What Does Community Mean To Me?

Shared leadership… is less like  an orchestra, where the conductor is always in charge, and more like a jazz band, where leadership is passed around … depending on what the music demands at the moment and who feels most moved by the spirit to express the music.’ Schlechy 2001

What Does Community Mean To Me?

Definition and Context

Community is defined as: “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common such as: Montreal’s Italian community, or: the scientific community; and: the people of a district or country considered collectively, especially in the context of social values and responsibilities,  and:  the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common, and finally: a similarity or identity,”  (Oxford Online Dictionaries, 2013). It is immediately unmistakable that community does not revolve around the individual but is about groups of people coming together with a common interest or interests and/or to achieve a common set of goals. Another, more in depth definition has noted four components which are integral to the creation of a sense of community:

  • membership, where there is a sense of belonging or a sense of personal relationship;
  • influence,  a sense of mattering, both within the group and without;
  • integration and fulfillment of needs, where the members needs will be met by membership and participation in group activities, and;
  • a shared emotional connection, where members will have a commonality of history and experience which will contribute to shared experiences and achievement of commonly held requirements or goals. (McMillian & Chavis,1986)

We see this repeatedly in the context of the instructional setting: groups of people linked by or sharing a common interest, having a shared attitude or desires, who receive benefits from allied group participation. For students these benefits are easy to define: the application of shared knowledge to develop a skill set to complete educational goals with a pre-supposed return at the end, be it a degree, diploma or certificate. This certification is then applied in the student’s life for various reasons such as job advancement, ongoing on-the-job requirements or for purely personal satisfaction. Additionally there is less overall work for the same amount of effort put in thus freeing the student to concentrate on other subjects or assignments. As instructors one task in the creation of course content, especially in light of online offerings, is the construction and encouragement of a sense of community as it enables better learning outcomes for students. There is also the sense of collegiality where all are encouraged to participate for in doing so community truly comes alive.

Published literature has shown that the creation of online community has a direct correlation to student success, both in terms of perception on the part of students and measureable educational outcomes (Sadera, 2009). It is the responsibility of the instructor to help develop a sense of community through the encouragement of engagement on the part of students and the provision of course content which is interactive and inclusive in scope and practice.

Best Practices for Instructors

Leadership or presence in the virtual world is a key component in any course offered online. There are typically three ‘presences’ in the online world when considering the context of eLearning: the teacher presence, the cognitive presence and the social presence (Anderson 2004) and it is this social presence we shall consider here because that is what online community is above all else: a sense of the social in an environment which can be a less than welcoming one, especially for new students. To that end instructors need to develop and utilize best practices which nurture the student while generating positive learning opportunities and encouraging participation.  Some examples from one source which seem to cover the most ground are listed below:

  • be present at the course site, generate a positive instructor identity;
  • create a supportive community;
  • respect diverse talents and ways of learning, consider cultural differences;
  • set clear expectations for students as to work demands;
  • use a variety of large group, small group and individual work assignments;
  • use both asynchronous and synchronous activities;
  • start an early ‘feedback loop’ for students;
  • prepare discussion forums which excite students and encourage participation;
  • focus on content resources, links and applications to current events which are easily accessible by student resources;
  • combine core concept learning with customized and personalized learning;
  • have an original closing exercise at the end of the course. (Boettcher,  2012)

We can see that most of these guidelines revolve around learner involvement, engagement and inclusion. It is the instructor’s responsibility to provide a course environment which promotes the generation of all 3 factors.

The Role of the Instructor in Building Community

The instructor has multiple roles and responsibilities all of which influence the outcome of the course and student success as a result. Firstly, they must be seen to be a participant, to be involved in the course. This encourages students and gives them a sense of social presence in the context of the course. The instructor must be a facilitator, making the course come alive through the provision of content, ensuring that the student gets the most possible out of material available. Additionally, they assess learner needs and provide support as required in the online environment (Anderson, 2004).  The instructor must also be the person who plays the watchdog and ensures fairness and equality for all students regardless of age, gender, orientation, skill level etc. They should encourage, monitor group activities, ensure that selected tasks are relevant to the course and student needs (Brindley et al, 2009).The instructor is responsible for fulfilling many roles all at once:  friend, colleague, mentor, confessor, facilitator, enforcer and more.

The Role of the Student In Building Community

Just as the instructor has a role and inherent responsibilities in the creation of online community so does the student. The student needs to participate first and foremost, to be a contributing member of the group. This means engaging in all opportunities:  forums, message boards, assignments etc. in a timely and whole hearted manner. Students need to be respectful of others, self-directed learners, motivated and possess a positive attitude towards themselves as learners. Students need to be able to reflect and be unafraid of trying the new and strange. Like the instructor, they need to buy-in to the idea of online community; they will, after all provide the spirit of the group’s enterprise.

How Will I Deal With Issues Around Cultural, Gender or Ethical Concerns?

Cultural Concerns

Given that there is no time or geographic restriction on attendees in the online environment people who enroll in our course work may be from another state, province or conceivably another country at a great distance removed from us. We must be aware that people from other lands and cultures may:

  • either not understand our language or do so imperfectly and their grasp of idiom may be limited;
  •  be culturally different which may mean having different mores and norms;
  • have different perceptions and expectations of both their fellow students and the  instructor;
  • work with computer equipment and software which may be vastly different, with greater or lesser capability than what we use;
  • have different learning styles or have been raised to participate differently in class;
  • have different ways of expressing themselves in both reflection and online identity;
  • have a different work ethic which may result in different attitudes towards fulfilling course and group assignments (UBC, April 2011).

Online designers and instructors must be cognizant of and prepared to deal with the added responsibility of these considerations when contemplating overall course design. Some issues may be addressed through instructor preparation in advance: links to online and real world sources for learners who are challenged or who feel they have been discriminated against or are seeking avenues to surmount difficulties they may be experiencing. Every effort should be put into removing barriers for students who are from another country or culture, speak a different language, or perhaps do not speak at all.

There must be mechanisms in place to address these issues in a timely manner and the instructor must be above reproach by having thought through possible roadblocks and having either solutions close to hand or the willingness to deal with the issues as soon as raised. I feel that the competent instructor should ask people to self- identify or make it clear right at the course outset that there are avenues available to students who feel there are barriers to their success and endeavour to remove those roadblocks as soon as possible.

Gender Concerns

The achievement of equitable gender standing in online courses is not just about ensuring fair and reasonable access for men and women. Parity for all is accomplished through increased opportunities in communication and the removal of barriers to both sexes. Because of the differences in learning styles and communication patterns between both genders instructors need to rethink their design strategies to cope with these variances and ensure a level playing field for both groups. While early research suggested that women did not achieve as high rankings in online course offerings , new studies have shown that the opposite is true, women excel at online courses for any of a number of reasons:

  • they are more collaborative,
  • they communicate more effectively,
  • they cooperate more effectively than men,
  • they work better in the online environment,
  • they develop better elearning styles than their male counterparts which result in better outcomes.

This means the Internet, and  the online learning environment ,which was at one point considered an almost exclusively male domain, can no longer be viewed in that light. Further, there is no ‘gender blindness’ in online learning but rather a weighting towards women as they naturally excel in the collaborative environment which is encouraged by both constructivist and connectivist schools of thought and practice (Monteith, 2002) The implications are clear for designers of online content: much thought and preparation must be given to ensuring parity for everyone when designing new online content.

Ethical Concerns

When dealing with online ethical considerations so much is new as educators struggle to develop material which is consistent and respectful to all relative to the online world. New paradigms and learning environments mean that as often as not educators are breaking new ground as they try to cope with classes which may be separated by geography, time and culture, issues associated with privacy, acceptable behaviours by both staff and students, and whether or not computer-reliant education promotes a fair and reasonable learning environment. How the online learning environment promotes or inhibits academic freedoms raises more questions than provide answers (Anderson & Simpson, 2007).

There should be a ‘zero tolerance’ policy which is put in place at the beginning of any course which clearly states expectations regarding ethics and other associated policies. I think the first policy to be articulated should be that all people, regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, and orientation or language skills should be respected, valued and treated equally. The people who make up the student body should not only be cognizant but supportive of this requirement. There should be a real effort to ensure that people are comfortable with the course, the first part of which is inclusivity. This starts with and ends with the instructor. Students should be able to trust that should there be a concern they should be able to approach their teacher and receive a prompt resolution which fully addresses their unease. It is up to the instructor to foster this spirit in online offerings and be diligent in applying these policies with a fair and even hand.

Conclusion

Community may be described as working together for mutually recognized goals and rewards. In the online context where so much can be left open to interpretation and potential abuse it is incumbent on designers and presenters of online content to be aware of and encourage the development of community in their course work. This means providing an environment where student community is encouraged and promoted.

References:

1)- As retrieved from The Oxford Online dictionaries; http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/community;

2)- Anderson, Bill and Simpson, Mary (2007) ‘Ethical issues in online education’, Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 22:2, 129 -138, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02680510701306673;

3)- Anderson,Terry,  2004, Theory  and Practice of Online Learning, Chapter 11: ‘Teaching in An Online Learning Context’, Athabaska University;

4)-  Boettcher, J. 2007. Ten Core Principles for Designing Effective Learning Environments: Insights from Brain Research and Pedagogical Theory, http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=54  (accessed April 24, 2008);

5)- Boettcher,J,  July 2012, Designing for Learning, 10 Best Practices for Teaching Online, Quick Guide for New Online Faculty, http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tenbest.html ;

6)- Brey, P. (2006) Social and ethical dimensions of computer-mediated education, Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 4(2), 91–101.

7)- Brindley J. E,;  Walti, C, Blaschke ,L. M. ; Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment; International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Volume 10, Number 3,  ISSN: 1492-3831, June 2009; http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/675/1313 ;

8)- Craig, A, Goold A, Coldwell J and Mustard J, Perceptions of Roles and Responsibilities in Online Learning: A Case Study, Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects Volume 4, 2008 http://www.ijello.org/Volume4/IJELLOv4p205-223Craig510.pdf

9)- Gunn, C, French S, McLeod  H, McSporran M, Gender issues in computer-supported learning, www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/article/…/12997

10)- Monteith, K., University of Stirling,  Gendered Learning and Learning About Gender Online , A Content Analysis of Online Discussion, http://www.odeluce.stir.ac.uk/docs/Gendered%20Learning.pdf;  2002

11)- McMillian, D. & Chavis, D.(1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology. 14, 6-23

12)- Sadera, W. A. ; Robertson, J,7. ; Song, L. ; Midon, N. ; The Role Of Community in Online Learning Success, MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Volume 5, Number 2, June 2009,

13)- University of British Columbia,  Documentation: Cultural Issues in Teaching Online/Learning Module, http://wiki.ubc.ca/Documentation:Cultural_Issues_in_Teaching_Online/Learning_Module#License  ; April 2011

14)- Vesely, P., Bloom, L. and Sherlock, J.; Key Elements of Building Online Community: Comparing Faculty and Student Perceptions,  MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 3, No. 3, September 2007

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