Community in Online Learning: Thoughts from EDUCAUSE

Community in Online Learning: Thoughts from EDUCAUSE

Every year, there is a special gathering of individuals interested in improving the technologies of higher education. Faculty, IT administrators, inventors, entrepreneurs, the Big Dogs (i.e. Google, Microsoft, Dell, etc) convene for several days of talks, presentations, pitches, sales, and ideas. This get annual, international together is sponsored by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the technologies of higher education.

If you have never heard of it, do not feel bad. I had not heard of it until 2012, when I became a Borra Technology Scholar for my institution and was offered the chance to attend this annual gathering in Denver. It just so happened that I traveled to the conference on Election Day, and the hotel I was staying at had been chosen by the Colorado Democrats to be their official headquarters for the election results. It was, to put it mildly, quite a night. And the conference as likewise impressive, in scope, size, and opportunities to learn and imagine. I came away from that conference wanting a 3D printer (which we procured for the university) and to gamify all of my classes (which turned into my game design class).

Since then, I have served as a co-chair for a university task force on improving our institution’s online, blended, and technologically enhanced teaching, which lead to my becoming an undergraduate faculty adviser to over see our program of faculty development along those lines. My involvement with the task force and subsequent program led me to become curious over how our Catholic liberal arts college could translate our Catholic mission into online learning. How do we build relationship-centered teaching and learning communities in a completely online educational experience?

I became the Borra Technology Fellow (an upgrade!) this year to try to answer that question. This time, my trip to EDUCAUSE had a very specific purpose: to hear how others talk about community in online learning, from what technologies enhance such community to what teaching and learning practices promote it. It helped that the weather in Orlando was tropical with torrential downpours (at times, it sounded like giants were chucking boulders at the roof of the convention center), which promotes focused learning more than absent exploring.

Not the happiest place on Earth in the rain.
Not the happiest place on Earth in the rain.

First, I want to say that there seemed to be more attention this year to issues of engaged or active learning, whether in online or blended classrooms. Every year seems to have key areas of focus, and perhaps this year it was active learning’s turn. Whatever the reason, the schedule seemed stocked with discussions on this topic with a dearth of discussions on the importance of community in such classrooms. Maybe it is just me, but I would think a community and relationship-centered approach to teaching would facilitate active and engaged course work, but the trend appears to be more about facilitating an individual student’s progress through course content and skill acquisition rather than integrating numerous individuals into a collaborative community. This lacking could be due to the continued prominence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), with the idea that people do such classes as individuals (although one session I attended challenged that notion), so course design and implementation needs to be focused on helping people who work on their own.

Now, with context in mind, I want to focus on what I heard that could be useful for considering how to better develop relationship-centered and community-minded classes, whether online or face-to-face.

Insights for Any Online/Blended/FTF Class

A theme I heard repeated several times, from presenters and from conversations with other participants, is that pedagogically sound tools are learning-centered. Thus any learning tool integrated into a course needs to be logically applied and not simply be added for gimmick purposes.  The question is, is it just important to have increased learning outcomes and decreased learning time, or is it important to have students experience/participate in relationships & communities? If we are concerned with the importance of relationships to improve individualized student contact within a course, then we also need to know how such tools help/hinder such relationships.

In considering online and blended courses, I did hear from several people who are using online tools to encourage relationships and community in their classes. For example, there were presentations about students using social networks to create informal networks outside of the virtual space dedicated to course work yet designed to further what is done in the class. The key to student engagement, according to one presenter, is to meet them where they live online and are thus more comfortable. To do this, some teachers have been encouraging a participatory design approach to developing community by allowing and promoting student organization of networks, content, and discussions. In online discussions, some teachers require an identification picture showing the student’s face, so that no anonymity is allowed. Institutions have adopted online peer mentors and student coaches to teach motivation, organization, and connecting skills to their students.

Blended courses, in particular, have the capability of developing relationships and community offline that can then translate to the online. Some teachers discussed the need to have engagement with and among the students about non-course related content before the course begins. The importance of icebreakers and intensive face-to-face sessions to build teamwork was stressed.

Icebreakers that are better than these, naturally.
Icebreakers that are better than these, naturally.

Even if the focus of the online course is more geared towards individualized completion, course design could allow students to go as fast as they want through the course by structuring the order and challenges to control how the students progress through the course. Taking some cues from game design, the teacher would develop what path the student would take through the course’s material and activities. Along with designing the path, the teacher would develop how to assess the student’s progress on the path by developing checkpoints to monitor this progression. Such structuring could include the use of intelligent agents, which can be built into the LMS (learning management system) for instant communication. These programs could provide a reaction to the student’s progress in order to encourage the student. These reactions could be humorous and reflecting the teacher’s personality, thereby providing the perception of teacher-student relationship even if the reaction is automated. I do wonder if students see through the artificiality, or, if it is humorous enough, does the authenticity of the reaction not matter? As with advertising, if the reaction is fun, then perhaps that matters more than whether or not the teacher actually sent it instead of just being sent by a computer program.

Community in the Time of MOOCs

Two specific sessions allowed me to explore the question of whether or not community matters in a MOOC, or does only completion of the course matter? One presentation came from my alma mater as researchers presented the work being done by Ohio State University to develop MOOCs (http://u.osu.edu/) that promote community. According to this presentation, students desire to personalize their learning in order to work towards their own learning goals. Such students will even hack the course’s design to meet their needs. In MOOCs presented, this hacking involved the students creating communities external to the MOOC that were free from faculty presence. Thus, as previously discussed, OSU saw students using existing social networks to create online communities that helped them further their goals for connecting and sharing with others. Thus the folks at OSU saw students as hacking the class by creating backchannels on external social media sites in order to help them get through the class.

When the researchers and faculty at OSU saw this happened, they decided to take a more participatory course design approach by creating connectivist MOOC that revolve around community. In this model, anticipating the hacking, students were invited to become co-instructors as the class employed a pluralistic approach to pedagogy. In the course, students were allowed/encouraged to hack the course objectives and their develop own. The goal was to foster students’ natural inquiry with faculty serving to guide them to find the answers to their inquiries. The approach decentered the instructor and affirmed the students’ preexisting knowledge and allow them to develop their own paths to complete their goals and the course’s goals. The design even encouraged students to make their own course content within the predetermined structures of course description, goals, and instructor feedback and guidance. This approach to doing a MOOC highly aligns with the Catholic approach to higher education for engagement via guidance.

These courses even created what were called “MOOCmates.” Having students create their content also allowed students to personalize, emotionalize, and connect to other students — to develop relationships with their fellow MOOC students. Allowing students to have their voices heard and recognized as having authority, expertise and even power was a way to create course buy-in, engagement, and, ultimately, community. All of this was done by extending the course goals of peer view, content creation, information sharing and even spontaneous course/instructor evaluation — all in a more relaxed manner, being done in the student’s own natural voice. As mentioned above, it is again the idea of meeting students where they are comfortable, and engaging them there rather than forcing them to engage in a way that may not be natural to them in a sterile online course — especially one as large and informal as a MOOC.

Feminist Ryan Gosling would like to be your MOOCmate.
Feminist Ryan Gosling would like to be your MOOCmate.

The presentation also lead to a consideration for how these new technologies and tools may be involved in a revolution for in the steady evolution of education. Education 1.0 was concerned with the construction and maintenance of “cathedrals,” where higher education was concerned with issues of scale, interface and transmission-based power dynamics. However, we may now be moving into Education 2.0, which they presented metaphorically as busy and bustling “bazaars” of people engaging through many different paths to complete their individual and collaborative goals. In such a system, there is felt ownership, felt authorization, felt more desire to engage, build repertoire and community. I am not certain I agree completely with their architectural metaphors, but I do think we are seeing a system-wide shift in understanding how to educate that in some ways resembles the nature of the shift from Web 1.0 (the World Wide Web) to Web 2.0 (social media). Indeed, as this author argues, we should already be considering Education 3.0, which would be similar to the movement currently occurring from the Web dominated Internet to mobile applications dominated Internet.

While they were focused on the MOOCs they had designed and implemented, I think their approaches for creating relationships and community in online learning environments could apply to any type of online course. For example, a bit of advice would be to be patient and trusting and give the students freedom to engage and take ownership of course; courses should be designed to leverage the students’ interests, talents, skills and experience. That means the teacher needs to be aware of and ready to negotiate available means of production — that is, the Three T’s of tools, technologies, techniques — to create inclusive community. Teachers do not have to do this alone, as they can have advanced, experienced students work with and help the more inexperienced, struggling students.

In this type of participatory model — and, indeed, in the overall idea of MOOCs as well as other online and blended courses, including SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) — it may be that we need faculty to be curators of the content available, shared, and created by students to make certain it is not wrong, e.g. to help students delineate editorial from factual. Furthermore, we need faculty as guides, commenters, mentors, moderators, storytellers, assessors, guardians — it is not just about relaying content, but helping students find, make sense of, share, discuss, understand, use, et cetera the content that is all around them in the cloud. A teacher in Education 2.0, whether teaching online or offline, needs to be able to determine when it is necessary to intervene, when it is necessary to model, and when it is necessary to step back to listen/observe.

What I took away from these various presentations and discussions was the idea that to build community in a class, we need to focus on lateral learning, on peer-to-peer learning — that we need to move from a hierarchical conceptualization of a classroom to an inside-out conceptualization. To me, this means less of a power imbalance between teachers and students as well as an idea of building on what is done in the class to have it reach out into the students’ lives. Indeed, such a model may not only help develop community in a class, but it could also help understanding of course material as well as the development of life-long learning. And that last point, the development of that skill, would definitely align with the Catholic ethos.

Image from http://laurentmarbacher.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/never-forget-lateral-learning/.
Image from http://laurentmarbacher.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/never-forget-lateral-learning/.

What Remains to Be Seen?

Several questions still remain for me. How many people need to participate and over what period of time for community to form? How important is it to know the people with whom you interact? What impact does comfort have? What are people willing to share online rather than offline, and vice versa? How do issues of security and privacy impact community?

How much of an issue is the need for affinity and similarity? Can perceptions and realizations of homophily develop online through discussions? Does a larger online class make it more likely that a student will find someone with whom they feel such similarity? But a larger class means more diversity, which could lead to more conflict, and how do you handle conflict with people you only know online?

And perhaps, most importantly for a Catholic social teaching ethos, considering the technology and skills needed to participate online, how do we handle issues of the digital divide? With a concern for social justice, if we are faced with people who cannot participate fully in an online course, through no fault of their own or through some imposition from a sociocultural or political or economic structure, then we in Catholic higher education need to be aware of these systematic differences and do what we can to prevent, ameliorate, change them. Because if we cannot even get them online, it will not matter how well we implement the Three T’s to form relationships and community in their virtual classrooms.

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