But “community” and the different types of communities online demands its own post because of the many, many, many, many opinions on the subject and because of the way ed-tech companies are offering platforms and services as “communities.” This post is just a primer, and perhaps in a year, I’ll be able to revisit these thoughts with some more research and experience. Or, perhaps in a year, things will be different. Until then, I ask
- What is an online community?
- What are the components of an online learning community?
- What are some considerations when analyzing an online learning community?
- What are the different types of designs and structures out there?
What is an online community?
A community is a group of people who share a common interest, a goal, a set of values, or a set of experiences. People create connections with each other around these shared interests, and these connections are formed “on meaning and not randomness,” as Stephen Downes describes. He adds, “The community is the network.” And networks are formed through multiple interactions between people.
Before the Internet, communities were primarily formed by location. People in the same town saw each other daily, shared local news and concerns, and they shared the experience of living in that town. Although people had the ability to communicate with friends and family members outside through snail mail, telegraph, smoke signals, or whatever, these messages took a long time to send and receive. Thus, the majority of the interactions were with people living in the same place. And the town, or local bar where everyone knew your name, provided a place for the exchange of those interactions.
Now, the Internet opens up possibilities for new communities. First, since communication is faster, it is possible that a majority of a person’s interactions will be with people who are not physically present, like a next door neighbor. Second, the Internet contains virtual places for people to meet and to share ideas and to form networks. As people return to an online space, a set of expectations, policies, or social norms develop, either explicitly stated or implicitly understood. The space, the norms, and the shared interest unite the different members and thus a community is born.
What are the components of an online learning community?
People sharing ideas within a virtual space does not an OLC make. There needs to be learning happening. In their book Building Online Learning Communities, Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt name the following necessary elements: people, purpose, policies, computer systems, collaborative learning and reflective practice (17). Their book offers ways to facilitate online learning, so they go into detail about how to establish collaborative learning and reflective practice, and it’s worth reading. But beyond setting up a community there are things to consider when analyzing existing online communities and things labeled as online communities. Who learns? How? How does collaboration happen to the existent that it does? How do participants reflect? Who stores and publishes their reflections?
What’s in an Online Learning Community?
Within the OLC there are nonnegotiable qualities (like people and the digital platform) and optional qualities, and when evaluating OLC we should look at each thoroughly.
People – Who is a member, non-member, and lurker? To what extent are people allowed to join and under what conditions and agreements do people join? Are people free to leave? Are people allowed to contribute to the community at various levels of engagement?
Platform – Where is the learning community? Is it completely open and available online or is it contained within a learning management system? Must members cede personal information to join or sign-up for access? Is the software easy or difficult for members to use? May members augment the space? Who owns the space?
Content – Who controls the content and who creates it? Are members allowed to take their content with them once the course closes? Is there a policy that dictates the form of the content, or are members allowed to contribute to the community with multiple forms of media?
Design – What learning theories are used in the design of the OLC? Does the design favor one form of learning over another? Some common designs include community of practice, collaborative learning, competency-based, communities of inquiry, xMOOCs, and cMOOCs.
Communication and Interaction – How do members communicate with each other? How do members interact with the content? Who controls and monitors these interactions? What technology facilitates communication? Are members forced to use communication channels within the community platform, or are they encourage to find and explore other communication channels?
Rankings, roles, and hierarchies – Does the OLC award participants for contributions and engagements? Are badges awarded? Do members pay for accreditation? Can members earn points by completing tasks? Can a discussion thread be voted up or down? Are paying members separate or more privileged than non-paying members, and do paying members have more access to content and features?
Feedback – How do members receive feedback on their submissions and engagements in the community? Is it informal by way of up-voting or down-voting? Or is it more formal, which requires an authority figure to moderate and assess members’ submissions and engagements? Is feedback encouraged? If so, do members feel compelled to offer feedback? What separates Facebook from educational-Facebook models (like Edmodo) is that on Facebook, feedback is expected. Most ed-tech spin-offs encourage feedback, but the same level of expectation is not there.
Time – Do members engage in synchronous communication and events? Is most of the activity asynchronous? How frequently do participants check-in with the community? Weekly? Daily? The affects the level of communication and engagement among members? Also, conversations lag and members feel ignored if they must wait days to read feedback on their contributions.
Identity – How do members identify within the community? How does the community identify its members? Are real names encouraged or aliases? Does becoming a member threaten one’s identify (or respect) in other communities? Is membership a bragging right? And if so, in what circles?
Security – To what extent are members safe from harassment? Is their data protected? How? From whom? Although it may seem strange to suggest security is a negotiable quality, but it is in so far as security only matters when there is something to protect. For example, few drivers of a beat-up 1988 Civic would need to lock their cars if they parked next to an unlocked Audi.
Types of Online Learning Communities
The many different manifestations of OLCs online reveal the how each quality impacts the design and function of the community. Despite all of the choices that go into making an OLC, there are some core decisions that determine the form of the community. Below is my best effort to visualize these decision points and the resulting OLC type.