Digital Learning Communities act as locks and canals for the Internet’s flow of information. Although their topics and purposes vary, they all provide a space for users to learn more about a topic and hold discussions with people of similar interests. Many include resources, such as texts, videos, practice questions, or access to topical experts, for learning new content. People join so they can access the tools and resources in their personal quest to learn more and share their passions online. For me, that means learning more about topics relevant to my current needs and interests as well as researching familiar topics in more depth. In my experience, an effective DLC is one with a single path into the content determined either by an instructor or by a personalized assessment of my skills.
In my search for a DLC, I looked closely at these five: Khan Academy, Open Yale Courses, MIT Open CourseWare, Coursera, and Open Culture. All five require a large measure of self-motivation to complete, and as with all things, you get out of each the effort you put in. Open Yale Courses, MIT Open CourseWare, and Open Culture provide libraries of content organized around topics and subtopics. As expected, MIT offers more depth in the STEM fields, and Open Culture focuses on the liberal arts. Open Yale Courses seems to be a good balance between the two.
I discovered Open Yale Courses through iTunes, when I searched to learn more about the American Revolution. The series of lectures taught me and entertained me during my runs on the treadmill. However, because the experience did not demand additional assignments (although there were suggested reading) or offer a discussion board through iTunes, I know I did not learn with any depth. Unless one is seeking specific information about a topic or from a particular source, it is easy to leave these sites feeling more overwhelmed than enriched, and educated only in the sense of being made aware of one’s own ignorance.
Khan Academy and Coursera provide clear entry and exit points to their content. Khan Academy divides its math content into topics and subdivides each topic into individual skills. Participants track their progress through each skill and through time. When I needed to brush up on math before taking the GRE, Khan Academy provided a personalized study approach with targeted material and goals that helped me progress through the lessons.
Coursera is a standard MOOC with a beginning and end to its courses (though past material is sometimes left active). This summer I joined Coursera and enrolled in several courses because I wanted to explore STEM curricula and computer programming. The lectures, videos, and reading proved valuable when completing the assignments, and the work stretched my understanding without being taxing. The discussion boards were lively among many participants; although a few voices dominated the boards. Finally, the instructors did a great job communicating with the class through emailed updates and social media, and they frequently responded on discussion boards. I imagine the number of students was enormous and the diversity spanned continents and walks of life, but I never felt lost in the crowd. See my earlier review of the course here.
After researching four other digital learning communities, I would still join Coursera for all of the reasons above, and I recommend the DLC to anyone who interested. The downside is that there are limited course offerings in some subject areas and one must wait for the class to start. However, curious minds are certain to find a course that suits their needs in due time.
Since students are newer to learning than adults and may still be discovering how they learn best and what motivates them, digital instructors who wish students to participate in DLC should support students’ first experiences in DLCs in two ways. First, they should create a path for them by guiding them to a single DLC that meets the students’, class’s, and instructor’s objectives. Certain forums provide invaluable tools and resources that will enrich the class, whereas other forums’ tools and resources might overwhelm a student. Second, the instructor should work with the class and create a list of discussion board norms. These norms are necessary for creating a lively discussion board, without which the DLC is merely a DL. The norms should address the frequency and content of posts and replies. Digital Learning Communities succeed when there is momentum, chemistry, and accountability built into their framework, and establishing these norms is the first step.
The characteristics of Digital Learning Communities can be benefits or pitfalls depending on the focus and dedication of the participants. Since not all DLCs offer the same resources and tools, it is best to identify the goals for the experience and what tools and resources best supports an individual’s learning style before choosing a community. Once in, focus and motivation will keep the class moving, and they might be the only things keeping individuals from being overwhelmed or lost.