Book Review: Ten Strategies for Building Community with Technology

The full title of this book is Ten Strategies for Building Community with Technology: A handbook for instructional designers and program developers. When I saw that title, my first impression was that this is about using social media in instructional design. I was almost totally wrong.

Ten Strategies is aimed at helping instructional designers understand how to make learning a technology-enhanced communal experience. Social media may be involved, but that is really not what the book is about. It is important to remember that, and to keep in mind that this is not a cookbook full of recipes. I will admit to being more than a little bewildered when I took my first fast skim through its 196 pages, but once I understood the aim of the authors, it made a lot more sense.

Is this the book for you?

In the introduction, the authors state that, “This book is intended for educators who see themselves as architects of learning experiences in courses that are in whole or in part intended for technology-supported and online learning environments.” In a later section, they expand on that a bit, when in the course of explaining “How to Use This Book” they provide tips for “teachers, university students, learning leaders, and home schoolers.” Personally I think many (not all) home schoolers just might be overwhelmed by the content, but that audience definition works. The authors further characterize the book as “a shopping mall of ideas.” It’s a bit more like the Mall of America or some other mega-mall than your neighborhood strip mall, so you must come prepared to spend quite a bit of time figuring out what’s there and sorting out your strategy for using what you find.

The big picture

The authors are looking at instruction and learning through a very specific lens, and it is likely going to be a new one for many readers. They explain what this is in the very first paragraph, which I am going to quote in its entirety:

The essential idea of this book is that learning requires community and learners need to experience community in order to learn. Community in courses does not happen by accident, particularly in courses and programs designed with technology to either deliver or support learning. When learners feel that they are in and part of a real and transformative community, it is because their instructors have consciously designed the learning conditions and environment to ensure that students experience that sense of community. This “big idea” is supported by a secondary one, that thinking is socially constructed; knowledge is a social construction. To intentionally design conditions in a course so learners form a community in which to think and know is therefore important. And this is equally true in courses and programs that are supported by technology.

So the entire book is built around this philosophy of teaching. Some readers will embrace this philosophy, others will not: “community” is essentially dialectical, “a word whose essence is right relationships.” It is sustained by particular attributes and not others. If you forget this frame of reference, if you attempt to apply the content of the book as a set of recipes or rigid formulations, the designs that result will very likely fail.

The philosophy is the basis for the book and for the presentation within it of 10 models for online-course design and teaching.

The 10 models

The authors say, “We address one question asked by teachers who teach using technology (including online environment): ‘How can I build community among my learners?’ This book provides 10 possible answers, in the form of 10 models for teachers to use to build community.”

The authors chose a set of models that are commonly used in instruction, and most, if not all, of these will be familiar to readers in terms of methodology if not by name. They are:

  • Transmission/Direct Instruction
  • Nurturing
  • Guided Discovery
  • Projects
  • Insight-generating
  • Training
  • Shared Praxis
  • Apprenticeship
  • Case Study
  • Inquiry

These models are useful for instruction applied across a very broad range of instructional goals and learner competencies, from manual skills to problem-solving and beyond.

In the introduction, the authors provide one more key statement (and I apologize for quoting again at length, but this is important for readers here to understand):

One important idea for course designers—often neglected in face-to-face learning environments—is that the more cognitively active a learner is before, during, and closely following a teaching activity, the more likely it is that the learner will gain some form of understanding from the activity, provided other conditions that support learning … are in place. Despite the common criticism of online courses that they are no more than an expensive and elaborate system of brokering in abstractions, strategic and intentional course designers can build courses in which learners are cognitively active.

“Cognitively active.” The ever-elusive “engaged.” How does the book provide for designing content that does this, that builds community, and that achieves instructional goals in order to support valued outcomes in education or in business?

Organization and structure

The contents of Ten Strategies are ordered and organized in a way that is both logical and helpful, and that accommodates the different backgrounds that readers will likely have (remember the audience definition above). The approach will, I believe, facilitate understanding and application of the ideas presented.

There are four sections in the book, followed by five appendices that fill in any gaps that readers may have in their knowledge of terms, instructional design principles, and theory, and the 10 models.

  • Section 1: Description of the 10 models proposed for designing courses—the methodologies and the theoretical constructs undergirding the book
  • Section 2: Case studies and examples—these present the strategies associated with each model
  • Section 3: Design suggestions—these focus on the tactics, or how the models can be applied
  • Section 4: Questions to guide design—this is an extensive FAQ (frequently asked questions)

The authors do an excellent job in each section, where they provide suggestions for reading the section. I was grateful for their help more than once.

In order to keep this review short, I am only going to describe the way that one of the sections works, Section 2. Section 2, as I’ve indicated, is written at the strategic level. It consists of case studies and examples. There are 10 of these case studies, one for each of the 10 models. Each case study is organized in the same way:

  • Scenario—helps connect the familiar (teaching examples) with new ideas
  • Background—theory and examples of common use; for transmission/direct instruction, for example, common strategies include lecture, printed materials, projected images, whiteboards, and so on
  • Keywords—definitions and explanations of terms that may be new to a reader, such as “appreciative inquiry” or “self-efficacy”
  • Indicators of success
  • How best applied—“best practices”
  • Challenges to using this approach
  • Opportunities to enhance the effectiveness of the model
  • Purpose of the model
  • Goals of the model
  • Alternatives to the model
  • Assessment

The other sections are organized and presented in similar fashion. I think this approach will be very effective for most readers.

Summary

Some of the content of Ten Strategies will be a “stretch” for some readers, but if the philosophy of teaching (community as the basis for learning) is one you find worth exploring, I think you will benefit from study and application of the ideas presented.

Overall, this is a book about the development and application of strategy, rather than a tactical guidebook. You will want to spend time with it, you will want to provide your copy to colleagues to spend time with, and you will want to spend time in dialogue with those colleagues to work out how to apply what you have read.

In any event, it would be worthwhile to read Ten Strategies and to understand that, over time, more and more of the employees you will be training will be very familiar with this approach to learning. They will be products of instruction that employed it, and they may very well have no experience or patience with what many instructional designers today think of as “conventional” or “traditional” teaching methods. As the song says, the times they are a-changing, and this is one of the changes.

Bibliographic information

Potvin, Bernie, Nicki Renn, and David Peat. Ten Strategies for Building Community with Technology: A Handbook for Instructional Designers and Program Developers. Brush Education: Edmonton, 2014.

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