Vol. 16 : No. 5< >
Editors Note: This paper, Creating an Online Community, is a group project produced in a five-week online UMUC class taught by Professor George Takacs. Materials like this provide convincing data that online learning supports both sound scholarship and substantive interactivity. This excellent research is well worth a serious read, including the biographies of the five authors. They call themselves "The Survivors".
CREATING AN ONLINE COMMUNITY
Presented by the Survivors:
Online communities in an educational setting exist, evolve, and are enhanced with communication protocols. Katherine Mieszkowski (2000) defines community as a "market space" that allows people with shared needs to swap ideas, trade experiences, and learn from one another. In the development of such online communities, communication between prospective members of the community is essential – creating avenues of communicating and defining topics that meet the interest and shared needs of an online community’s “residents.” One purpose of this essay is to highlight the positive role of communication protocols in an online educational setting, which include establishment of synchronous and asynchronous communication exchanges on technological, pedagogical, field specific and personal levels.
TECHNOLOGICAL COMMUNITY BUILDING
Online education replaces the standard physical classroom with virtual space. Face-to-face verbal and non-verbal communication are replaced with virtual space and computer mediated communication, and for the most part written communication. We use technology to bring together the members of the community in the most effective and unobtrusive way. The online education system must be reliable, easy to understand and work in, provide a clear and visually ergonomic workplace, and be navigable by members of all technologic skill levels. Operating instructions and support services must be readily accessible from within and outside the system, just as avenues to the instructor or community guide must be clearly defined. Current technology tools available for online communities include chat rooms, threaded discussions, email, list serves, bulletin boards, web sites, and virtual libraries. A challenge identified by Mieszkowski (2000) is that "most successful online communities are the ones that…help members meet one another face-to-face in the real world." If, as in the case of Webtycho and the UMUC educational programs, face-to-face meetings are not possible, this disadvantage must be overcome with effective design, by utilizing a variety of ways in which students can complete their assignments and communicate with one another and the facilitator (Solloway & Harris, 1999). In this way, students might gravitate toward the technology or technologies with which they are most comfortable. Surveys of previous and existing participants to ascertain their levels of technological prowess will help develop online tutorials directed at helping students learn to use each technology.
PEDAGOGICAL COMMUNITY BUILDING
The online instructor is the only person who knows or envisions where the community is to go, and how it is supposed to develop. The instructor establishes the rules of exchange with two thoughts in mind. On the one hand, communication is to be facilitated and encouraged by judicial choice and guidance of the methods, frequency and contents of communication. At the same time the academic performance of the members of the community are to be judged on the quantity, quality and development of their contributions. To take advantage of opportunities for development, members must contribute regularly. The conflict between the desire and necessity of contribution, and the pressure of evaluation experienced by the students, represents a special challenge for the instructor. How can a competitive and performance-oriented environment make students feel at home, and feel free to float ideas and thoughts? As Rheingold (2001) suggests, "The most important context in an academic setting must be an explicit and well communicated attitude of exploration and experimentation, with the focus more on learning than on the success or failure of the effort." Kimball (1998) refers to this as "managing culture," or setting the kind of communal atmosphere one wants to create, suggesting that this can be accomplished by stating explicitly the kind of atmosphere to be created (i.e., what styles and behaviors are acceptable, etc.). For example, the facilitator could delineate various rooms, or conferences, in which the rules of exchange can be clearly defined in accordance with the type of communication desired. One room could be a free-for-all, think tank or sparring ring setting in which everything goes, within agreed rules, and the participants know their comments will not be evaluated. The instructor could be excluded or present only upon invitation. Other conferences could have formal rules of engagement, clearly defined tasks and goals; anyone who enters that room knows that performance is to be evaluated. The ring is real, and the referee and judges are watching. The key, then, is to "establish simple and fair rules, and give the professors full authority to enforce them" (Rheingold, 2001).
Solloway and Harris (1999) believe the instructor's participation in the dialogue tends to restrict participants' willingness to explore their own interpretations, and those of their peers, as a result of his/her being perceived as "the expert." They suggest offering assurances that the instructor is not looking for interpretations that align with his/her personal opinions, but rather for students' own opinions, based on their own personal experiences. They further suggest facilitating "the sharing of students' ideas and new insights and encourag(ing) the involvement of all participants by posing pertinent questions." Finally, team projects and discussions can be used to encourage student collaboration. The key point is that the instructor ceases being the "sage on the stage" but rather assumes the role of the "guide on the side," and limits his/her comments outside the discussion area itself.
While judging the quality and development of the students' contributions, we must keep in mind that we should guide the development of their 'on-line voice', as well as their academic knowledge of the subject matter. Without a clear 'on-line voice', the judgment may be skewed to the advantage of those students who are more adept or experienced in an on-line community. Absent our 'on-line voice' training, we may never fully appreciate the academic abilities of some of our students.
FIELD SPECIFIC COMMUNITIES
People join the community because of a joint interest in the topics to be discussed and the academic goals to be reached. The instructor lays out the material, exercises, assignments and deadlines clearly, thus providing the students with unambiguous guidance. The subject matter also provides the nucleus around which the community can develop. Increasing proficiency (not to mention shared duress!) heightens the feeling of a joint experience and of greater community. However, the process also contains a danger for the building of the community. Those members not willing or able to keep up with the course progress run the risk of becoming alienated from the community. Of course, certain minimal standards are necessary to maintain membership, but it remains a task for the instructor and students to determine how much time and energy they are willing to invest to keep the community intact. All of these perils are inherent in the face-to-face classroom as well.
THE PERSONAL COMMUNITY
This area seems to be the most difficult to describe and even more so to establish and maintain. Each of the areas described above is involved in the personal communication between members of the community. A hierarchy is inherent in the community, due to the existence of instructors, students and different levels of academic and communication skills. This hierarchy determines and influences the relationships of the members and at least suggests the levels and extent of responsibility the members have for one another. Two approaches can be considered here.
One extreme approach would be to deny, as much as possible, the existence of a hierarchy. This would negate much of the responsibility the instructor, and perhaps the more skilled students, have for those more challenged by subject and community tasks (Solloway & Harris, 1999). Such a denial of hierarchy may result in students' dissatisfaction, since they are accustomed to an instructor in a traditional classroom assuming the role of leader and often referee. In the face-to-face classroom, students will often criticize an instructor who allows them to assume too much leadership or control. Gentle leadership is usually accepted by students in the face-to-face classroom, and should be accepted if the appropriate on-line voice exists. On the web, instructors must engage the students in a discussion and monitor the threads early and often to avoid "topic-wandering" Appropriate on-line voice is important, however, so relevant participation is not discouraged. We can encourage participation by acknowledging and commenting on contributions to the discussion, re-framing or expanding upon the original conference assignment or question to put the students back on task, and give a gentle nudge to those students from whom we have not heard.
The other extreme would place full responsibility on the instructor to lead the course and to maintain the community. This extreme would likely result in student boredom, frustration, and passivity. Lively and meaningful academic exchange and its proven benefits would no doubt be sacrificed.
It is obvious that neither of these extremes is desirable at the university level but it also seems obvious that each instructor and each community must determine for themselves where on the continuum they wish to establish themselves. The focus for establishing an online culture in this community should remain the students' learning.
Kimbal, L. (1998) "Managing Distance Learning—New Challenges for Faculty" in The Digital University (1998), Hazemi, R., Hailes, S. & Wilbur, S., Eds.
Mieszkowski, K. (2000) "Are You On Craig’s List?," Net Company, Issue 002, p. 26. Retrieved March 13, 2002, from: http://www.fastcompany.com/nc/002/026.html.
Rheingold, H. (2001, July). "Face-to-Face with Virtual Communities", Syllabus Magazine. Retrieved March 13, 2002, from: http://www.syllabus.com/syllabusmagazine/article.asp
Solloway, S. J., & Harris, E. L. (1999, March/April). "Creating Community Online: egotiating Students' Needs and Desires in Cyberspace," Educom Review. Retrieved March 13, 2002, from: http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/html/erm99021.html
About the Authors:
Louise Bailey, J.D., is a lawyer and currently serves as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Maryland in the Educational Affairs Division, representing the University System of Maryland and other state colleges in a variety of real estate transactions. She earned her JD from the University of Baltimore and 2 undergraduate degrees from UMUC (Business Administration and Legal Studies).
Louise has taught 4 f2f classes at UMUC and will teach Advanced Legal Writing (Legal Studies) on-line for UMUC in the fall of 2002. Prior to coming to UMUC, she taught part‑time for 5 years at the University of Baltimore School of Law, teaching legal writing to first year students and trial practice to upper class students. She has also worked for bar exam review courses, critiquing students' practice essays to help prepare them for their bar exams.
Currently, Louise serves as a faculty peer mentor for new teachers at UMUC, and she also performs portfolio review for the UMUC EXCEL program (a program whereby students prepare a portfolio of their work and life experience in the hope of gaining academic credit for the experience).
In her leisure time, Louise enjoys photography, fishing, reading, and haunting second‑hand and antique stores. She also does some volunteer work – at UB, she has served as a "judge" for the law students' intra-school moot court competition and for the students' practice rounds for national competitions. Currently, she is a mentor for a first‑year law student at UB. Louise is also a mentor for a Tiffany, a beautiful, inspiring middle school student from Baltimore. They were matched via a mentor program sponsored by the Office of the Maryland Attorney General.
Louise may be reached at: email@example.com
Dr Boatwright has worked and taught in marketing and research for over 23 years. His academic credentials include an MBA (1970, University of Southern Mississippi), a Ph.D. (1980, University of Arkansas), and 27 published articles. Dr. Boatwright holds a full professorship and has over 10 years of academic administration experience up to and including a Business School Dean position. In addition to that, Earl has successfully founded two market research companies, one of which (Sterling Research Group, Inc.) is still operating in St. Petersburg, FL.
Currently, Earl is President and CEO of EWB Educational Consultants, Inc., consulting with schools and businesses, teaching MBA classes, and developing and teaching distance education and correspondence courses for a variety of educational institutions. He started teaching online for UMUC this spring. Dr. Boatwright may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Francisco Coronel Received his Ph.D. in Marketing and Management from Purdue University in 1977. Professor of Marketing at Hampton University for the past 12 years, Dr. Coronel has been teaching and doing research in international marketing, marketing management, marketing research and marketing process. He has taught statistics, finance, managerial economics and quantitative methods for over 30 years. His work experience spans the United States, Europe, Canada and South America. Professionally, Dr. Coronel has served most recently as President of FNZ International Services, Inc. He was consultant to Logistics Integration Agency and NCR; a financial futures and commodities trader for REFCO, Inc.; Vice President, consulting and marketing for ACLI International Commodity Services and a Senior Economist and Coordinator for the Chicago Board of Trade. He has received numerous awards and honors and has coauthored a textbook "Marketing Management" (1998). Dr. Coronel has an MBA and a master in Mathematical Statistics from Columbia. He holds a B.S. from MIT. He speaks fluent English, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Dr. Coronel may be reached at: email@example.com
Dr. Patrick Scott Dingle is a Science teacher at a private school in Lübeck, Germany. Patrick holds a doctorate in Geology/Paleontology with minors in zoology and philosophy from the Universität Kiel. He originally came to Germany as a serviceman and was stationed near Wuerzburg assigned to the 3rd ID, A Co. 3rd ABC as Huey crew chief. While in the army in Germany, Patrick came into contact with the University of Maryland University College. He will teach his first online course, Environmental Geography, for UMUC in August. Patrick and his wife, a Lutheran pastor, live in Mecklenburg, Germany. Dr. Dingle may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Mahla Strohmaier graduated from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in 1987 with a B.A. in Communication. In 1988, she received an M.S. from the University of North Texas. Her Ph.D. from Purdue University was awarded in 1997. Mahla began teaching at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in 1989. Her specialization is cross-cultural communication. In 1995 she began a long, fruitful collaboration with a colleague in the field of Computer Science. Since 1995, her publications have focused on computed-mediated communication and distance delivery. Within those areas, Mahla and her colleague have examined cross-cultural variables in the global virtual environment, ethics, information security, and faculty effectiveness in distance education situations.
Mahla and her family live in Fairbanks, Alaska. She may be reached at: email@example.com