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Posts Tagged ‘online’

So just how do you create and sustain an online community?

February 1, 2010 5 comments

I’ll start off by saying this blog post is NOT a ‘how to’ for community building. I have a good deal of experience with building community amongst a captive audience of students in online courses, but creating an engaging, voluntary online community is another kettle of fish, and I find myself seeking the council of those more experienced in this than I!

As part of the work I am doing for our ALTC funded ‘Learning to Teach Online‘ (LTTO) project at COFA Online, I want to establish a global online community for teachers, where they can get advice about teaching online, share their experiences, ask questions to solve their problems, and get some real help with the real nitty gritty issues that are part of the reality of teaching online. The community would also be there to supplement (read – add more depth to) the ‘how to’ videos and documentation the project will be producing.

This is both a very exciting prospect, and one riddled with anxiety and the potential whiff of disaster…

THE UTOPIAN VISION
Now in my mind this community would be a great place to drop in, where primary, secondary and tertiary teachers from any discipline, and any level of previous experience in online learning could meet each other and share the woes and success stories of teaching in any online format (fully online, blended, mobile etc). I have seen a few online communities out there that seem to gather momentum and gain a life of their own, and others that seem to wither and die with no real input from anyone. There are also other online communities out there for teachers, and some work well, whilst others, even though they have a vast amount of interesting pre-posted content, seem to fail. The difference with what I am envisioning here is that it would eventually be a large scale community, allowing the cross-over of ideas across disciplines, cultures and a myriad of teaching scenarios. It all sounds good in theory…

The LTTO project is all about sharing ideas and best practice in online learning and teaching different disciplines – trying to break past the ‘silo’ state that seems to exist in teaching practice to a large extent, by (for example) showing how the way someone teaches secondary level mathematics online can inspire the practice of a tertiary art teacher and so forth.

What I am hoping is that this concept can be taken much further with the help of the community – to increase the potential of this interaction amongst those passionate about online teaching to collectively evolve online teaching practice – to stop teachers working in isolation and provide mutual support – to provide a dissemination point of successful, proven strategies for the benefit of everyone else who is trying to achieve a similar goal…

THE FEAR!
What I am afraid of is that I’ll create another one of those communities where digital tumbleweeds will be rolling around amongst the deserted forums. I am asking for advice and tips from people out there who are involved in great lively online communities, or have established their own.

To me (and these are just my thoughts – not some kind of guaranteed list for success!) a good online community will thrive if:

  • There is a direct benefit for a member to belong and contribute (or even lurk) – ie you get valuable information that encourages you to participate
  • It is clear what the community is about and what its purpose is
  • Members are free to create their own content and take ownership of their online space
  • Members’ contributions are acknowledged and respected
  • Members can gain some kind of status and authority within the community through participation
  • Content cannot be too prescribed or over-moderated
  • There isn’t another community out there doing the same thing better!

Now to me the tricky part of establishing a community seems to be that people will eagerly come and take a look, but unless there is some very interesting content and discussions already going on, the tendency seems to be for people to leave. It’s kind of like not wanting to hang out at party with only a few guests. This seems to be what is happening with the community (to be) I have just set loose on the world. I guess I had hoped that people would start their own conversations but I have since realised that the tone for the community had not been properly set – to give people an idea about what can be talked about, what they can expect to get out of the community and how they can contribute.

On reflection my strategy to circumvent this issue should have been be to invite certain people into the community to begin with to start interesting discussions, before promoting it to strangers. I wish I had thought of this earlier actually as it makes complete sense – you’ve got to have the cool people at your party to create a vibe that is attractive to others.

A LITTLE HELP?
I know there are many of you out there who are involved in online communities, so I would love to hear from you – all advice is welcomed, and of course you are also welcome to pop into the community I am talking about as it currently stands and say hello, or even add your thoughts as to what would be useful and relevant to you! (please remember this is in its VERY early days, so not much has happened in there yet!).

I’m all ears!

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Can learning online be a more ‘human’ experience than learning face-to-face?

July 10, 2009 13 comments

Let me start by saying “I definitely think so”!

Well, I have started this blog to hopefully generate some interesting discussion about the issues surrounding the design, implementation and management of innovative, successful and appropriate online learning and teaching strategies for teachers today. This is my first post!

I have been teaching collaborative design related courses online for about 8 years now, and it has been a constant learning curve. However I have to say that my most rewarding teaching and learning experiences have been online, and if my students are telling the truth, the same can be said for many of them.

For me this has been a great source of interest – given that many academics (and students) still feel that elearning is an isolating, inferior, cost cutting, lazy way of teaching. Teaching online is just like any other form of teaching – it can be done well, and it can be done, erm, let’s just say ‘not-so-well’. For many years online learning suffered a poor reputation from many institutions throwing up poorly conceived content, usually in the form of course notes or lecture powerpoints, with no thought of how to engage and motivate students in this new environment. Anyway this is an old story so I won’t go into detail now, the point is that many teachers still don’t know how to effectively teach online, and this in turn results in dissatisfied students, crying that their online course is some kind of cop out by the institution – in fact a year or so ago, the students at my own institution rated their online learning experience so poorly that an entire department was axed and the whole approach to online learning reconsidered.

Back to the point of this post though. I have developed, supervised and taught in an online masters program since 2007, after teaching various online electives before that at undergraduate level. Students are participating from all around the world, and from a range of different disciplinary backgrounds. Interestingly, the age ranges of these students is an equal spread from around mid twenties to mid sixties, and most students have never learned online before, nor used many social networking tools (yes I was surprised too!).

I have been continually blown away at the level of interaction between the students, and the depth of the relationships that they form with each other in the course of their learning. I have NEVER seen my students invest so much of their personality, knowledge and experience into a class as I have seen in this online environment. They tell me (through informal online discussions, and in formal evaluation reports) that they have gotten to know and trust their online classmates better than any they have known in a traditional face-to-face learning environment, and I have to say so have I (I can remember everyone’s name for one thing, whereas in a face-to-face class I would master this task 2 weeks from the end of semester!).

The reasons for this I think are varied, but primarily I think this has to do with the following:

  • The feeling of anonymity that comes with interacting from behind a screen
  • Everyone gets the chance to contribute equally – no time limits or confidence problems speaking in front of a crowd
  • The design of the assessment tasks – focusing upon collaborative process and idea generation
  • Most interestingly – students’ preconceived reactions to a person’s age, sex or appearance and even disability are eliminated, meaning the social dynamics are more equitable

I have found that the willingness for students to help each other and share knowledge is much higher than in a normal classroom where social cliques are more prevalent. Of course a lot of thought has to go into the course design and the teaching/moderation of the course in order to foster a good level of interaction and trust, but I have found that the natural inclination of students in this course has been to be open, honest and high contributors on the whole.

In short I have found my online teaching to be a much more ‘human’ experience than any face-to-face teaching I have done before. I have gotten to know my students better, and have seen the trust they share with each other deepen improve their learning outcomes.

I would love to hear from other online teachers out there about their thoughts on this, have you found something similar with your online students? Why do you think this is, and how can we enhance our teaching practice to maximise the potential of the social dynamic it creates?

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