Online Learning Communities: A Dominican Conversation

IMG_20140923_094612At my school on Tuesday, September 23rd, Dominican University hosted our fifth annual Caritas Veritas Symposium. These symposiums are times for our community of faculty, staff, and students to reflect upon the university’s Catholic mission of care and truth, of working to create a more just and humane world. There are presentations, discussions, and activities all designed to have us contemplate how to improve our work as a community towards these important goals.

For today’s work, I organized a roundtable to focus on the issue of how to create relationship-centered online courses and programs. In other words, how can we as teachers design and organize our online classrooms in order to encourage community among our students who never meet face-to-face? And, specifically for our university, should we consider how to translate our Catholic university’s mission to these online learning communities?

I organized this roundtable to primarily focus on the opinions and experiences of fellow colleagues who had taught online. These panelists sat within the audience for the panel, and what resulted was an engaged hour long discussion about online learning. We covered numerous topics in that hour, and numerous themes came out of this discussion. What I am sharing here are the results of this discussion, as this discussion was just the latest step in a year long process of understanding how to bring our university’s mission, what makes us distinctly Dominican, to the online courses and programs we offer. These are my reflections on what was said rather than quotes or thematic codes. I hope I have captured the spirit and intention of everything said, and that I am not misrepresenting the conversation. (If not, then please make comments to this post, and we can come to an understanding in dialogue.)

What defines community, online community?

In order to have this conversation about online learning communities, we first need a foundation built on what we are defining as “community.” If we all mean something different when we say “community,” then our discussion would not get anywhere. Throughout this hour long conversation, a shared understanding of community emerged. Community is purposeful interactions, not just based on course material and what is being done for the class, but based also on the personal lives of the people outside of the classroom, whether that classroom is physical or virtual.

Community is all about the connections between people built through listening as well as talking to one another. The goal is to engage with those in the class not just through their social roles and identities as students and teachers, but as people, as human beings. Community is reinforced through acts of collaboration, cooperation and coordination; through feelings of respect and trust; through belief in the need for reciprocity. Community is further developed by, and further develops, the ability for a person to feel present within the group, the activities; to feel like they are connected to and belong with this society of individuals who have commonalities in lived experiences and tasks to complete.

With this as the idea of community, there was some discussion as to the fact that the idea of “community” cannot co-exist peacefully with the idea of “online” for one key reason: much of online interaction seems to degrade into hostility and negativity, perhaps due to the computer-mediated communication characteristics of anonymity, asynchronicity, and a lack of real world repercussions. Such breakdowns in community are so numerous, such a conceptualization of Internet-based discourse, that going into detail here is not possible. Instead, what we focused on was how to prevent such problems and figure out what works to create community in online classrooms — and, of course, what does not work as well as we would like.

What has worked to create and/or strengthen relationships in online classrooms?

In terms of what works to create such online community (which an ongoing poll asks you the Internet about), numerous ideas and specific tactics were discussed. In terms of overarching approaches to online classes, one observation was the impact experience has on the course. The more experience you have teaching online, the more you can experiment with what could be done to create such relationships, connections, and community – the more experience you have, the more you can be flexible and adapt to what the situation calls for. And the more experience you have, the more you are aware of what needs to be done to foster such connections when designing and managing an online course. The more experience, the more you know what to do pedagogically to create an online learning community.

So what can a teacher do to acquire such experience? Several tactics were discussed. First, communication is key. As the teacher, it is important to be very clear about what the expectations for the students will be in the course. Such communication has to be upfront, in an obvious location, and consistently referred to. Such consistent communication can help to foster and build the norms of this online community of teachers and students. And helping to build such norms is the necessity to develop a netiquette for the class; there needs to be clearly stated and consistently used rules for how people in the class will communicate with one another. This netiquette would help to ensure the feelings of respect and trust can be generated and that the norm of reciprocity becomes an integral part of the foundation of the course.

These feelings of respect, trust, and reciprocity could also be furthered by having students engage in positive communication with one another. For example, when students engage in group-based or team-based work online, their evaluations of one another could focus on the positives, on what is going well, and to make certain that those in the community are aware of who is saying what positive things. Such an action could counter the perception of Internet-based discourse fostering negativity through anonymity.  The idea being that if you are aware of how well you are regarded by those you are working with, you will buy-in to the community more, wish to do more with them in order to accomplish what needs to be done. Indeed, it would also link online actions with real world repercussions — the nicer you are to people online, then the more it could help you receive the grade you want out of the class, which has numerous other real world repercussions.

Such communication can foster the personal relationships on a student-to-student level. On a teacher-to-student level, instructors can help to foster this buy-in, to continually maintain the community, by being pro-active within the community. With the class being online, teachers can more closely monitor and be aware of what is going well in the class, and what is not going well — they can be more personally tuned to students who may be struggling and in need to help. By being involved in day-to-day activities in a way that would be harder to replicate in a physical classroom, a pro-active teacher can make certain that students feel they are a part of the community of their classroom.

A final consideration from our discussion was focused on the use of community-based exercises online — specifically, the main type of collaboration online classes utilize, the online discussion. One panelist shared her experience structuring online discussions with several steps, creating a three-tier system. She essentially creates a buy-in for the discussion, as the first step is designed to warm them up and make them comfortable with sharing their thoughts online. The first part of the discussion is more about initial thoughts, initial impressions, perhaps relating something to the student’s own life. It would not be as assessed as the other parts of the discussion, but could be a place of more fun that would generate curiosity and desire to continue the conversation.

Overall, that may be something to remember about creating community: community should not just be about getting a task done. Community and the relationships we have with others should also allow us to play with one another, with ourselves. To have fun while we collaborate, cooperate, and coordinate our actions.  Online learning communities need to be about more than just learning, more than just connecting with each other on a personal level — they also need to be about having fun and enjoying what we are doing.

What has not worked?

So when does the idea of “online” and the idea of “community” not mesh? What are things that happen that make it hard to establish community and relationships in an online class?

Well, essentially, it is the opposite of what works as discussed above. If the teacher does not adequately and appropriately communicate what is needed to be done, and when, then there will be problems. Anything that generates confusion is going to hurt community. If a teacher does not allow enough time for the students to complete the online activities at their own pace, then that will cause anxiety that can result, over time, in resentment and animosity. Anything a teacher can design and communicate in order to short circuit any anxiety, then the more likely relationships will be developed and community cultivated.

Improving communication can involve providing instructions for the discussion prompts and other community-based exercises. But the nature of these prompts and activities also have to be designed to encourage community-based activity – to encourage collaboration, cooperation, and coordination. This requirement goes back to how much experience can help — you may not know what does and does not develop such community until after the fact. But that experience will not serve without the ability and willingness to reflect upon what was communicated for the activity and how it was communicated.

Other things can cause problems are less about what happens within the class as they are about external factors. No matter how well you have designed and communicated the activities, if the students are not motivated to participate, then they will not participate. Making things fun, making things assessed, these tactics can help to provide motivation, and perhaps even help to develop intrinsic motivation as the course progresses and community develops. But if there is never any buy-in, if community and relationships are never seen as important to the student, then no amount of course design, management, experimentation, and adaptation will matter.

Another external factor deals with the size of the class. Too large of an online class — even beginning at 30 students — can be detrimental to the development of community because of one main reason: too many people can make things impersonal. Too many students may result in a fractured class, where smaller communities develop within certain groupings of students, to the detriment of developing a larger community throughout the entire class. Far too large of a class, such as seen in massive open online courses (MOOCs — which we may prefer to categorize more as interactive textbook and less as course), produces even less community and relationships as people do not know who to even begin connecting with. Smaller classes, with upper limits of 20-25 students, allows all students to come to know one another, while also allowing for teachers to develop one-on-one relationships with each student.

Overall, one thing instructors of online courses need to remember is the same thing instructors of any courses have to remember: you need to model in the course what you want your students to do. If you want your students to be concerned about relationships and community in your course, then you need to model it through how you interact with them. We are teachers not just of the content of our courses, but of the conduct for engaging with the content and with each other.

Do we need to try to apply the Catholic approach to higher education to online classrooms? If so, how?

Which leads to the last question, and the question I have been most focused on from the beginning of this activity: how to apply Catholic social teaching and the resultant approach to higher education to the development and implementation of online education. At Dominican, we pride ourselves on being able to be relationship-focused because of how small our classes are and how much we work to mentor our students through their college experiences. We consider this to be part of how we think about ourselves and our identity as being distinctly Dominican. So, as we move forward with our online education endeavors, we have to remember all of these design necessities and community-based exercise tactics to ensure we are remaining relationship-focused and not just considering online courses to be a new way of distributing content to the most people possible. We need to remain as small learning communities online, and not try to chase the MOOC model.

Once we remember this necessity and use the focus on relationships as the foundations for our online courses and programs, then we can consider how to develop other aspects of Catholic social teaching into our courses. Because, as we discussed in the hour long session, if we are truly concerned about the mission of social justice as part of this Catholic ethos, then that mission-centered approach should be impacting how we design the content and activities of any course, with the technologies that allow being completely online or blended or enhanced coming only after we have already determined what needs to happen in our course to have it meet this social justice focus. Just as we can use technological tools in any type of course to develop relationships, so can we use technologies to help us develop social justice.

And, indeed, an online class could be in an important position for considering modern issues of social justice. With a concern for the treatment of vulnerable populations, teaching an online course, with the ability to monitor students and their struggles, means that we can be more aware of microaggressions and problematic situations and experiences, allowing us to address them as they occur, whereas in a completely face-to-face class such vulnerabilities could be invisible. Online courses allow us to give students a customizable educational experience, one that can be more accommodating not only for their busy schedules but for differences in learning styles and learning disabilities. The more we can take advantage of technological tools to construct a course that works better for various individuals, the more we can help them learn in a way that works best for them, and the more we are truly meeting the call for social justice.

At the same time, we need to be aware of the issues of digital divide and digital literacy that are increasingly important in our Internet-based global society. We can utilize such online courses and programs to be aware of where the gaps are, and thereby work towards removing the gaps not only for our society but for others around the world. The more we can utilize our position of privilege to experiment with these technologies to improve the educational experiences of our students and people around the world, then the better we are meeting our mission of social justice and creating a more just and humane world.

This concern for social justice then leads to a need for the development of fellowship, friendship, and a sense of pluralistic inclusivity where everyone’s perspectives and experiences are included in the conversation. Creating a safe space for communication and sharing online, through the development of relationships and community, can help to ensure such feelings of camaraderie are developed. Such feelings of camaraderie are strengthened through, and further strengthen elsewhere, a caring responsiveness for others that is so fundamental to the Catholicism. Teacher’s personal responsiveness, the development of norms and netiquette, and the inclusion of fun and playing, can all help to develop a sense of caring for one another that furthers relationships, community, and ultimately a sense of social justice for all.

And, finally, the online could become a place for reflection and contemplation. Given the asynchronous nature possible in online classes (such as in online discussion boards), students can have the time and space needed to further reflect upon the course material they are learning and the things they are learning from one another. Students can reflect upon their own reactions — how they differ, how they are similar, how they have changed over time — and contemplate not just the course material, but their position in relationship to the material, and their relationship to others. Such reflecting and contemplating can promote an awareness of one’s presence in the moments of their lives as well as in the grand scheme of life.

There is a reason we refer to the online as the Net and the Web – the online is all about connections. From connecting computers to connecting information to connecting people, the online can help us better understand ourselves, each other, and our world. But we need to utilize the power of the Net and the Web by encouraging people to contemplate these connections, and to actively use such connections for collaboration, cooperation and coordination. It may be that remembering our focus on social justice and bringing that into our online classes will help us as instructors better mentor our students to engage in such contemplation.

But we have to model it ourselves — we have to think about what community is online, how to make it work, how to deal with what goes wrong. We have to be aware of the connections and the importance of the connections and how to effectively utilize these connections.

So that is why I am reaching out to you online: continue our conversation from this one hour roundtable discussion through this blog post, through Twitter with #onlinelearning. What can we be doing to better create relationships and communities in online education to further the goal of social justice in our courses and in our students?

3 responses to “Online Learning Communities: A Dominican Conversation”

  1. Thank you for synthesizing the session so thoroughly. I came away with a list of things to do. First on the list: As Ellen McManus for her rubrics!

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  2. Some additional thoughts from one of the panelists: One point I meant to make but forgot—or just ran out of steam—is that students seem to “share” more readily and with less prodding online than in face-to-face situations. This is partly because there is slightly less inhibition—though obviously this can have drawbacks too—but more practically because it is so easy to share ideas and examples through links. Students frequently, and without being required to, post links to articles, videos, and other resources to illustrate a point or share an experience, and the ensuing discussion suggests that at least some students do click on these links, read the articles or watch the (short) videos, and comment on what they add to the discussion. It’s not impossible for this kind of sharing to take place in face-to-face settings—show and tell, basically—it’s just less cumbersome online.

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  3. And from our panelist who is a graduate student: ​I agree; it is much easier to share in an online discussion than in person. For starters, I can form a proper question or response that I can edit if needed. I can also reread what someone else has written to confirm what they stated. In class, I may miss a word or two and have to ask for clarification and if the moment doesn’t present itself, I may miss out on asking for clarification and therefore the response itself.

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