online learning communities can get better. and they better.

I don’t think that online programs keep current with the technology, any more than face to face programs do. All educational institutions change slowly, creatures of habit and policy. Faculties in particular are slow to adapt, many of them still trying to move from overheads to power point.

Your typical online instructor is a little ahead of that, but not always by much. And in a relative way, still far behind. Social networking tools, for example, are available but rarely used- we feel good just to get a podcast up. But the future is probably much more dynamic than that- think FaceBook and Twitter. Quite frankly, I’m convinced that the future of technology in higher education is around the notion of collaborative learning- the synergy arising around concepts such as collective intelligence.

An occasional flurry of conversation offers only a glimpse of what we are in store for, but the future will require radical rethinking about how we structure and deliver learning. In what seems like a paradox, the future requires that we build more on individual strengths while becoming more of a team.

In a recent lecture Dr. Wayne Clugston of Bridgepoint Education, a friend of mine, sees it this way:

• Currently, in both our classroom learning and online learning environments, engagement is largely content driven and engaged in individually by students. This pattern will develop into learning that is more “issue” and “concern” oriented, with broader and more collaborative participation.

• This unifying phenomenon is only beginning to be understood. Ultimately, it allows a concern defined by an individual voice (or a few voices) in the remotest part of the world to unfold into a quest for solutions—offered by contributions of scholars, students, researchers, volunteers, innovators, friends, technicians, humanitarians, executives, clergy, politicians, economists, and others (all digitally connected)—introducing the potentiality for every moment of need becoming almost simultaneously a moment of learning-based response.

• Books, especially textbooks, have been used to sustain the university as the producer of learning, each attempting to offer an organized (even holistic) approach to a subject or an aspect of a subject. But, with the shift in our flattening world to a more consumer-defined learning environment and web-based knowledge stored in disaggregated units (bits), both the means of knowing and how we know are changing.

• There will be an identifiable movement from experiential learning toward entrepreneurial learning which involves the “assembling” of knowledge from multiple sources—rather than the present emphasis on its acquisition and experiential application.

Models like this will require more community, not less.

I take it as a given that real community—and real relationships— can exist online. We need to look no further than something like Second Life to see this, with real life marriages failing because partners are emotionally unfaithful with their Second Life counterparts.

But online community isn’t inherently dysfunctional like that. Community always exists where people share values and goals. One can experience community without a cohort, or course, but cohorts are one way to achieve this. We have some online cohort programs at Spring Arbor University where I teach, but the Masters of Communication program I direct was structured differently in several ways. Our courses are 12 weeks (in most of our other programs they are eight ) and concurrent. This prevented the cohort approach, because with the mid-career professionals we were primarily targeting some are taking one course and some are taking two at the same time.

We opted for a model we have struggled to implement, a modified cohort where we hope relationships emerge as entering students take the foundation course together and then may see each other more often in their concentration.

But I think the issue of community can be addressed differently, and better, by raising the stakes. If we were to create projects that mattered, that made a difference in the world, students would care more about the project and about each other. This gets back to the issue of shared values and goals and creates an environment where passionate people are vested in the outcome.

This then prompts the quest for solutions that Clugston noted, and evokes the assembling of knowledge around learning that is issue or concern based. In a context like this, I really believe lifelong relationships and collaboration could become the anchor of the learning enterprise and not the exception.

2 thoughts on “online learning communities can get better. and they better.

  1. Natalia Real says:

    I think that would be spectacular. Ideal, really. If schools and NGOs joined forces, it would encourage the masses to not just say, ¨Oh, how awful what´s going on in Darfur,¨ but also to become actively, politically involved. It would provide people with impetus. Many people don´t even know where to start when they care about a cause, and consequently many remain stagnant, never lending the help that so many others necessitate.

    This type of collaboration is crucial if we are to eradicate social injustice, and myriad other problems. Elearning would make mass humanitarian movements possible, exponentially increasing the numbers of people involved. It would make NGOs and others institutions bloom.

    At the same time, said institutions could have insidious goals. We can´t ascertain that only human rights, etc. organizations would become involved. But we can make the effort.

    I started following a blog and Twitter of Peace Corps volunteers in Congo. It was very disappointing – barely anyone was there to lend their services, aid, anything. Disheartening. Amazing. I couldn´t believe it. I had always thought there were more people mobilizing for these issues. But it makes sense. After all, it only keeps getting worse over there, and many a place elsewhere.

    Elearning communities have tremendous potential for humanity, for anything. It will happen.

  2. dontwasteyourtime says:

    The biggest single issue when tackling the ‘traditional’ teacher and getting them to think ‘e’ for their online learning materials is not using the tools; it’s convincing them that the time spent is worthwhile and that the rewards are, for the most part, worth it. I deal with mature elearners, who are often business leaders and so are very busy (and family leaders) with little or no readily-available spare time. They are also a real mixed bunch when it comes to technical capability so designing a course/unit structure to incorporate the types of elearning and web 2.0 tools that will benefit them is difficult as some of it is often beyond their comprehension. However, I have fould that with the right ‘guidance’ and the right ‘purpose’ even these difficulties can be overcome.

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