions
  • Ongoing monitoring
  • Redirecting, providing additional instruction, clarifying as necessary
  • Summarizing at key junctures, prompting movement toward resolution
  • Privately prompting those who participate too much and those who don’t participate enough
  • Calling out and correcting netiquette offenders – privately
  • Deleting inappropriate messages
  • Managing conflict
  • Moving discussions through the cognitive phases, using prompts
  • Moving the group through the phases of learner engagement, evolving expectations

Conclusion

I have presented a brief roadmap for building and sustaining a learning community. Learning is dependent on a certain level of structure, and that is what I have suggested in this article. It is a model, and you should feel free to mold it to your purposes. The model may not fit your needs, or perhaps may fit just a portion of them. One thing is certain, learning communities are more engaging and members more engaged than is the case with traditional instruction.

References

An, H., Kim, S., & Kim, B. (2008). Teacher Perspectives on Online Collaborative Learning: Factors Perceived as Facilitating and Impeding Successful Online Group Work. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 8(1).

Berry, G. (2008). Asynchronous Discussions: Best Practices. 24th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning. Madison: University of Wisconsin System.

Cann, A., Calvert, J., Masse, K. & Moffat, K. (2006). Assessed Online Discussion Groups in Biology Education. Bioscience Education eJournal, 8(11).

Caspi, A., Gorsky, P. & Chajut, E. (2003). The Influence of Group Size on Nonmandatory Asynchronous Iinstructional Discussion Groups. The Internet and Higher Education (6) 227-240.

Conrad, R. & Donaldson, J. (2004). Engaging the Online Learner. San Francisco: Wiley & Sons.

Garrison, D. (2007). Online Community of Inquiry Review: Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence Issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61-72.

Garrison, D., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education 2(2-3): 87-105.

Gorsky, P., & Blau, I. (2009). Online Teaching Effectiveness: A Tale of Two Instructors. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Vesely, P., Bloom, L., & Sherlock, J. (2007). Key Elements of Building Online Community: Comparing Faculty and Student Perceptions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(3), 234-246.


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Excellent article in identifying the elements that make up of a successful learning community. On an anedotal level, we have observed that the communities of practice we have developed are far less successful than cohort classrooms that we have launched. Your article finally gives me the words to explain why; purely self-directed communities of practice are missing the coaches (teaching element) that holds our cohort groups together. We have also observed, as noted in the article, that once the group has been established, the group develops a life of its own, and less coach intervention and accountability is required. All spot on. Thanks so much for putting research-backed support to our field observations.
Great article. In our company we have the biggest problem with social presence. As you've written there is a big issue with older people as they prefer to be more observers than participants (different reasons) We offers our learners acces to on online forums during and after the training to discuss material presented by a trainer f2f. It's not obligatory to participate and many don't do it. They prefer to ask a trainer f2f or collegues that aks a question on the forum (which is moderate by the same trainer)
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