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Creating Community in Online Courses Exploring Transactional Distance in the Virtual Classroom Joshua D.

Simmons Boise State University Spring 2013 EdTech 504 Theoretical Foundations of Educational Technology

CREATING COMMUNITY IN ONLINE COURSES Abstract The matter of creating community in education is not new, but building community in the online course is vastly different and requires rethinking instruction


from the most basic level. The use of technology in education is bridging the gap between physical locations and time; however, a student may feel alone or discouraged due to transactional distance. Narrowing transactional distance is essential to creating a thriving online learning community. Many instructors struggle transitioning from the face-to-face classroom to the online environment. By creating community in online instruction both student and instructor will engage in a more meaningful learning process and feel a sense of camaraderie. Community is a natural outflow of humans working together. Technology is a means or tool for enhancing this collaboration and can be seen as a conduit through which knowledge can be exchanged. Ultimately, the delivery of educational content is changing and instruction must keep up with the demands of students.

CREATING COMMUNITY IN ONLINE COURSES Creating Community in Online Courses: Exploring Transactional Distance in the Virtual Classroom Introduction Many years of research have been conducted on creating learning environments focused on building community within the classroom. Teachers have spent numerous


hours constructing classroom activities that give every student a chance to participate and gain knowledge through hands-on experiences. The emergence and ever-growing popularity of online courses raises the question of how to create a sense of community for online learners. Online courses have grown especially popular at the college and graduate level with thirty-two percent of higher education students taking at least one online course (Allen & Seaman). The college classroom dynamics may vary dramatically based on region, socio-economic backgrounds, race/ethnicity, language barriers and age. One factor driving the broadening of these demographics is the return of many non-traditional adult students to the college classroom. Nearly forty percent of postsecondary students are over age 25 (Newbaker, 2012). Despite struggling to use technology, numerous non-traditional students find the online platform conducive to their busy schedules and full time jobs. Gerald C. Van Dusen (1997) says, “there is again a pressing call for technology to provide expanded higher educational opportunities to a very wide spectrum of present and potential clientele” (p. 11). The task is difficult, but if community can be created in a virtual classroom, the process will be more effective.



Beginning in the 1940s, audio and visual technologies began finding a place in the classroom. The technologies were often viewed as aids to instruction and were not a vital part of the curriculum. In The 1950s, the federal government placed an emphasis on educational television with the National Defense Education Act of 1958. Van Dusen (1997) states, “in the 1960s and 1970s the systems model and concepts of educational technology were developed to provide the framework for integrating what we have learned from behavioral science, cognitive psychology, and communication theory”. He attributes the major change in course design and curriculum to this new style of thinking about instruction. This change in education brought about Mastery Learning, Computer Assisted Instruction, and eventually the virtual campus. Colleges and universities felt the change in education in light of improving technology and its adoption as tool of choice for many faculty members. Falling prices of personal computers through the 1990s and early 2000s make it possible for nearly every college-aged student to afford their own PC. Communication technologies have given institutions across the globe the opportunity to interact on a daily basis. An everincreasing “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) model on the college campus is causing infrastructure to be tested and improved. Pressures for virtual classrooms, video conferencing, online courses and MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) create additional demand on the average college to provide cutting edge technology to all stakeholders. Students are now in locations around the country, and even around the globe, interacting in the same course. Distance learning is no longer defined by one set of

CREATING COMMUNITY IN ONLINE COURSES terms or rules; learning at a distant location, via a number of means, is commonplace for the modern campus. Concerns and Challenges to Distance Learning Changes in educational technology have not come without its‟ fair share of challenges. Distance learning has seen numerous ups and downs. Poor infrastructure has caused many frustrations along the way. Institutions could not handle or afford the demands for infrastructure and bandwidth. Many have perceived distance learning as a teacher-less classroom, and possibly with good cause. “The task of integrating the new


technologies into the mainstream of post-secondary teaching and learning, not to mention the broader organizational culture, is all the more daunting because of numerous obstacles and competing interest, which include: 1. A lack of adequate leadership at all levels of implementation 2. Overt resistance from an entrenched faculty and administrative culture, 700 years in the making 3. De-emphasis of teaching over research, especially in tenure and promotion decisions 4. An increasing number of part-time faculty without adequate technical training or support 5. Inadequate startup and ongoing funding Overcoming such obstacles requires technology leadership that permeates the organization from top to bottom” (Van Dusen, 1997). One of the biggest factors facing instructors is the time required to design

CREATING COMMUNITY IN ONLINE COURSES instruction for a non-traditional classroom. Instructors must understand that the initial course will not be flawless immediately. Instructional design is vastly different when interfacing students on multiple campuses or even in dozens of locations around the world. Throw in the challenge that comes with non-traditional adult learners and the courses must be adapted even more. Once these initial fears are overcome, then the realization of transactional distance sets in. Transactional Distance Theory Transactional Distance Theory (TDT) refers to the cognitive space between instructors and learners especially in distance education. The discussion of TDT has become more prevalent due to the rise of distance education and online courses. TDT is built on the constructivist theory and relies heavily on the learner initiating the gathering of information. Many educators believe that active learners who engage the material and their classmates in the online or distance education setting can overcome TDT. The learner must engage in serious dialogue and even debate at times in order to bridge the gap in distance education. Michael Moore (1993) warns, “the greater the transactional distance, which is viewed as space for potential misunderstanding, the more responsibility is required of the student.” Faculty members often see the distance as too great to bridge. The fear of failing to connect with distant and online students is a fear worth examining. Sushita GokoolRamdoo (2008) says, “Learning happens through mutual sharing and negotiations of meaning between teacher and learner in such a manner that the locus of control shifts from one to the other constantly through the feedback process.” Transactional distance will be overwhelming if faculty and students are not engaging and interacting among


CREATING COMMUNITY IN ONLINE COURSES each other. However, experience and research show that with structure and dialogue the distance is not as great as once perceived. Shortening the gap created by Transactional Distance Theory in the online or distance course is possible but will likely require more work on the part of both the student and instructor. Online Community The idea of online community is not a new one in 2013. Social networking sites have been around nearly two decades (Romm-Livermore & Setzekorn, 2008). Facebook is the world‟s largest social media site with over 1 billion monthly users (Tam). Social


media spans all demographics bringing people from various regions, countries, languages, ethnicities, ages and socio-economic statuses into one common community. Users cross the barriers of these demographics and make the online community a cohesive group of people, not limited by time or location. Since the idea of online community is not new to one fourth of the population of our world, the question must be asked, why is there a struggle with the concept in the educational setting? Is it that educators do not believe community can exists in the online setting, or are educators challenged by the idea that the online environment often breeds equal or better community than the traditional classroom? If one is not true, than the other must be. The true consideration, and possibly fear, is whether students feel as if they are „distant‟ from the instructor and more importantly their peers. History shows that relationships are not bound by physical location. If this were the case, the recent trends seen in social media, not to mention online dating, phone calls or even letter writing would not exist. All of these items were developed as means to stay connected with each other. Just as each of these means of communication serves a

CREATING COMMUNITY IN ONLINE COURSES purpose, so must online or distance delivery in education. Jennifer Murdock and Amy Williams (2008) believe that community is “created when a group of learners set out to


achieve a common goal and learn with each other, despite the educational setting.” There is still a desire to feel connected and a part of the group even if the physical educational setting is becoming more irrelevant. Minimizing the affect of transactional distance is vital to the building of community in the online course. In community people create a unique complexity that cannot be forced into any certain „one-size fits all‟ compartment. Learners want a place that is safe to learn and express opinions and answers, even when wrong; however, they want to know that they are not alone in the quest for knowledge. Learners also want to know they are supported and guided by faculty. Faculty members are not asked to make the course any easier, but students do seek more involvement with the faculty when online as opposed to a traditional face-to-face course. Students want to feel a sense of camaraderie with their classmates as well. The idea of friendship or „we‟re all in this together‟ is often created using group or partner activities. A healthy online learning community will come about naturally if it is nurtured and encouraged along these principles (Lock, 2002). Humans are relational beings who desire contact with others. Therefore, the learner must be the focus of the learning community. Once the focus is on the human side of learning, issues, and often their solutions, will surface. Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt (2007) list issues that will surface in building the online learning community.    The need for human contact Connectedness and coalescence Shared responsibility, rules, and norms



Shadow issues (those elements we choose not to face) and other psychological issues

   

Ritual as the psychological expression of community Spiritual issues Culture and language Vulnerability, ethics and privacy (pp. 45-65)

Instructional designers and facilitators must note that the primary focus behind potential issues in a learning community is the effect on the individual learner. The concerns relative to the student within the classroom should be welcomed by the faculty member, whether a facilitator or instructor. Only when the faculty member is aware of potential issues in the ever-developing online community can the issues be resolved and the community reinforced. “Online education requires more than a software package that allows an institution to offer coursework online. In any setting, whether academic, organizational, or corporate, it is people who are using the machinery that makes the course go” (Palloff & Pratt, 2008). Learning together in community compliments the need for the human desire for relationship. Students gain and share knowledge within a learning community similar to that of a professional in a workplace. It is almost the idea of being submerged into the learning environment to the point where community is built, even if out of necessity. However, it is clear that course design must use technology to encourage collaboration and content sharing between students. Instructional design is immensely different for the

CREATING COMMUNITY IN ONLINE COURSES online course and must focus on community. An instructor cannot simply upload


materials from a traditional face-to-face course to an online forum and expect a sense of community to blossom based on a forced reaction. Instructional design that does not take into account the task of bridging the gap created by transactional distance will not succeed in the online environment. “Social constructivist learning activities, such as collaborative learning, promotes more interaction among students, may require fewer overall demands on the instructor‟s time during the class, and results in a better learning experience” (Ouzts, 2006). The idea of peer learning in a social constructivist-learning environment is nothing new. However, the approach to peer learning in the online environment must be handled with an altered approach to the traditional classroom. Forced discourse is a common idea in online learning. A student may choose to be silent in the face-to-face course. However, student interaction should be a clear expectation through chats, discussion boards and activities when the same course is delivered online. The instructor must set forth expectations for peer discussion from the onset of the course in order for useful discussion to take place. Expectations often include a certain number of posts or discussion topics, a reflection on serious scholarship and academia, personal experiences and a demonstration of higher-order thinking. Dorit Maor (2003) gives a great understanding of the differences that must come into account when designing instruction for the online course. “Do students understand the assignments and course structure? Do they know how to navigate the web site? How does the instructor coordinate technical issues, external studies issues and pedagogical



issues to create a supportive learning environment? The management of the online course, to ensure the flow of discussion, may be achieved by:     Providing a well structured and easy to navigate website; Providing clear guidelines and course criteria for participation; Providing criteria for student assessment; Providing constant support for students and ensuring that assistance is available if required;  Intervening in discussions if dialogue between students stalls or goes off track; and  Be flexible to accommodate unforeseen problems and issues” A shift must be made from individual to collaborative learning. Students need to reflect on the knowledge gained, as well as the input from their peers. The approach to instruction changes from an instructor or expert-centered methodology to a student or learner-centered environment. Maor adds, “From my previous experience with online teaching I have learned that using informal conversation serves to create a commitment and greater enjoyment for the learner” (Maor, 2003). Designing a comfortable learning environment is becoming more commonplace for many instructors. The massive chasm existent between student and professor is being rapidly narrowed to an understanding of learning as a life-long process. The previously held notion that a PhD has arrived at the height of academia is taking a backseat to the idea that learning is ubiquitous and can traverse the communication gap from instructor to student, student to instructor, and student to student. This is clearly a picture of a learning community.



The creation of community in the online class is dependent upon two key players: the instructor and the student. Lack of dedication and constant work on the part of either party will result in the failure to learn in community. However, if both the instructor and student work to foster dialogue, encourage open learning, discuss challenges and accept critique, the community of learners will develop into an environment where people, relational beings, can flourish together. Conclusion Knowing that creating community within a learning environment is essential, whether in a face-to-face class or online class, it is imperative that open communication be encouraged through every aspect of learning. Online community is common. People are becoming more and more accustomed to living socially online. From sharing what one ate for breakfast to learning in MOOCs, the Internet is fostering social connections. Education, too, must become accustomed to „living socially online‟ if the classroom hopes to exist, in any form, decades from now. Community must exist or education will not; the delivery is irrelevant and in reality, only a means. Technology has transformed learning and will continue to do so. This is the time to embrace the future of learning and the community of online learners that ensue. Community seems to happen naturally and with little prodding, but that does not give educators an excuse to sit by and do nothing while technology leaves education behind. “The future of distance learning is more about creating community than exploiting technology, more about enhancing education than enrollments—and even more about academic courage, leadership and innovation” (Halfond, 2011). The next two decades will determine how true these words are.

CREATING COMMUNITY IN ONLINE COURSES References Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (n.d.). Retrieved from website:


GoKool-Ramdoo, S. (2008). Beyond the theoretical impasse: Extending the applications of transactional distance theory. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(3) Halfond, J. A. (2011). Distance learning 2.0: It will take a village. New England Journal of Higher Education Lock, J. V. (2002). Laying the groundwork for the development of learning communities within online courses. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 3(4), 395408. Maor, D. (2003). The teacher's role in developing interaction and reflection in an online learning community. Educational Media International, 40(1-2), 127-138. doi: 10.1080/0952398032000092170 Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.) Theoretical Principles of Distance Education. New York: Routledge. Murdock, J. L., & Williams, A. M. (n.d.). Creating an online learning community: Is it possible?. (2011). Innovative Higher Education, 36(5), 305-315. doi: 10.1007/s10755-011-9188-6 Newbaker, P. (2012, April 19). More than one-third of college students are over 25. National Student Clearinghouse Ouzts, K. (2006). Sense of community in online courses. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 7(3), 285-296. Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2008). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc Pub. Romm-Livermore, C. & Setzekorn, K. (2008). Social Networking Communities and EDating Services: Concepts and Implications. IGI Global. p.271 Tam, D. (2013). Retrieved from Van Dusen, G. C. V., & Dusen, G. C. V. (1997). The virtual campus, technology and reform in higher education. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, Graduate School