Participate 1.1.2 – “Digital” vs. “Online” #eteachertool

The Joining a Digital Learning Community Quest:

Join one of the DLCs from the list (or another of personal interest). Consider how citizens in an online environment find a reputable digital community that aligns with their particular interests and needs. Afterward, in a blog post, share and discuss the traits that made the five DLCs explored more noticeable or impressive than the others. Finally, share the name of the DLC joined and the reason why the DLC was the most intriguing.

The quest uses the term “digital learning community,” but the more frequent term is “online learning community.”

See, Google Trends proves it.

google trends

Are these two terms synonymous? This Forbes’ article seems to think so:forbes

It’s clear the author is writing about online communities, but the copy editor uses “digital.” What’s the difference? Why not just say online? When does digital imply online? And what connotations does online have that digital does not?

There’s clearly a difference, and it depends on context.

Digital ­≠ Online

A quick look at a thesaurus confirms that these words are not synonyms.

thesaurus - onlinethesaurus - digital

Synonyms for “online” emphasize the accessibility and connectivity connotations, whereas synonyms for “digital” focus more on the machine: “computerized” or, my favorite, “cybernated.” The later reminds us of the early days of the Internet when AOL still sent CD-ROMs and the protagonist of Neuromancer was physically plugged-in to the cyberspace “Matrix.” The former advertises the new business/ed-tech world of networks and cloud computing.

The definition of “online” focuses on the connectivity. In each entry, the thing that is online is connected to something larger than itself.dictionary online

Compare that to the definition of “digital.”dictionary digital


Only in the sixth entry is the Internet mentioned, but it isn’t a prerequisite. Instead the word focuses more on the tools: “computers and computerized.” When used in phrases like “digital activism” and “digital journalism,” the word helps define the process of creation and the content. The digital activist uses social media (software), and the digital journalist publishes his work on a blog (also software). Furthermore, it’s hard to picture either without holding a smart phone (hardware). So it seems the word “digital” is preferred when describing something that does not necessarily include the Internet or computers but does so in this specific case.

But yet, that article from Forbes is troubling. Why use “digital” when the article is about “online communities”?


Google Trends is helpful for showing how many people are searching for a word or phrase. What’s on people’s minds? Google Trends can offer one peep. It can also show you which words or phrases are more common. Already you saw that more people are familiar with or want to know more about the phrase “online learning communities” over “digital learning communities,” but what about textbooks, learning, resources, and networks?

online v digital trends

Practically no one searched for “digital textbooks,” “digital learning,” or “digital resources,” so we don’t see people using “digital” and “online” as synonyms there. “Networks,” however, is slightly different. Before August 2006, more people searched for “digital networks” than “online networks” with a couple exceptions in April 2005 and October and December 2005. Why?

I conducted a Google search of both “digital networks” and “online networks” and limited my search results within the year 2005. What I found was interesting. Most search results for “digital networks” returned either the names of communication technology companies (“early pioneers in the pre-owned telecommunications equipment marketplace” or “an integration company, designing and installing voice, data, video, sound and security networks”) or the names of communication network companies (“a campus TV network” or “a world leading media and entertainment company”). None of these exemplify what we think about when we discuss digital networks (social or learning) presently.

But what happened in April, October, and November in 2005, and what caused the shift in August 2006?

First, it’s difficult to tell what exactly got people talking about “online networks.” In April 2005, researchers danah boyd and Jeffrey Heer published “Vizster: Visualizing Online Social Networks,” which was presented at InfoVis 2005 – IEEE Symposium on Information Visualization in Minneapolis, MN, 23-25 October, 2005. Also in 2005, the business world started using the phrase “online networks.” For example, here’s the first paragraph of “5 Ways to Break Into Online Networking” published on Entrepreneur:

In my book, The World’s Best Known Marketing Secret, which was written in the mid-90s, I discussed the six types of networks in which you should consider participating: casual-contact networks, strong-contact networks, professional associations, service clubs, social organizations, and women’s business organizations. If I were writing that book today, I’d definitely add another network that’s grown substantially in the past few years: online networks.

There is also The Virtual Handshake by David Teten and Scott Allen, which was published in late August 2005 and was favorably reviewed by BusinessWeek,, and I didn’t do a thorough search, but I imagine that this book is just one of many focusing on the power of online networks.

Then, of course, there is Facebook, which opened its (online) social networking site to high schools in September 2005. Then later “on December 11, 2005, universities in Australia and New Zealand were added to the Facebook network, bringing its size to 2,000+ colleges and 25,000 + high schools throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.” Just imagine these events as a social networking juggernaut moving forward.

But what happens in August 2006 that causes “online networks” to dominate its “digital” counterpart?

Honestly, I’m not quite sure. By then, Facebook was gaining momentum and influence and Twitter had been made public. Also more universities were offering online courses and connecting to students through online social networks. Or at least enough schools were so for USA Today to take note. Thanks to these uses and platforms, online networking implies open, free-flowing thoughts and ideas. Online networks connect people from various geographic locations, and often help facilitate introductions between people who never meet in person. These networks are also a little risky, as suggested in the USA Today piece: “Some worry that creating their own online networks could create legal problems.” Legal problems was just the beginning. Now we worry about privacy, data, and trolls.

Digital Learning Communities

Despite the overwhelming preference of “online communities” (or networks) in our online searching and our usage, it is still easy to find examples of a “digital community.” As GAVS shows in its course material:

The IMLS together with the University of Washington and the International City/County Management Association, have identified action steps and a framework for creating digital communities. Their work is available in a digital (pdf) book titled, Building Digital Communities.

So what goes into building a “digital community,” and is the process different than building an “online community”?

Digital Community Building Requires Digital Inclusion


As the screenshot from the framework shows, building a digital community means taking a pre-existing community and supporting digital communications by “extending broadband infrastructure,” “digital literacy training,” and “targeted programs” to help people use online tools and resources for their career, learning, or healthcare. Here’s more from the framework:


Digital inclusion encompasses not only access to the Internet but also the availability of hardware and software; relevant content and services; and training for the digital literacy skills required for effective use of information and communication technologies. Creating a digital community means helping a community participate online by supporting access and education.

So you see, we’re back to the definition of the adjective. Any “digital _[blank]_” means taking a [blank] and adding software, hardware, or the Internet.

Digital Learning Communities ≠ Online Learning Communities

Online Learning Communities are formed for various reasons, and some OLCs  are better than others. A more authentic OLC comes together around an interest, and it will not necessarily be academic. Other OLCs are strictly academic, and are guarded by robust learning management systems. Some are monitored tightly, other are looser, and their members come and go freely. What defines them is that they exist primarily online. Although members of an OLC may meet in person at some point, this primarily happens after the OLC is established. Digital Learning Communities are formed the other way around.

Teachers are familiar with “learning communities”; they build them in their classrooms, and so a “digital” learning community suggests giving that class access to technology to make it “digital.” In classrooms, that means adding tablets, allowing cell phones, creating class blogs, and connecting with other schools and experts online. Teachers support their newly formed DLC by coaching students on how to use technology and supporting instruction with online communications and resources.

Most virtual teachers, however, don’t teach pre-existing communities of learners. They teach whoever is enrolled in their course. Since online schools help students meet state education requirements, these courses focus on academic content, and chances are, students are enrolled in the core academic areas because they have to and not because they are interested. Students opt for online courses because it frees up their schedule for their real interests. Furthermore, many online schools are designed to help students learn asynchronously through a set of competencies, not through collaboration or project-based learning. All of these conditions are outside of the virtual teacher’s control, and they present challenges when trying to create an online learning community.

How does one create a community without physical proximity, without a strong, unifying interest, or without accepting a range of participation and leadership roles within the community?

Virtual teachers shouldn’t model their online courses on the physical classroom (like taking a community and making it “digital”). Instead, they should embrace the open, connected, networked, and free connotations of “online” and use instructional practices and web tools as much as possible to facilitate conversations and cooperation. Students should be producers and consumers of content. With more interactions between students, the commonality becomes the shared experience, the course itself.

Until that point, fake it until you make it.

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