With the advancement of technology, the notion of community has changed; it is no longer a place-based concept. The authors provide a framework to help redefine the concept of 'community'. They underline the importance of developing a sense of community in an online course and describe the dynamics of online communities. They then provide suggestions to foster the building of online communities and finally, they delineate the outcomes that indicate that a learning community has been forming.
Redefining Community: Shaffer and Anundsen (1993) define community as a dynamic whole that emerges when a group of people share common practices, are interdependent, make decisions jointly, identify themselves with something larger than the sum of their individual relationships, and make a long-term commitment to well-being (their own, one another's, and the group's). In the past, involvement in community was assumed by where you lived or determined by your family or religious connections. However, today our communities are formed around issues of identity and shared values; they are not place-based. Thus, involvement in communities today takes a conscious commitment to a group. Shaffer and Anundsen refer to this as conscious community - meaning community that emphasizes the members' need for personal growth and transformation, as well as the social and survival aspects of community. Societal and scientific advances are having a significant impact on the way people interact and the ways they define notions of community. The words community and communicate have the same Latin rootšÝcommunicare, which means to share. Technology has helped us create a new form of social interdependence enabling new communities to form wherever communication links can be made. Howard Rheingold says that virtual communities are cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace. Thus, computer-mediated communication has helped shrink the globe while expanding the parameters of what we call communities. Our communities are now virtual as well as actual, global as well as local.
The process of community development is parallel to that of group development and goes through the stages of forming, norming, storming, performing, and adjourning. As people with a common purpose come together and start working out goals and norms of behavior, members begin to grapple with the negotiation of individual differences versus the collective objective and conflict occurs. This conflict phase is an essential element that the group must work through in order to move on to the performing stage. There is greater potential for conflict to emerge in electronic discussion because with the absence of face-to-face contact and cues, people feel less constrained to remain within the confines of socially appropriate behavior. Also, since distributed work groups resolve conflict through the transmission of written messages, it requires patience and hard work to achieve consensus. Another difficulty is that when the group does reach a decision, people have difficulty discovering how other group members feel about the decision that has been made.
The Importance of Community in the Electronic Classroom: A learning community is the vehicle through which learning occurs online. Attention needs to be paid to the developing sense of community within the group of participants for the learning process to be successful. For example, if a participant logs onto a course site on which there has been no activity for several days, he or she may feel discouraged or feel a sense of abandonment - like being the only student to show up for class. Instructors in this medium need to be flexible in order to let the process happen and allow for personal agendas of the learners to be accommodated. If a discussion goes in an unintended direction, instead of cutting it off abruptly, the instructor should gently guide that discussion in another direction, perhaps by asking an open-ended question that allows the learners to examine that interaction. Also, space for personal issues needs to be made and fostered in an online course. If this space is not created, it is likely that participants will seek out other ways to create personal interaction such as through e-mail or by bringing personal issues into the course discussion. Harasim et al. (1996) suggest that just asÜa campus provides places for students to congregate socially, an online educational environment should provide a space, such as a virtual café, for informal discourse.
Community in Cyberspace: Entry into the virtual community and maintenance of membership in that community entails a very different process. Some of the elements that must manifest themselves for the successful emergence of an electronic personality are
Introverts have less difficulty entering the virtual community because they are less outgoing socially, whereas the extrovert, with a need to establish a sense of social presence, may have more trouble doing so. Although face-to-face contact at some point in the community-building process can be useful and facilitate community development, the contact is not likely to change the group dynamic created online. Conscious community can be created electronically through the initiation of and participation in discussion about goals, ethics, liabilities, and communication styles, that is norms.
In a face-to-face group, assumptions about some norms are made but not necessarily discussed, such as rules that one person will talk at a time and that a person should ask to be recognized before speaking. But in an online group, no assumptions can be made. The collaboratively negotiated norms are even more critical as they form the foundation on which the community is built. Hence, all issues and concerns should be discussed openly.
Some basic steps that must be taken in order to build a learning community are:
Participation and Desired Outcomes in the Electronic Classroom: Although the instructor is responsible for facilitating the creation of the online learning community, participants also have a responsibility to make community happen. In a face-to-face classroom, one or more extroverted students can dominate the discussion, giving an illusion that the class is engaged. However, an online classroom provides scope for more participation as it allows time for students to think and articulate his or her comments before responding.
Additionally, because we are working in a text-based medium and in the absence of visual and auditory cues, participants focus on the meaning of the message conveyed. As a result, ideas can be collaboratively developed, creating the socially constructed meaning that is the hallmark of a constructivist classroom. This ability to collaborate and create knowledge and meaning communally is a clear indicator that a virtual learning community has successfully coalesced.
Desired outcomes that indicate that an online learning community has been forming are:
In conclusion, the authors warn that it is possible, in such environments, to foster the development of a community wherein strong social connections exist among members but very little learning occurs. Hence, it is important that the instructor be actively engaged in the process and gently guide participants who stray from the learning goals, thus ensuring that it is a strong learning community that emerges, not just a social community.
Articles like this one will help the lab personnel to initiate discussion and develop a common understanding of what we mean when we use phrases such as 'developing a sense of community'.
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