As an experienced online learner, my lay definition for a learning community would be an interdependent network of individuals, students, and instructors, working together towards the common goal of achieving academic success. Further, the learning community extends to include support departments such as the library, online websites, blogs, technical support, friends, family, and even the Walden Writing Center because of these people and/or departments of people are capable of providing information and support to enhance the learners’ academic experience and success.
A more formal definition of learning community is “groups of people, connected via technology-mediated communication, who actively engage one another in collaborative, learner-centered activities to intentionally foster the creation of knowledge, while sharing a number of values and practices” (Shea, 2006, p. 35). Moore and Brooks purport “a learning community is characterized by a willingness of members to share resources, accept and encourage new membership, regular communication, systematic problem solving and a preparedness to share success (as cited in Brook & Oliver, 2003, p. 140). For an extended discussion of key attributes of various dimensions of online learning communities, I would recommend reading the entire article by Brook and Oliver (2003). Their article also extensively covers “presage, process, and product in learning environments supporting community development, as depicted in this illustration (p. 145).
Online communities are based on a Community of Inquiry Model described as an “interlocking set of factors that cohere in the creation of a community of learners” (Shea, 2006, p. 38). Specifically, the interlocking factors are social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence. The following diagram illustrates the interaction between these three factors in the development of an online learning community (Wilcoxon, 2011, p. 3).
Social Presence – “the ability to project one’s self and establish personal and purposeful relationships. The three main aspects of social presence … are effective communication, open communication, and group cohesion” (Garrison, 2007, p. 63). Further, “social presence is the ability of participants to identify with the group, communicate in a trusting environment, and develop social relationships by ways of expressing their individuality” (Wilcoxon, 2011, p. 3). An important aspect of social presence is the importance of maintaining a true sense of self, while at the same time participating and communicating positively with the group. Our text also discusses the importance of appropriate communication in making a good first impression, utilizing spell heck and grammar check, applying proper netiquette in online communication and provides suggestions for “creating a supportive online learning community” (Watkins & Corry, 2011, p. 101).
As just one personal anecdote, there was a time during one of my previous courses when I was burned out. It seemed like the discussions were the same every week, and the topic was beaten to death. I felt inconsequential to the forum. Therefore, I posted my initial post and summarily stepped off for a bit. I still went online and read the other posts. However, I did not post anything. I just did not feel like I had anything new to say on the topic. A few days later, one of my cohorts emailed me. I will never forget it. He was not the instructor, just one of the cohorts who had been in several of my courses. He expressed concern over my absence of the previous few days and wanted to know if there was anything he could do, or if I was okay. I did not even realize I would be missed. I was flattered and surprised. It was enough to get me out of my funk and back into the forum. That one person going the extra mile really made a difference for me. After that, I had a renewed appreciation for the discussion forums and the community of learners I was involved with both then and now. I never again disappeared on my group. If I felt like I did not have something to offer, I would go looking for something new to add. It literally changed my perspective, and it was not the first, nor I suspect, the last time that has occurred in the context of an online learning community. As more evidence to this point, “the purpose of social presence in an educational context is to create the conditions for inquiry and quality interaction (reflective and threaded discussions) in order to collaboratively achieve a worthwhile educational goal” (Garrison, 2007, p. 64).
Cognitive Presence – “defined as the exploration, construction, resolution, and confirmation of understanding through collaboration and reflection in a community of inquiry” (Garrison, 2007, p. 65). “Cognitive presence is the exploration, construction, resolution, and confirmation of understanding” (Wilcoxon, 2011, p. 3). Cognitive presence is learner – content, learner-learner, and learner-instructor. It is important to understand that within the online learning community each learner is responsible for their own learning and the learning of their cohorts. We facilitate the cognitive growth of each other. This is especially enhanced in the active engagement and participation of the group. There are so many different perspectives and avenues of intellectual thought that one person could not possibly accomplish on their own. However, in a group anything is possible. I cannot tell you how many times a cohort found a great research article or website link that really altered my thinking on a topic simply because my searches came up with other links or articles.
Teaching Presence – “is the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes toward the goal of meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes” (Wilcoxon, 2011, p. 3). Again, this includes both engagement by the instructor and the learners. Additionally, the role of the instructor is as a facilitator guiding the learners on their journey to enlightenment. In fact, researches propose that socially constructed knowledge passes through five sequential stages: (1) “sharing and comparing information; (2) the discovery of exploration of dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concepts or statements; (3) the negotiation of meaning; (4) testing and modification of proposed synthesis or co-construction; and, (5) agreement statements and the application of newly constructed meaning” (Brook & Oliver, 2003, p. 143).
As previously described, the roles in an online learning community vary and are dependent on context. One of the hallmarks off online education is adoption of self-direction and responsibility to one’s own education and that of their cohorts. Regular and active participation, meeting deadlines, providing peer feedback, and supporting the group through consistent positive feedback to both the initial posting through the responsive posts. For myself, this means reading the resources and more prior to posting my initial post, properly citing the resources according to APA guidelines, responding to at least two or three other individuals’ posts before the deadline, and if they respond back, responding again. This requires consistent and timely follow through reading all of the cohort posts and responses. Further, meeting all deadlines for assignments and projects.
Walden’s values of “quality, integrity and student-centeredness” (Walden University, 2012, p. 1) align well with the concepts expressed herein. Specifically, Walden has developed a rigorous online learning program based on the integrity of its instructors and student population. Further, the program is student-centered inherently demanding active student participation, while at the same time incorporating positive constructivist instructional strategies designed to scaffold important concepts in ways that learners can assimilate them more readily in their network of knowledge.
Brook, C., & Oliver, R. (2003). Online learning communities: Investigating a design framework. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(2), 139-160. Retrieved from http://sfxhosted.exlibrisgroup.com/waldenu?ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&ctx_id=10_1&ctx_tim=2012-09-10T23%3A7%3A11EDT&ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fsfxit.com%3Acitation&rft.date=2003&rft.genre=article&rft.issue=2&rft.jtitle=Australian+Journal+of+Educational+Technology&rft.spage=139&rft.volume=19&rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Aarticle&sfx.title_search=exact&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&url_ver=Z39.88-2004
Garrison, D. R. (2007). Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (JALN), 11(1), 61-72. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/jaln_main?field_jaln_author_value=&field_jaln_keywords_value=&field_jaln_volume_value=11&field_jaln_issue_value=1
Shea, P. (2006, February). A study of students’ sense of learning community in online environments. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(1), 35-44. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org
Walden University. (2012). 2012-2013 Walden University Student Handbook. Retrieved from http://catalog.waldenu.edu
Watkins, R., & Corry, M. (2011). E-learning companion: A student’s guide to online success (Laureate Education, Inc., custom ed.). Mason: OH: Cengange Learning.
Wilcoxon, K. (2011, October 3). Building an online learning community. Learning Solutions Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/761/building-an-online-learning-community