Below is a blog post that I wrote as part of an assignment for UMUC’s class OMDE 603 Technology in Distance Education & E-learning. See the original post here.
Merriam-webster.com defines community in three ways: as “a united body of individuals,” as “an interacting population…in a common location,” and as “a body of persons of common…interests scattered through a larger society.” Tom Adamski, former CEO of Rosetta, describes communities in his TEDx talk (2012) as “an organic construct” that is “built off of the elements of our human nature: our wants, our desires, our psyche.”
Communities are built naturally in a traditional education setting. Students interact face-to-face with other students in their classes and on campus. As they get to know their peers, they identify and connect with people with interests, challenges, and goals similar to themselves. Students can then turn to these connections for support and encouragement throughout the completion of their program and beyond.
These communities also serve as reminders that their studies should be a high priority. In a tight-knit class community, the absence of a student is not only noted by a professor but also by their peers. In classes where verbal discourse is encouraged or required, students must stay engaged in class conversation and up-to-date with the course materials or risk possible public humiliation.
Online education, unfortunately, does not offer students the same access to their peers as in traditional education. Communication is largely asynchronous. Students also do not have easy access to the personal characteristics of their classmates: their age, background, personality, interests, sense of humor, etc. This makes it incredibly difficult for students to connect and form communities in meaningful ways and that give them support (moral or otherwise) in their studies.
In cases where online classrooms fail to give students a sense of community, social media may be utilized to assist students with connecting with their classmates. Because communities are formed by individuals meeting in a common location, institutions can assist students in building communities by dictating the common ground where they will exist: Facebook, Google+, a university sponsored social media platform, etc. Profile features, similar to those found in Facebook, can be utilized to assist students with locating peers with similar interests and backgrounds (Ren et al, 2012). Centralized, free, and open discussion forums can be utilized to give students a common ground to meet and communicate.
Not all online students are comfortable with or have experience using social media. Instructors can further assist with institution-wide endeavors to build online student community through helping students to construct online communication literacy and social media skills. OnlineUniversities.com’s 2010 blog post 100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media In the Classroom contains a detailed list of activities instructors can add to their curriculum/coursework to assist students in building these skills.
Online communities have the potential to encourage student engagement and prevent attrition in online distance education programs. However, in order to take advantage of this potential, institutions must commit to offering students a virtual common ground to meet, as well as encourage students to use it. At the same time, because communities are built organically, institutions must allow students the personal space to use the virtual common ground and to make it their own. If institutions force students to participate in communities that they (the institution) feels is most necessary and beneficial, they risk low student engagement.
Adamski, T. (2012, December 26). Community – Making an old concept new [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AKfvRF_Mh8
Community. 2014. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved October 23, 2014, Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community
OnlineUniversities.com. (2010, May 4). 100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media In the Classroom [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2010/05/100-inspiring-ways-to-use-social-media-in-the-classroom/
Ren, Y. et al. (2012). Building member attachment in online communities: applying theories of group identity and interpersonal bonds. MIS Quarterly, 36(3), 841-864. Retrieved from http://www.misq.org/