Creating an Online Learning Community

This lecture was part of the Online Learning: An Overview course, in the Spring I and II, 1999 sections.

Hello Everyone,

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, and techniques.

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 myself questions.

  • 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, etc.
  • 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 environment.

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.

SUMMARY

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?

ABOUT ME

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: saragina@bcl.santarosa.edu



Copyright Peg Saragina, 1999

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