Creating an Online Learning Community
This lecture was part of the Online Learning: An Overview
course, in the Spring I and II, 1999 sections.
And thanks, Jennifer, for your kind introduction and for inviting me to participate
with you and your students.
Well, are you ready for a little change of pace? Jennifer has invited me
to join you as you explore the possibilities in online education. While I
have never met your instructor f2f, we got to know each other through some
of the UCLA courses we were taking last year and have developed quite a relationship
online. That is one of the many advantages of this new medium. It provides
us with unlimited resources. I am looking forward to working with all of you
the next few days.
It is my mission to share with you my experiences in creating and nurturing
a virtual learning community, provide you with some suggestions, and give
you advice on timely and effective feedback from your students. To do this,
I have organized my lecture as follows:
1. Provide my definition of a "virtual learning community"
2. List some characteristics of a good learner
3. Share techniques that I use
4. Explain how I receive and provide timely and effective feedback
5. Supply online resources for you and your students
6. Use the discussion list to answer questions and discuss your thoughts, ideas,
After reading my lecture below, let's engage in some discussion. Feel free
to post your ideas or thoughts on this subject matter. I have a fairly busy
schedule during the days, but I will be checking your postings Monday, Tuesday,
and Wednesday evenings of this week so I should be able to respond within
24 hours of your posting.
Okay, let's begin . . .
DEFINITION OF A "VIRTUAL LEARNING COMMUNITY"
While your interest right now may be with "online" education, much of what
I will be discussing with you can also be applied in your f2f classrooms.
Yes, we do have to structure our courses differently for online and we do
have technology and other issues that we might not have with f2f, but the
basic concepts are the same. Teaching, to me, is about helping our students
learn. Having content expertise is important, but not enough. As educators
we must also know how to create learner-centered classrooms. So, where do
I begin? By checking out Merriam Webster (or the dictionary of your choice).
- "Learn" - to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in
by instruction, study or experience.
- "Community" - an interacting population of various kinds of
individuals in a common location; joint ownership or participation; a
social state or condition.
I used the above definitions to create my own working definition of a "learning
community": Various kinds of individuals interacting in a common location
for the purpose of gaining knowledge in, understanding of, or skill in a subject
matter through instruction, study, and/or experience by the creation of a
social state and condition that nurtures and encourages learners.
Whew, that's a mouth full! I realize this is a long definition and one could
get lost within it, but it is central to how I structure my courses and coach
my students. For each of the components in this working definition, I ask
- Interacting - How will this happen? Do I want to have collaborative
work groups or teams? Why? What do I mean by participation? Is emphasis
on quantity or quality?
- Knowledge in, understanding of, skill in - How will this learning
be measured? Basically, I am talking about assessment, evaluation, testing.
- Instruction - What information will be provided and how? Instruction
can be delivered through lecture, textbook, web sites, other students,
- Study - What activities will be assigned that will require the
students to study?
- Experience - What will the students "do" to gain this experience?
- Social state and condition - What will I do to help create this
social state and condition?
- Nurture and encourage - What specific things will I do "throughout" the
course to strengthen the community?
One of my suggestions to others developing an online course is to create
their own definition of a learning environment. Answer questions as if a f2f
course was being created so that teaching and learning come first. Then return
to the answers to determine what technology can be used to create this learning
CHARACTERISTICS OF A GOOD LEARNER
Before I share the techniques that I use in my own online course, I would
like to take a moment to talk about the learner. We cannot assume that every
student is an effective learner. We could probably agree, however, that there
are numerous factors that help students to be successful. Yes, the instructor
has some responsibility here, but so does the student. The challenge is how
to design a course that "helps" the students learn how to learn.
I gave some thought to what some of the characteristics of a good learner
might be - someone who has good study habits, time management skills, effective
communication skills, and is responsible and accountable for their learning.
Unfortunately, not all of my students possess these characteristics. In a
perfect academic world, I would simply require my students to take the necessary
remedial courses and return to my college-level course when they were better
prepared. For numerous reasons that I will not entertain in this lecture,
that is not feasible. So, I decided I needed to devote some of my course to
preparing my students to learn.
TECHNIQUES THAT I USE
My online course focuses on international business practices and is currently
entitled International Business Practices (http://online.santarosa.edu/bot59.4).
It is a semester-length, 3-unit community college course with no prerequisites.
Approximately half of the students in the class are California residents,
the other half are living in Sweden. If you click on the "Getting Started" link,
you will find my Weekly Schedule. You will see that during the first three
weeks of the semester, I do not work on course content. (Note: The content
materials are password protected. For the purposes of this paper, you will
only need access to the front pages.)
The students have the information about the course content and objectives;
but other than that, we do not begin our learning of the content material
until Week 4. This is probably the biggest stumbling block for educators when
they begin to focus their classrooms on learning rather than teaching. Instructors
have so much they want to teach their students and sometimes question how
the students will be able to get through all of the material in one semester
if they don't begin working on course content until Week 4. Students also
worry about having enough time to do the work for the course. Here is where
having that working definition of a learning community helps.
AGAIN, DEFINITION OF A "LEARNING COMMUNITY"
Various kinds of individuals interacting in a common location for the purpose
of gaining knowledge in, understanding of, or skill in a subject matter through
instruction, study, and/or experience by the creation of a social state and
condition that nurtures and encourages learners.
Nowhere in that definition does it mention "time." In fact, no where in Webster's
definitions did it mention time. Keep this in mind as we continue on with
what I do to prepare my students for our online learning community.
In Week 1, I welcome my students, tell them something about me, and ask
them to introduce themselves. For me, this is done through a class mailing
list (listserv). During this first week, the students are to read the web
pages that explain the requirements of the course - textbook, supplies, hardware,
software, etc. If the answer to a student's question can be found somewhere
on the assigned web pages, I direct them to those pages. It is important that
the students learn how to access their own information. The front page of
my course web site also provides them with information they need to know about
how we will communicate in my online course. It also gives them an example
of a Typical Week - A Day
in the Life of an Online Student. Since many
students do not have good study habits and since online students must be self-motivated
and well organized, I found it helpful to give my students an example of what
steps they might take each week to work on the course. Since our college does
not require an orientation for online students, I allow myself this first
week to get everyone on board.
During Week 2 I ask my students to take the self-assessment test that is
provided by our school and provide them links to some online tutorials that
provide lessons in using email and using the Internet/Web (see resource references
below). During this week the students evaluate their skill levels and send
email messages sharing their self-assessments. This gives me an opportunity
to test their ability to send an individual message, a message to more than
one person, a message to the entire class list, and a message with an attachment.
If your course requires chat, audio, or video, you could create a simple activity
to allow your students an opportunity to demonstrate their skills in those
areas as well.
Also in Week 2, I provide a short lecture on the importance of knowing how
to learn and the various types of learning styles. I share with them what
I know about my own learning styles and what kinds of things I do to help
myself learn. We use numerous online assessment tools that the students enjoy
(see below). There are no right or wrong answers. No one person is better
than another based on the learning styles they use. The students post messages
to the class list to describe their predominant learning style, discuss learning
techniques that can be used or that they have used successfully in the past,
and describe what new technique(s) they will try in my course based on the
week's readings and tutorials. These exchanges help the students to get to
know each other and help create the social state and condition needed for
a community. Because there are no grades associated with this activity, it
is it is usually easy to get them to communicate. Also, we focus on power
talking and positive statements. I do not ask them what has prohibited them
from learning in the past. I do not tell them that they will "improve" their
learning. I do not discourage any learning technique they want to use. My
goal is to get them to focus on "learning" and not taking my course. I want
them to take ownership. For many, this is the first time they have ever thought
about how they learn.
During Week 3 I provide the students with a short lecture on their time management
and organizational skills. I ask them to maintain a daily calendar - not just
for this course, but for their life. I ask them to calendar important dates
based on the Weekly Schedule that is posted on the web pages. Of course, I
cannot view their calendars, so I use an online, self-scoring, objective test
to ask them questions about some of these important dates. I also want to
know what "specific" days and times they will work on this class? And, I ask
them to calendar those days and times. I want to know if they plan to work
on the course from home, school, or work? I describe for the students the
pitfalls of trying to do their school work on the job. I ask them to explain
to me in detail how they maintain their calendar and keep themselves organized.
Again, there are no right or wrong answers, the purpose of reviewing time
management and asking the students to answer my questions and complete these
activities is to get them to take ownership for the time it will take to do
the work for my online course.
To continue building our community, I have the students participate in an "About
You" activity during Week 3. First I provide them some information about myself.
I do this to provide them an example of the kind of information I want them
to share. My questions include: What do you expect to learn? What technology
experience do you have? Have you lived or traveled to other countries? Where?
For how long? Why? Have you ever worked in an office environment? How long?
What were some of your responsibilities or duties? The students post their
answers to the class list. Sharing this information provides them a good overview
of how many more resources they have available to them in this class, thus
continuing to create the community. I use this About You activity to create
smaller student groups (2-4 students per group), taking special care to spread
the wealth among the groups so that they can draw on the strengths and experiences
of each other.
In my international business practices course I have individuals in several
different countries who serve as online international resource partners (OIRP).
Each group is assigned an OIRP with whom the group communicates weekly and
discusses the topic of the week (e.g. intercultural communication, business
ethics/behaviors, currency, etc.). At the end of the week, each group is responsible
for posting their findings to the class list. You may not find it necessary
to create smaller group projects. I would, however, suggest you consider online
buddies or small groups - somewhat like the collaborative learning groups
that you might set up in a f2f class.
An important aspect of creating an online learning community is the instructor's
participation. If I want my students to participate in discussions, then I
need to model that behavior, all the while being careful not to dominate the
discussions or to suppress their ideas and thoughts. As their learning coach
I post encouraging comments and appreciation for an individual's contributions.
I ask follow-up questions to their postings and invite others in the class
to answer. It is not necessary to respond to each posting, but I do find it
important to monitor the discussions regularly. The students like to know
that I am listening and tend to participate more.
TIMELY AND EFFECTIVE FEEDBACK
Even though I have designed an interactive online course and monitor my
students' participation and comments, I thought it was important to receive
regular feedback from them on their perceptions of how things were going.
In my f2f classes it is common for me to ask these questions, so it seemed
appropriate to do the same in my online course. I developed an online feedback
form and ask three questions: What worked well for you this week? What did
not work well for you this week? What suggestions do you have for improvement?
In addition, I include an area for comments. There is a link to this feedback
form on the weekly web pages, and there are instructions at the end of each
page to complete this form. I respond to each of these feedback forms with
words of encouragement and appreciation for their comments, taking special
care not to use defensive language. Their comments and suggestions help me
to continually improve upon my work.
Creating a virtual learning community requires a plan. Having a vision and
definition of what such a community would feel and look like will help keep
an instructor focused on the plan. Without such a definition, the technology
may dominate rather than the curriculum/instruction. The technology continually
evolves requiring us to change how we deliver our instruction and interact
with our students, but it should not be confused as the purpose of the course.
The techniques described above will help build better learners who think critically,
solve problems, and take responsibility for their learning. With more students
selecting online courses, instructors have the opportunity to rethink how
they teach, how their students learn, and how they might redesign their classrooms
of the future.
I now invite you to discuss with me your thoughts and ideas. What techniques
do you use in your classes to encourage learning? Do you have your own definition
for a learning community? What kinds of things do you do to encourage your
students to participate?
If you want to read more information about me (than you probably want or
need to know), check out the following web pages:
Academic homepage: http://online.santarosa.edu/homepage/saragina
My email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © Peg Saragina, 1999
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