How to Build Effective Online Learning Communities

There is ample research to show that a community based education model can greatly enhance the learning capabilities of its members.  Moreover, learning is inherently a communal activity, which is perfectly exemplified by the classroom setup, where a group of students interact amongst themselves and with the faculty. Transpose this behavior to the world of internet and we have what we call online learning communities.

What is an Online Community?

An online community is a group of people united by similar interests and purpose using the virtual medium to interact with each other. These are communities first, online second. In the real world also, whether it is due to a particular geographic area where one resides or professional space where one works, we all, voluntarily or involuntarily, are a part of one or the other community.  When these real world communities use internet as a medium to connect with each other, communicate, work together and pursue some common interests over the course of time they take shape of online communities.

online learning communitiesLearning, Meet Community

A community that has collaborative learning as its primary purpose and uses internet as a medium to achieve the same can be referred to as online learning community.   There has been growing buzz about the impact and benefits of building online learning communities, and particularly, the last few years have seen a tremendous growth in the number of such communities. The increasing clout of social networking, greater internet penetration and easily available computing technology can be held responsible for this proliferation. Although online education itself is not an entirely new phenomenon, dating back to the times when even internet didn’t existed, large scale online community building started with the Web 2.0 era in the last decade.

Types Of Communities

The online learning community is basically differentiated on the basis of the tools and technology used and the process employed for collaboration. Synchronous online communities employ synchronous tools that enable real-time communication and collaboration in a same time-different place mode. Tools like instant messengers help community members to engage instantly at the same point of time.
Then there is asynchronous online community that connects on a “different time-different place” mode, with members leveraging tools like discussion forums, web logs, e-mails, slideshows   and streaming videos for conducting learning activities. Most modern online learning communities use multiple standalone tools in a single integrated collaborative environment.  Weather it is the globally successful site or a region-specific site, every thriving online learning community has acquired a shape of a full-fledged web platform rather than remain constrained to a particular tool.

Why Develop an Online Learning Community?

When we already have a time-tested and highly popular classroom model of community learning, does it really make sense to shift to a rather new and unproven medium? The proponents of online community learning cite the following benefits that it supposedly has over the traditional model:

  • No physical boundaries : Education transcends borders as members of the same community belong to different states, and sometimes different country
  • Supports in-class learning: Discussion boards, and question & answer sessions after the lecture help in dispelling doubts that are normally left unanswered in a classroom owing to time constraints
  • Build a social and collaborative learning experience: The real learning happens when members engage, communicate and collaborate with each other. Online learning communities are surprisingly effective at creating a collaborative environment through social interactions and shared experiences.
  • Self governance: Internet is basically a self-empowering medium where learners have immediate access to information on anything and everything under the sun. This means that students can educate themselves with minimal interaction with a higher authority, like a teacher. This personal empowerment, if responded to in a right manner can become the difference between a hugely successful entrepreneur and an average learner.

The internet today has become an integral part of everyone’s life.  It affects how an individual communicates, conducts business and learns. Online learning communities provide opportunities for individuals to observe and understand the nuances of online communication and develop better ability of navigating the internet. Considering the gargantuan amount of information available on the web, one’s ability to quickly navigate the internet and find the most appropriate source of information would be an important measurement of modern literacy.

Make Your Community Thrive

Just like there is no all-encompassing definition of an online learning community, similarly there is no set path to take for creation of such a virtual entity.  The idea is to slowly induce a philosophical shift from traditional learning approach that focuses on a linear teacher-to-student instructing strategy to dynamic instructional strategies, where the role of the teacher is of the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage”.   To ensure sustained interest in the community, the moderator must create a charter that clearly lays out the various specifics of group work and acceptable netiquettes.

Facilitate conversation amongst the members of the community, but avoid dominating it. A healthy debate is always welcome as it churns out new and contradicting ideas, and enhances the overall learning process.  As a progenitor of a thriving online community, you must have an active presence in various activities happening in the community. Your consistency will have a direct impact on the motivation and enthusiasm of other members of the community.

Encourage in depth exploration of topics. Indulge in question and answer sessions. Promote critical discourse to stimulate thinking. This will help in the development of cognitive skills.