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Pursuing the elusive metaphor of community in virtual learning environments

Pursuing the elusive metaphor of community in virtual learning environments

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Published by Richard Schwier
Social networking software sites are often mistakenly called learning communities, betraying a significant lack of agreement or concern for what actually constitutes a community. However, social networking sites are being used by teachers to engage students in dynamic ways, and by learners as vehicles for constructing their own, very personal learning environments and communities. This paper draws on lessons we have learned about building personal learning environments and virtual communities from our research and experience in formal and non-formal learning environments. It addresses the key questions of how can we construct, maintain and usher out communities, who joins communities, and what characteristics of communities seem to be shared across learning environments. The paper also questions whether the label “community” is actually a failed metaphor for something that seems to be much too dynamic and elusive to capture with a single construct.
Social networking software sites are often mistakenly called learning communities, betraying a significant lack of agreement or concern for what actually constitutes a community. However, social networking sites are being used by teachers to engage students in dynamic ways, and by learners as vehicles for constructing their own, very personal learning environments and communities. This paper draws on lessons we have learned about building personal learning environments and virtual communities from our research and experience in formal and non-formal learning environments. It addresses the key questions of how can we construct, maintain and usher out communities, who joins communities, and what characteristics of communities seem to be shared across learning environments. The paper also questions whether the label “community” is actually a failed metaphor for something that seems to be much too dynamic and elusive to capture with a single construct.

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Published by: Richard Schwier on Jun 22, 2009
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Pursuing the Elusive Metaphor of Communityin Virtual Learning Environments
Richard A. SchwierUniversity of SaskatchewanSaskatoon, Saskatchewan Canadaemail: richard.schwier@usask.caPlease cite as: Schwier, R.A. (2009, June). Pursuing the elusive metaphor of community in virtual learningenvironments. Proceedings of ED-MEDIA 2009, Association for the Advancement of Computers in Education,Honolulu, Hawaii.
Abstract
Social networking software sites are often mistakenly called learning communities, betraying a significant lack of agreement or concern forwhat actually constitutes a community. However, social networking sites are being used by teachers to engage students in dynamic ways,and by learners as vehicles for constructing their own, very personal learning environments and communities. This paper draws on lessonswe have learned about building personal learning environments and virtual communities from our research and experience in formal andnon-formal learning environments. It addresses the key questions of how can we construct, maintain and usher out communities, who joinscommunities, and what characteristics of communities seem to be shared across learning environments. The paper also questions whetherthe label “community” is actually a failed metaphor for something that seems to be much too dynamic and elusive to capture with a singleconstruct.
In the Virtual Learning Communities Research Laboratory at the University of Saskatchewan, we have spent the pastseveral years trying to understand what makes online learning communities emerge, grow and die away. Its ongoingresearch program has proffered and refined a model of virtual learning community (VLC) catalysts, elements andemphases that seems to capture some significant features of VLCs in formal learning environments. Recently, ourresearch has turned its attention to non-formal and informal learning environments, calling into question whether theformal model holds any validity for broader definitions of learning, and whether in fact, community is a failedmetaphor for describing the shape of activity that occurs when learners hold sway over the learning.In this paper, I will attempt to extract some of the key things we have learned, and offer a perspective on whichcharacteristics appear to be robust in formal learning environments, which of characteristics seem to stand out innon-formal learning environments, and which seem to transcend environments, and also speculate about thechallenges of building online communities when we move from formal, to non-formal, to informal learningenvironments. Because of the reflective nature of this paper, several of the ideas—particularly those aboutcharacteristics of formal VLCs—will draw on material previously published elsewhere to provide context, but I wantto avoid being too self-referential. For a more thorough treatment of these ideas, I direct the reader to acomprehensive list of our publications at http://www.vlcresearch.ca.
Distinguishing and Measuring Communities
 
The metaphor of community has been used to describe a wide range of social networks, both terrestrial and virtual,and in fact, there seems to be an inclination for anyone using a social networking site for most any purpose to refer toit as a community. Generally speaking, communities are collections of people who are bound together for somereason, and the reason defines the boundary of the community. A learning community emerges when people aredrawn together to learn, so a learning community is a group of individuals engaged intentionally and collectively inthe transaction or transformation of knowledge. Although learning communities emphasize outcomes in education,their power resides in their ability to take advantage of, and in some cases invent, a process for exchanging ideas andlearning collectively. Virtual learning communities happen when the process of learning takes place outside theboundaries of face-to-face contact, typically electronically.All of this sounds so nice and cozy on the surface. Communities are idealized; they conjure up memories of warmsummer evenings, the dance of fireflies, and happy greetings exchanged by neighbors. Of course each of us conjuresup somewhat different visions of community, but the point is that all of our conjurings are fictional. Few of usactually experienced the community we dream about, yet we have little trouble extending our imperfect visions tovirtual learning communities. We assume that learners will want to come together, that they will be mutuallysupportive, and they will be driven to learn. But it is important to realize that communities, and particularly virtuallearning communities, are not inherently good, desirable or ideal. For example, terrorist groups and organized crimeexhibits many of the characteristics of a strong community, but few people outside of those groups would considerthem to be desirable. Rather than describing an idealized state, community is a label for describing a temporary stateof affairs; a context within which people encounter one another and negotiate the interplay of their unique yet relatedagendas.When technology mediates a community, the nature of interaction within the community inevitably changes. Yet,we understand little about how people in virtual environments are influenced by those environments. Doesparticipation in online environments promote high levels of social engagement and support significant relationshipsamong participants, or does it lead to acute social isolation (Kraut, Paterson, Lundmark, Kiesler, Mukophadhyay, &Scherlia, 1998)? There is recent evidence out of Canada that online networking can actually increase participation inthe community and in social organizations; online connections serve to support existing relationships (Veenhof,Wellman, Quell, & Hogan, 2009). But it also can create new types of relationships, deep and shallow, that were notpreviously available. Depending on the characteristics of the community and the intentions of the participants,communities may in fact be engaging and isolating at the same time. Perhaps it is a matter of understanding thatmediated communication is fundamentally different from other types of interpersonal communication, andacknowledging that electronic communication, with all of its advantages and disadvantages, will influence thedevelopment of a virtual learning community.Ultimately we came to the conclusion that we needed a method we could use to provide a trustworthy measure of whether we actually had a community. Community is an elusive concept, but we needed to determine whether or notwhat we were looking at met some kind of criteria. We developed an elaborate methodology for examining thequestion and reported them as a set of approaches that could be used to measure and understand the characteristicsof community (Schwier & Daniel, 2007). The categories of analysis included identifying a sense of community,isolating characteristics of community, comparing characteristics of community, and modeling community, and wemapped the methods of analysis we employed onto the categories of analysis we intended to conduct (see Table 1).The flow of analysis moved from first measuring the perceived existence of community by participants in thecommunity. Then we attempted to isolate characteristics of community and determine the relative importance of thevarious characteristics. Finally, we built a dynamic model from the data that represents the interrelationships amongvariables, and that can also be used to project the effect on the community when the constituent elements are
 
changed.
Intention of analysis Method of analysisIdentifying a sense of community
:Did participants develop a sense of community?Did the group patterns of interaction suggest that acommunity might exist?-Sense of community indices-Density and intensity of peripheral participation
Isolating characteristics of community
:What characteristics of the online learning communitieswere manifest in the groups?-Transcript analysis of online discussions, chat sessionsand email-Frequency count of characteristics-Interviews with participants
Comparing characteristics of community
:What was the relative importance of each communitycharacteristic?-Thurstone paired comparison analysis
Modeling community
:How can the observed community characteristics beused to model the relationships among and influence of significant elements on community?-Bayesian belief network Table 1. Questions and Associated Methods of Analysis for Examining Characteristics of Community in OnlineLearning Environments.
Model of a Virtual Learning Community
Using these analyses, we developed and tested a model of virtual learning communities, primarily drawn fromresearch on post-secondary level courses offered as blended environments that were primarily online (see Figure 1).In this description, I will not elaborate the model in depth, but I will call attention to two things: its three concentriccircles, and the elements identified in the outer ring of the model.The three concentric circles of the model suggest that communities exhibit a number of elements (in this case 13 wehave isolated in our research to date) that interact within a group that emphasizes a principal intention or set of intensions. The interplay of elements will differ, we suggest, as the emphasis of the community differs. Forexample, a community of ideas may exhibit a different constellation of elements than a community that emphasizesrelationships, but this is only speculation at this point, as we have not systematically studied interactions amongelements and emphases. The inner circle, catalysts, identifies the central importance of communication in acommunity. It acts to initiate community, and plays out progressively as community develops and participantsexperience awareness, interaction, engagement and alignment with each other.

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