|Australian Journal of Educational Technology
2003, 19(2), 139-160.
This paper reports the development of a design framework intended to support and guide online instructors in the development of a learning community. The study was guided by an investigation of contemporary literature focused on the community construct, online learning community development and the collaborative construction of knowledge and the practices of experienced professionals working in the field. The intended outcome is a design framework that may be useful in guiding instructors in the development of said communities.
This paper describes an investigation of the development of online learning communities. It seeks to establish a common understanding of the term community and identify the chain of events that lead to community development and the collaborative construction of knowledge, and it proposes a model describing this sequence. Guidance was taken from contemporary literature, the practices of experienced professionals working in the field, and the experiences of students.
Notwithstanding the continued debate, several features of community have general acceptance. Communities provide systems and processes for meeting the basic human needs for survival, nurturance, socialisation and support, cosmological or ideological perspectives, a cohesive context from which a sense of identity, belonging, meaning and purpose can develop (Redfield, 1960). The community experience is central to the lives of all individuals and it is generally acknowledged that 'if the sense of living in, belonging to, and having some commitment to, a particular community is threatened then the prospect of living rewarding lives is diminished' (Puddifoot, 1996 p. 327). The experience within a community is context specific and may vary between members (Sonn, Bishop, & Drew, 1999). Communities exist in both a geographic and relational sense (Gusfield, 1975; Worsley, 1991), with modern societies tending to develop more relational communities (Durkheim, 1964; Royal & Rossi, 1996) or communities of the mind (Tönnies, 1974). It is these communities that form in the online environment (Obst, Zinkiewicz, & Smith, 2002; Surratt, 1998).
Communities take many forms including those based in religion, politics and neighborhoods (Goth, 1992; Sarason, 1974). Of the various forms of community, a learning community is characterised by a willingness of members to share resources, accept and encourage new membership, regular communication, systematic problem solving and a preparedness to share success (Moore & Brooks, 2000). These characteristics clearly represent factors that may be put to good use in the support of learning, as does the social phenomenon where the sum of the parts of a community is in some way greater than the whole (Hawley, 1950).
Although these characteristics tend to suggest a positivistic view of community, it is important to acknowledge that the social phenomenon may exert negative influences on members. Potentially negative influences include the need for members to conform and the subsequent loss of individuality (Wiesenfeld, 1996), and the potential to hoard knowledge and thus restrict innovation (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). Also noteworthy is the potential for community structures to exert pressure on some individuals to engage in nonconforming rather than conforming behaviours, resulting in dissidents and the formation of sub-communities (Carol, 1997). Although possibly undesirable, the potential for the development of the characteristics cannot be ignored when the social phenomenon of community is employed to enhance learning experiences.
Identifying general agreement on key features of community is a useful exercise in ensuring commonality of meaning and establishing characteristics of the desired product, but does little to further insight into how a community may be purposefully developed. To achieve this requires further investigation of the community construct, how this construct may be understood and measured, and the chain of events that are likely to lead to its development.
McMillan and Chavis (1986) proposed that sense of community may be represented as a four dimensional model comprising the elements of membership, influence, fulfillment of needs and shared emotional connection, with each of the elements characterised by key attributes (Table 1).
|Membership||Boundaries that separate us from them|
A sense of belonging and identification
A common symbol system
|Influence||Individual members matter to the group|
The group matters to the individual
Making a difference to the group
Individual members influence the group
The group influences the individual member
|Fulfillment of needs||Benefits and rewards|
Members meeting their own needs
Members meeting the needs of others
Reinforcement and fulfillment of needs
|Shared emotional connection||Identifying with a shared event, history, time, place or experience|
Regular and meaningful contact
Closure to events
These elements and their attributes may prove useful in guiding the development of online learning communities, keeping in mind the varying presence of each element in any given community, and that shared emotional connection is considered the definitive element of true community (McMillan, 1996). Promoting these elements through a common symbol system (McMillan & Chavis, 1986; Palloff & Pratt, 1999), establishing a common purpose (Hawley, 1950), facilitating frequent and easy meetings (Worsley, 1991) and developing a sense of place (Lorion & Newbrough, 1996; Puddifoot, 1996) is likely to influence community development. In addition it has been suggested that sense of community be considered an economy where self disclosure is the commodity for trade. In this environment trade must be perceived as fair (McMillan, 1996) and as safe (McLellan, 1998), free from shame, where individuals may trade freely.
Guidance for developing this safe environment may be found in the literature that suggests encouraging low risk trade, where individuals identify similarities, provide positive support and share information (McMillan, 1996). Once this has been established it is possible to progress to activities that require identifying differences including strengths, weakness and needs. It is not until this has been achieved that members can begin trade and the community economy is established (McMillan, 1996). The sequential five stage model developed by Salmon (2000) which includes access and motivation, online socialisation, information exchange, knowledge construction and development supports this supposition. Further guidance may be gleaned from the experiences of professionals working in the area.
A second perspective of learning within the cognitive domain is the sociocultural theory that works in contrast to the constructivist view. Where the constructivist perspective focuses on individual cognitive processes in the construction of knowledge, the sociocultural perspective emphasises the role of social interactions and cultural organised activities in influencing cognitive development (Cobb, 1994). Two influential theorists who advocate the importance of social interaction in the construction of knowledge are Vygotsky and Dewey (Glassman, 2001). While Vygotsky emphasises the importance of social history, Dewey stresses the importance of individual history (Glassman, 2001). Vygotsky places a heavy emphasis on the role of culture and social history in education, suggesting that the process of education works from the outside in. Dewey, with a heavy emphasis on the importance of the social history of the individual, sees the process as coming from the inside out (Glassman, 2001). Notwithstanding this philosophical difference, both theorists stress the importance of social interaction in the learning process.
Cobb (1994) argues that the cognitive and sociocultural theories are complementary. The sociocultural perspective suggests the conditions for the possibility of learning, while constructivist perspective outlines what students learn and the process by which they learn (Cobb, 1994).
This suggestion is reflected in a third field of thought known as constructionism. Constructionism includes the theories espoused by Piaget, but goes beyond these to include the notion that the process of learning takes place when the learner is engaged with the construction of something external. This leads to a cycle of internalising what is outside and then externalising what is inside, and so on (Papert, 1990). Constructionism is seen as offering an important bridge between cognitive and sociocultural perspectives on cognitive development, by arguing that individual development cycles are enhanced by shared constructive activity in the social environment. Furthermore, social settings are enhanced by the cognitive development of the individual. The constructionist view is that shared constructions and social relations are key to individual development (Kafai & Resnick, 1996).
Importantly it is suggested that settings marked by fractured and limited social activity and less cohesive social relations may present troubling development barriers (Kafai & Resnick, 1996), supporting the supposition that sense of community may be put to good use in the support of learning.
While stressing the importance of the social construction of knowledge (Dewey, 1929; Von Krogh, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978), Hildreth (2002) maintains that the tacit and explicit elements of knowledge are interwoven. Attempts to advance the construction of knowledge must focus on both these elements of knowledge, moving away from capturing to sharing knowledge (Hildreth & Kimbe, 2002), in accordance with constructivist philosophies (Von Krogh, 1998). Researchers argue that this sharing of knowledge is promoted in both communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) and learning communities (Moore & Brooks, 2000).
It has been suggested that the social construction of knowledge in the online environment progresses through five sequential phases (Gunawardena, Lowe & Anderson, 1997) (Table 2).
|Five phase model|
|Sharing and comparing of information|
|The discovery of exploration of dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concepts or statements|
|The negotiation of meaning|
|Testing and modification of proposed synthesis or co-construction|
|Agreement statements and the application of newly constructed meaning|
Statements of opinion and observation and corroborating examples provided by one or more participants characterise phase one. Phase two identifies and states areas of disagreement, and perhaps escalates conflict through reference to research or experience. Exploration of meaning and the identifying of areas of agreement characterise phase three, and phase four is characterised by testing the proposed synthesis against 'received fact', as shared by the participants and or their culture. Metacognitive statements by the participants, illustrating their understanding that their new knowledge or ways of thinking have changed, characterise phase five (Gunawardena et al., 1997). The latter stages of the model require high levels of bi-directional influence between the individual and the group, an identifying characteristic of strong communities (McMillan, 1996). Of particular interest is how student interactions may be purposefully progressed through these phases, to both promote the collaborative construction of knowledge and the formation of a strong community.
The development of a collaborative learning environment is not simply a matter of employing the software to facilitate a communication place and informing the students of its availability and telling them to use it at will. This will result in students not using the communication opportunity at all or dropping out of communication after a very short time (p. 2).Factors that may influence community development include policies (Cho & Berge, 2002), the discipline and educational level of the course (Hiltz, 1994; Palloff & Pratt, 1999), the instructor (Collins & Berge, 1996; Hiltz, 1994; Palloff & Pratt, 1999) and the students (Hiltz, 1994). At a process level, influencing factors include the purpose the community serves in the lives of its members (Hawley, 1950; Palloff & Pratt, 1999), support for communication (Collins & Berge, 1996; Hill & Raven, 2000), the nature of meetings (Moore & Brooks, 2000) and the gathering place (Lorion & Newbrough, 1996; Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Puddifoot, 1996; Von Krogh, Ichijo, & Nonaka, 2000). These factors are outlined in more detail in the following paragraphs.
This suggests influencing factors and a chain of events that may be expressed by adapting the three 'P' model of presage, process and product (Biggs, 1989). The Biggs (1989) model describes the process of student learning and may be used to inform approaches to teaching. As described by the model, presage factors at both the student and teacher level interact to produce an approach to learning. Process factors describe the approaches students adopt to process academic tasks, and the product reflects the learning outcome (Biggs, 1989). Community development may be described in a similar manner, beginning with presage factors, including the system, learning context and student, that interact to produce an approach to community development. These progress to process factors that describe how students process community development strategies, facilitating and concluding with, among other products, sense of community as an outcome. (Figure 1)
Figure 1: Presage, Process and Product in learning environments
supporting community development
The framework presents an integrated system representing factors that exist prior to the process of community development, the approaches supporting community development, the process of community development, and a myriad of outcomes, including sense of community.
or task completion
Communication may be encouraged through grading participation, based on the quality or quantity of communications (Hilts, 1998; Palloff & Pratt, 1999), requesting responses (Hiltz, 1994), establishing a sense of positive outcome as a result of belonging, and encouraging members to pay their dues (McMillan, 1996). Setting an appropriate pace and schedule for participation that maintains active engagement, without dominating the learning experience, may provide further support (Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, & Tinker, 2000). Establishing the nature of communication, including the tools to be used, roles and responsibilities, enables communication (Palloff & Pratt, 1999), as does establishing a sense of connectedness. Strategies that promote connectedness include engendering the human elements of community (Hill & Raven, 2000) and establishing user profiles (Kim, 2000). Additional strategies include welcoming new members, sharing wisdom, resolving problems and sharing success (Moore & Brooks, 2000). Allowing for growth and change, two characteristics of community (Sarason, 1974), also promotes a sense of connectedness and community development (Table 5).
|Technology skills||Communication skills||Management skills||Behaviour guidelines|
Contemporary community literature suggests that essential requirements for the development of community include the provision of a safe environment where participants can express themselves, free from shame (McMillan, 1996). McMillan (1996) emphasises the need to develop trust through establishing structure. Members must know what they can expect from each other, what power relationships exist, and who holds power and when. Any breakdown in these structures is likely to result in anomie (Durkheim, 1964). Trust may be promoted through establishing a code of conduct (McMillan, 1996), avoiding anonymity (Palloff & Pratt, 1999), and providing for the development of an electronic self (Kim, 2000; Palloff and Pratt, 1999). Striving to establish an electronic identity may also support community development (Kim, 2000), as may establishing leadership (Berge & Collins, 1995; McMillan, 1996; Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Paulsen, 1995). (Table 6)
While the model represents an integrated system suggesting factors critical to community development, it does not indicate the relative importance of any of the factors, nor those that may be considered essential or simply desirable. Further enquiry to develop an understanding of instructional emphasis, and how to design learning settings that promote community development, is required. This enquiry may be assisted through adopting the proposed framework to explore community development and the link between sense of community and the strength of proposed factors.
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|Authors: Chris Brook|
Edith Cowan University
2 Bradford St, Mt Lawley 6050, Western Australia
Edith Cowan University
2 Bradford St, Mt Lawley 6050, Western Australia
Please cite as: Brook, C. and Oliver, R. (2003). Online learning communities: Investigating a design framework. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(2), 139-160. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet19/brook.html