10 Strategies for Designing an Online Learning Community

For many of us, the teachers that we remember as being the most effective were those who had an innate understanding of how to help their students develop a sense of belonging in their classrooms while simultaneously maintaining high expectations for learning. I recently worked with a class of fourth grade students and their teacher for six weeks to design an online learning community that supported their face-to-face instructional activities. Based on our experiences, I compiled this list of ten strategies for developing online learning communities.

  1. Teach Netiquette at the Onset of the Implementation.  Teachers and students have to negotiate and establish the rules of communication and etiquette that determine how an online learning community will function.  As students become more comfortable communicating online, they are more likely to form a class community.  With clear expectations about appropriate interaction, teachers can assist their students feel an acceptance that can motivate collaboration.
  2. Incorporate Time for Social Discourse and Conversation.  One of our first online activities was to communicate through discussion forums.  We quickly noted that the students had some initial difficulty participating in online discussions about academic content.  However, when students described their Spring Break activities within an online discussion forum, they were able to relate and connect to each other’s posts in the discussion. According to Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder (2002), the sharing of common interests is necessary for operating within a community of practice, and it can lead to collaborative problem-solving and the development of shared understandings.  By incorporating social discussions we were able to establish and nurture communication that led to greater personal understanding, acceptance, and tolerance and eventually supported academic discussions.
  3. Encourage Opportunities for Student Collaboration.  As the students worked with each other to develop original projects and products related to their learning standards, they were able to learn more about the content. From the onset of this design of the online learning community, the students requested opportunities to interact with their peers in collaborative work.   This entailed less risk because they were able to help each other while collectively developing an understanding about a topic.  In turn, these shared learning experiences strengthened the bond among the students within the online learning environment.
  4. Provide the Students with Choices.  The students expressed that they wanted to make choices about the types of activities that they had to complete online.  They also wanted to decide how they should organize their collaborative work on their projects. When we developed activities for the students to complete online, we had to consider that new projects had to be explored, choices had to be incorporated into the design, and the students had to have opportunities for collaboration.  Students were able to use multiple modalities to show what they had learned, and their choices provided additional opportunities for differentiation and success.
  5. Encourage Asynchronous Participation.  A benefit of our online learning community was its asynchronous nature.  The students communicated with each other, worked together on projects, or used links to locate information or complete activities. The asynchronous work had an influence on work within the face-to-face classroom in that the students had large portions of time dedicated to online collaboration.  Whole group lessons became shorter and were usually reserved for providing directions or sharing strategies.  Therefore, the students practiced and developed additional skills in self-directed learning and self-motivation.
  6. Have Teachers Model the Learning.  The role of the teacher began to shift during the design of the online learning community.  She began to assume a more facilitative and less directive role in instruction, as she became a participant in the learning process.  She encouraged student interaction by asking questions and responding to their posts in online discussion. She was a mentor who suggested alternatives and possibilities, and she was an organizer who developed activities that engaged the students.
  7. Practice the Technical Skills.  It was more complicated for the students to complete a new project or product when they had no previous experiences with the skills needed to complete that project. As the online learning community was continually modified and we introduced new opportunities for collaboration, we realized that the students needed practice time in order to utilize the new technology tools effectively.
  8. Utilize Student Experts.  Online learning included some new challenges for the teacher and the students as the focus of instruction began to become more student-centered.  The participants were learning technical skills related to learning online that involved using new tools including features of the learning management system (LMS) as well as personal technology devices that they used to access the online learning community.  We utilized the students and their willingness to help each other as they learned how to work together.  This sharing of expertise helps to shape the online community of practice (Wenger, White & Smith, 2009), and as the members support each other, they develop new social bonds to assist in further collaboration.
  9. Develop Understanding through Discussion Forums.  An important feature of the online learning community that encouraged collaboration and interaction was the purposeful use of discussion. Through online discussion, the students expressed information that they wanted to know more about.  As the students interacted and communicated with each other online, they were able to develop new understandings from these social practices.
  10. Explore Personal Interests.  Throughout the implementation of the online learning community, the teacher and students began exploring and sharing their personal interests.  This communication helped to build the community, as students made meaning from their personal experiences and shared them with others (Wenger et al., 2009).  In addition, the students were enthusiastic about bringing their personal technology tools to school to facilitate their own styles of learning as they accessed the online learning environment.  The students were so knowledgeable about their devices and so willing to share this understanding with others that this small Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) initiative caused the interaction and collaboration among the participants in this community of practice to develop rapidly.

I am astounded by the determination of teachers and students to develop effective learning communities in spite of all of the obstacles that they face each day.  The challenge of maintaining one’s individuality while effectively working as a member of a group is a reality of life and making that connection is a key ingredient of lifelong learning (Thomas & Brown, 2011).  Collaborating and interacting within an online community facilitated support for learning; furthermore, these practices enabled the students to feel satisfaction as they explored their personal passions and interests.

References

Thomas, D. & Brown, J. (2011). An new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. LaVergne, TN: Createspace.

Wenger, E, McDermott, R. & Snyder, W. (2002) Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge.  Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Wenger, E., White, N. & Smith, J. D. (2009) Digital habitats: Stewarding technology for communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare.

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