Online Learning Communities – An Effective Way to Enhance Distance Learning
An online learning community is a web-based learning environment that uses digital technologies to allow participants (students and mentors) to communicate, collaboratively construct their knowledge and share their personal experiences. Successful distance learning programs have a strong sense of community. Online learning communities are an effective way to enhance the distance learning experience because when there is a community approach students learn in different ways, such as:
- Having role models or observing others (in person or via video).
- Reflecting upon their experience.
- Engaging in discussions and activities with peers and mentors.
Online learning communities are often characterized by active interaction, collaborative learning, socially constructed meaning, sharing resources, and expressions of support and encouragement.
In studies of professional development in the United States, teachers consistently report that the most valuable benefits of online learning are those that relate to the social context of learning: “sharing information and knowledge” and “interacting with colleagues” (Burns, 2011).
Being part of an online community is also linked to student satisfaction with distance learning courses.
My own experience
In my own experience, when I have participated in online courses and programs where there is a learning community, I have engaged more, stayed accountable, participated more, learn more and have actually completed the courses on time.
On the other hand, I have enrolled in online courses where there is no learning community and I have struggled to complete my assignments. The feelings of isolation are higher and not having a support network of peers to discuss with about the course have contributed to lower my motivation and engagement with the course.
How do online learning communities significantly impact both student learning and satisfaction within online courses?
Learning communities significantly impact student learning satisfaction within online courses because they allow learners to make meaning of the content through social construction. Learning communities create the environment for collaborative acquisition of knowledge which is one key to the success of an online course (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011). This idea is also supported by Dr. Palloff who indicated that “the power of learning communities is learner-to-learner engagement” (Laureate Producer, 2010), and having students engaged in the online course will increase their satisfaction and as a result learning becomes a more positive experience for the learner.
What are the essential elements of online community building?
The essential elements of online community building are:
- People: that will form the community. It can include learners, instructors, facilitators, and experts.
- Purpose: this is defined by the main goals and attitudes that people participating in the learning community want to achieve.
- Process: defines the way the learning community is established and how the members contribute in the community.
- Method: this element emphasizes communication methods in the community because people might contribute using different ways such as participating in forums, synchronous discussions, live chats, or sharing files that others can access at different times.
- Social presence: refers to how others perceive you online and how you present yourself in online media. Avatars and digital profiles are good examples of how people can establish a social presence.
How can online learning communities be sustained?
With an active participation of the people in the community, an instructor that assists learners in creating knowledge and maintaining a high level of interactivity and participation (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011). Also, with a safe environment that makes students feel warm and inviting (Laureate Producer, 2010). Additionally, the online environment should be easy to navigate to promote participation.
What is the relationship between community building and effective online instruction?
The online learning experience will be effective if it is designed in such a way that engages learners to actively participate in the construction of knowledge. But if on the contrary, the instruction is not well-designed, if the activities are not engaging, or if the online environment is not safe and welcoming, then learners will have a detrimental learning experience, their motivation levels will tend to drop, and this will impact participation levels in the online learning community, which ultimately will influence in the success of the community building process.
Choose technology that fosters communication and collaboration
Human interaction is the key to community formation. The technology tools provided to learners must support a range of communication types and styles.
The use of social networking tools, for example, Yammer, Facebook and communication tools such as Skype or chat, promote interactions and creative collaboration among learners. Wikis, blogs and social bookmarking, tagging sites and hashtags make it possible for teachers and students to share ideas, strategies and resources and collaboratively create lessons and activities.
Community formation can be further enhanced and expanded through participation in Web-based experiences such as ongoing webinars and online or virtual teaching and learning conferences (Burns, 2011).
A final thought about becoming a better online instructor
It is important to emphasize how relevant is being part of a learning community when doing online courses because this will eliminate the feelings of isolation students might experience in this type of environment.
To ensure online learning communities are welcoming and will succeed in engaging participants it is important to create an easy to navigate course, make the participants feel welcome by establishing open communication channels with the audience, suing icebreaker activities to let learners meet their peers and the instructor, share messages and a video to let the instructor present to the class, with an instructor actively communicating with the class and encouraging participation, with constructive feedback, and with the use of activities that will encourage reflection and sharing of knowledge and experiences.
Online Learning Communities offer several benefits to distance learning programs.
- They create a supporting learning environment for their members in the pursuit of common interests and goals.
- They can result in a purposeful educational network of professionals formed around a common topic or area of interest.
- They make possible goal-oriented knowledge generation and shared learning lubricated by the trust, mutual support, and open communication that form the basis of a community (Burns, 2011).
These components of a learning community are supported by technology-based tools to allow participants to talk, write, video conference and co-create knowledge and ideas.
Have you ever participated in an online learning community? If so, how was your experience? Feel free to share your thoughts below.
See you next time 🙂
Burns, M. (2011). Distance education for teacher training: modes, models, and methods. Retrieved from http://idd.edc.org/resources/publications/modes-models-and-methods
Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction (Updated ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Laureate Education (Producer). (2010). Online learning communities [Video file]. Retrieved from Walden Library databases.