Editor’s Note: Guy Bensusan called it Peer Learning. Sengé called it Communities of Practice. Others label it Communities of Learning. Regardless of name, it is a way to motivate, energize and empower cohesive team effort in live and virtual workspaces. It is the basis of a “flat organization” compared to a hierarchy. In online education it stimulates interaction, learning from each other, and shared responsibility. This paper explores the role of interactive communications in distance learning.
The Role of Distance Education
in Forming Communities of Learning
Elizabeth Hodge, Michael J. Bossé, Johna Faulconer, Martha Fewell
Distance education opportunities are growing at a phenomenal pace. With this rapid growth comes the challenge to ensure that distance education provides and promotes a learning community of trust and of quality for students. Transition to on-line instruction dictates the need to use technology to create a culture that allows for and encourages social aspects of human communication; a culture that takes into account both student learning and quality instruction. It is assumed that distance education most affects students learning when technology is integrated to facilitate communication—to mimic proximity. This paper explores the role of distance education and the importance of mimicking proximity by analyzing and reviewing social and psychological factors in facilitation of communication.
In an era of rapid technological change, educational opportunities for students are growing at an exponential rate. In the quest to incorporate innovative instructional strategies (Bannan-Ritland, et al, 2006), university faculty are navigating a steep and continuously changing learning curve. A variety of strategies are being investigated for use with both traditional and non-traditional distance education (DE) courses. Unfortunately, many of the DE courses being currently offered do not exemplify learning theories well recognized and accepted in the classroom. This discussion considers the importance of the application of communities of learning to DE environments and hypothesizes that DE most affects student learning when DE thoroughly integrates technology to facilitate communication and, thereby, mimics proximity among DE course participants. While the goal of this paper is to analyze and review the theoretical framework of the social and psychological factors (Cobb, Stephen, McClain, & Gravemeijer, 2001) in facilitating communication to mimic proximity in online learning, there is a need for continued research into the importance of the application of learning communities which mimic the social presence of on campus classroom experiences. Based on the theoretical framework provided, specific questions for future study are provided.
Learning, Socialization, and Communities of Learning
Education is a theory-rich field of study and some theoretical constructs regarding learning, socialization, communication, and communities of learning are now finding confirmation through various applications of research. The following discussion provides a brief review of some salient notions regarding learning that will, in following sections, be linked to concerns regarding DE.
Vygotsky (1978, 1986) states that learning is a social process, and Swan and Shea (2005) believe that this process is primarily found in the interaction within groups. Interaction and communication among group members lead to the formation of community, the construction of knowledge, and student learning (Brown, et al, 1993; Cazden, 1988; Cobb, 1994; Wertsch, 1985). In addition to interaction and communication among group members, Bielaczyc and Collins (1999) believe that for a community of learning to form, all individuals must be accepted and valued by all others.
Merten, Reader, and Kendall (1957) define socialization as the process of change by which “people selectively acquire the values and attitudes, the interests, skills and knowledge – in short the culture – current in groups to which they are, or seek to become, a member” (p. 287). Since education transmits and replicates the past while simultaneously connecting individuals in a manner in which new ideas are developed, Wenger (2002) argues that education transcends socialization.
Communities of Learning.
Students learn through communication in, and participation within, a community. Educators have delineated a number of factors which lead to the development of communities of learning. Some of these are presented herein.
Paloff and Pratt (1999) delineate five indicators of community. These include: active interaction of both content and personal communication; evidence of student-to-student collaboration rather than teacher-to-student communication; socially constructed rather than teacher dictated meaning; resource sharing between students; and encouragement, support and constructive criticism between students. Within formed communities, Rovai (2002a, 2002b) observes the active dimensions of: learning, that is related to the quality of individual construction of understanding; shared beliefs, concerning the attainment of learning goals and expectations; and connectedness, that relates to feelings of cohesion, spirit, trust and interdependence. Swan and Shea (2005) concisely synopsize the interrelation of knowledge and learning by stating that, “Knowledge … is inseparable from practice, and practice is inseparable from the communities in which it occurs” (p. 241).
Notably, as will be further discussed in respect to DE, when communities are effectively formed, a natural result is often the development of sub-communities within the whole. These sub-communities are often born from common interests, concerns, or goals. Thus, any member of a larger community may simultaneously be members of multiple additional sub-communities.
Roles and Interaction.
In learning communities, Bielaczyc and Collins (1999) opine that all members must both participate fully and be accepted by all others. As all members in the learning community become interdependent and interconnected, roles of all members shift. While Bielaczyc and Collins observe change from instructor centrality to peripherality and student participation to centrality as necessary for student success, Dede (2004) observes additional shifts among members including roles, relationships, power, discourse, centrality/peripherality, and the ownership of knowledge. The pattern of group involvement then becomes circular, as participant involvement leads to an identity within the community and acceptance by the community, which then leads to the individual developing a greater sense of self identity and opportunities for greater involvement in the community. Thus, as participation and interaction increase through changing roles, so too does learning by all members in the community. Summarily, the participation of all members plays a central role in the development and maintenance of any learning community.
Notably, the changing roles of students within a learning community also necessitate a change in the perspective of the instructor. If knowledge is socially mediated, the instructor is simultaneously a dispenser of information and a participant within the learning community responsible to interact with, listen to, and share with all others. As a participant within the community, the instructor also becomes a learner and should anticipate exiting the course with more information than he or she possessed when entering the experience. Therefore, throughout this discussion, the denotations “participant” or “member” refer both to students and faculty in learning communities.
Talk is the primary mode of communication within the communities in our culture (Wenger, 2002). However, since ideas are shared and knowledge is mediated through communication, mono-directional communication from the teacher to the students is insufficient to develop and sustain a community of learning. No less than tri-directional communication (teacher to student, student to teacher, and student to student) is sufficient to develop the level of interaction necessary to fulfill Paloff and Pratt’s (1999) indicators of community. Therefore, learning communities must continually focus on maintaining and increasing avenues of communication among all participants.
Generally speaking, since learning is described as the process of becoming part of a community of knowledge (Lave and Wenger, 1991), educators need to explore the social relationships that develop between students who are involved in learning communities. Additionally, as more courses become provided through DE modalities, the understanding of communities of leaning, and its inherent dimensions of communication and roles of participants within the communities, must be applied to the development of DE structures.
Distance education has been defined as “The process of extending learning, or delivering instructional resource-sharing opportunities, to locations away from a classroom, building or site, to another classroom, building or site by using video, audio, computer, multimedia communications, or some combination of these with other traditional delivery methods” (ITC as cited in Tucker & Hodge, 2005). A number of factors have been defined by educators as significant concerns within the development and offering of DE courses. Many of these factors are closely associated with concerns mentioned above.
Roles and Interaction.
The role of participants within DE course structures is central to the development of community. Interaction and communication among participants is necessary. Initially, in order to facilitate this participation and communication, an effective technological infrastructure must be both created by DE course developers and recognized by course participants. This infrastructure must first create an environment (social space) in which social activity is possible and then be adequately robust so to ensure that each participant has a voice (social presence).
Creating community uniting students with each other and with faculty is necessary to situate the learning in DE programs. While campus events, student associations, personal recognition, and proximity can unite on-campus students into a community of learners, no such links exist to unite online learners, many of whom are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. Brigham (2003) noted that online courses offered outside of a cohesive program lacked community, resulting in a higher rate of student failure than courses imbedded in a program with strong characteristics of community. As McPherson and Baptista-Nunes (2004) delineate, campus based learning environments create a multitude of student support networks. They provide health services, libraries, religious organizations, clubs, counseling and a variety of other social services to meet students’ needs. However, online learning environments often lack the social space to create these connections and bond participants together as a unit.
Physical social space consists of an area limited by its physical boundaries. In a traditional classroom, it would be where individuals could meet face to face to interact. In an online environment, abstracted in many ways from the traditional boundaries of physical space, creating a social space must be carefully considered. Constructing a framework through which virtual social space can be conceptualized, a number of educators (Lefebvre, 1991; Wise, 1999; McPherson & Baptista-Nunes, 2004) present three constructs regarding social space: spatial practice, the DE learning community; conceptual constructs, the virtual environment supported by technology; and representational space, spaces through which inhabitants can associate by means of images and symbols. By creating a virtual social space educators are in fact mimicking proximity and creating communities of learning.
Most attempts to create real world spaces in the virtual world lack authenticity, resemble abstract data spaces envisioned by sci-fi authors, and fail to yield the results wanted by educators (Guynup, 2003). By creating a common, on-going, and informal virtual social space for students to share questions, personal or professional successes and challenges, resources, and other insights and perspectives, the online environment is constructing an area that mimics physical social space. By creating social metaphors that mimic the social spaces traditionally found on campuses such as cafes, hall talk, lounges, galleries and social calendars, students are able to develop meaningful social relationships with one another that will create another outlet to receive support. Through these collaborative tasks, students not only are encouraged to take ownership of the learning experience, but also to build meaningful relationships among themselves, their environment, and the content. Furthermore, in such a virtual social space, traditional barriers and assumptions that separate learners from important resources and social interactions are erased (Dickson & Segars, 1999).
Social Presence, Roles, and Interaction.
All educators are familiar with students who only minimally interact in regular classrooms. These wallflowers are often nearly mute in respect to their instructors and some are sufficiently socially isolated so to make them almost invisible in the community at large. These students would be said to lack social presence in the classroom. Although this student may be physically present in the community, a social distance separates them from participation in the community.
In respect to social presence and distance, Moore hypothesized that “there is a positive relationship between distance as measured by individualization and dialogue, and autonomy” (Moore, 1972, 83 as cited in Jung 2001). Moore later argued that the degree of distance, or separation, between teachers and learners is a function of the extent of dialogue, rigidity, flexibility of course structure, and the extent of the learners’ autonomy. Therefore, although students may be members in DE course, they may suffer from social separation from the group and my not experience a social presence.
Social presence is composed of two distinct, yet interrelated, directed recognitions of a person within a group: the individual must feel that he or she is a viable and valued community member and the community must accept the individual. The former is connected to the role individuals play within the community and the latter with the level of interaction and communication experienced among members. Within a community, learning by individuals is enhanced when they experience empowered roles defined as independent (Wedemeyer, 1981) and learner-determined (Moore, 1988, 1994). Keegan (1986) states that the learner needs to have control and take responsibility for the pace of his or her own progress. Thus, the role of independence leads to social self-awareness within the community. Community acceptance of each individual evolves through high levels of interaction, discussion, and feedback within the community’s social space (Perraton, 1988). Gorsky and Caspi (2005) integrate these two dimensions by stating that, while learning is an individual activity, it is mediated and facilitated by intra/interpersonal dialogue which is enabled by structural and human resources.
Social presence is inextricably interconnected with the roles of student participants in DE courses. In DE learning communities, student participation and interaction become the central concerns for the learning of all. As changing roles within DE learning communities place more onus for learning upon students, they are reciprocally empowered as learners and benefit from the interaction of all participants.
A number of research studies have examined the above principles surrounding distance education environments. These studies have focused on the various instructional strategies used to create a social environment rich with interaction. According to Jung (2001) these studies directly or indirectly substantiate that the emergence of online communities is reinforcing a social presence rather then furthering the students feeling of isolation.
Meyer (2003) describes a three-stage process by which a community is formed in a computer-mediated asynchronous distance learning class: making friends, community conferment or acceptance, and camaraderie. Each stage represents a greater degree of engagement in both the class and the dialogue over the previous stages, and greater levels of interpersonal bonding or affiliation. The consequences for students of building community include improved confidence expressing oneself, learning from others, and feeling connected and accepted (Meyer, 2003). These stages coincide with the development of self-awareness and corporate acceptance within social presence.
When both dimensions of social presence solidly exist within a learning community, students feel the freedom to simultaneously participate in sub-communities within the whole. Within a DE environment, this phenomenon was observed by Fewell, O'Connell, Silvers, and Bossé (2006). Bossé and Rider (2005) further noted that, although a learning community could loosely form via online communication and could be solidified by members sharing increased numbers of common interests, no aspect more affected the solidity of community than did physical proximity.
As a DE infrastructure can be a vehicle for “electronic talk”, the accompanying dialogue within a DE environment is necessary for supporting learning through the formation of concepts, ideas, and new understandings. Lave and Wenger (1991) discuss the concept of learning as not simply internalizing information and knowledge, but as a personal transformation defined by participation in a social community. This transformation requires extensive communication and interaction among members. Comments regarding the allowable and recommended content of the communication among DE course members are being postponed to following discussions.
Obstacles to Creating Community in Distance Education.
Even with the variety of new instructional strategies available for teaching in a distance education environment, many educators still place their lecture-based content online (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). By not attempting new methodologies, (Besser, 1996; Carr, 2000; Kerka, 1996; Swan, 2001), the traditional face to face material, has caused problems with retention, decreased levels of learning and low satisfaction rates.
Many educators believe that, with the inclusion of various asynchronous and synchronous computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools, they have alleviated a variety of barriers to communication among DE course participants. Unfortunately, most of these CMC activities neglect to focus on the social networks necessary for students to achieve (Wenger, 1998). By failing to address various factors associated with forming community in online learning, many educators are contributing to feelings of isolation among online students (Berge & Muilenburg, 2001). However by implementing various models (e.g., Pallof & Pratt, 1999), online courses can be designed around the concept of community, incorporating collaboration, focused and shared goals, teamwork, interaction and feedback, and engaged, constructivist learning activities.
Proximity Through Communication
Purpose for Communication and Challenge for Developers.
There appears to be a race among many DE developers to pack as many communication tools into the infrastructure of their course as possible. While email, phone communication, videoconferencing, posting biographical information to the internet, discussion boards, and online chats each have their successive strengths and weaknesses (Bossé & Rider, 2006), and altogether these and additional communication tools provide a robust framework through which participants within a DE environment can interact, the number of these tools which are employed is of lesser importance than the purpose for which they are to be used. Since communication and interaction are vehicles for creating community and proximity may most greatly affect the solidification of community (Bossé & Rider, 2005), the purpose for employing technology based means of communication must be to create an interactive environment which mimics proximity among participants.
The concept of creating an online community (Mann, 2005) assumes that there is a pedagogical focus on establishing social interactions to reduce alienation. Thus, building a technological infrastructure capable of facilitating the development of a learning community by mimicking proximity is the primary challenge of those who develop DE environments and courses. The tri-directional communication among students and teachers necessary for learning (Wenger, 2002) must be technologically replicated in DE. Establishing a sense of belonging by mimicking proximity in learning communities can counter students’ common feelings of isolation. DE course developers must take advantage of synchronous and asynchronous communication technology to create a sense of community within the course structure.
Content of Communication.
Research demonstrates the value of DE participants openly communicating about personal concerns. Students involved in a study focusing on learning communities (Anderson, 2004), cited various ways to overcome the isolation involved in distance education courses. For many students, the ability to engage in online interactions with one another provided positive effects that did not associate directly to learning. Instead, these interactions helped students to develop friendships and support groups and create bonds with students that last throughout their college career.
To ensure that communication promotes, rather than hinders, the formation of community within a DE course, instructors must be aware of the nature of common communication within any group. Communication in any group is rarely limited to the course content, or even the day’s topic, and rarely is human interaction long devoid of extracurricular personal references. When instructors attempt to constrain all participant communication to academic pursuits alone, there is the possibility of creating a contrived environment which stymies the development of community.
It is important to develop an environment that establishes camaraderie, safety, collegiality and a feeling of belonging while reducing the sense of remoteness (Reil & Levin, 1990; Henri, 1992; Phillips, 1992). Incorporating social activities, interaction, and communication in an online learning environment helps to promote a sense of community. The social dimensions within any academic scenario must be considered. The social design of a course will have a significant impact on how students collaborate, share, discuss and reflect on course activities.
While creating an online environment that builds community among learners is a challenge, research demonstrates that it is worthwhile, develops camaraderie among students, and provides a strong network of support which fosters student learning and application. Students are able to work independently (fostering autonomy) while developing a sense of community which provides an outlet for thoughtful discussion and support from other community members.
As educators continue to generate new pedagogical methodologies for the delivery of online education, we may see a paradigm shift in the theoretical framework. No longer will educators focus on applying traditional lecture methodologies to online environments. Instead they will look to the social interactions that take place to ensure that students are not isolated in the learning process and they will focus on the need to provide a community of learners that wish to discuss, reflect and apply material to their own situations. It will be among these learners where distance education will shift from independent learning to mimicking the social presence of on campus communication among the various communities.
Utilizing the theoretical framework to address future application, specific research questions should be addressed:
How do new online methodologies facilitate or hinder educator’s ability to mimic proximity?
Is mimicking proximity in online learning environments effective for all students?
What type of instructional strategies best support mimicking proximity in online courses?
What are student perceptions of online communities?
Is adequate professional development provided for teachers to develop learning communities online?
Is mimicking proximity in online environments cost effective for universities? What are the hardware/software requirements and costs associated with each component?
As recommended in relevant literature, the challenge for educators is how to provide socially negotiated (Cobb, 1994) and authentically constructed (Brown et. al., 1993) online learning environments that mimic proximity. Within a DE environment, the social and collegial components play a critical role in learning. By technologically mimicking proximity, students are allowed to interact with one another emphasizing the social aspects of human communication, thereby contributing to the concept of trust, community building, collegiality, and socialization. These elements are necessary components of any successful learning experience and are even more important when a course is delivered primarily on-line.
Implementation of new technological approaches in online classrooms is challenging. With this rapid evolution, skills required of developers and users pose additional barriers to effective utilization (Dede, 2004). Integration of the technology used in any DE courses is only as valuable as it meets the end of developing a learning community and lacks value when it does not. The solution is in creating technologically sophisticated environments that facilitate communication and mimic proximity.
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About the Authors
Business, Career, and Technical Education
College of Education
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC 278585
Michael J. Bossé
Mathematics and Science Education
College of Education
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC 278585
Curriculum and Instruction
College of Education
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC 278585
Mathematics and Science Education|
College of Education
East Carolina University|
Greenville, NC 278585