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E Learning Communities

I am currently embarking on a course on the topic of e-learning communities. It is very early days so and I still feel rather bemused by the possibilities. However, we have been directed towards some good resources. For instance: The Art of Building a  Virtual Community:  I like the visual representation of  linking, lurking, learning and leading as components of an elearning community.  Apart from anything its easy to remember! It also identfies that there is a leader who holds it all together – this is contrary to a feeling I was getting that in these communiteis there is equality where everyone shares equally… a hopeful dream! In Derek’s model, the leader is referred to as a ‘commentator’. The community develop a culture – no doubt this will depend to a certain extent on the style of leadership shown.

We have now had the opportunity to hear Sheryl talk about her article and more! Great summary of a range of ideas that are central to coming to terms with the facets of Virtual communities. I particularly liked the the 4 types of virtual communities. These were: communities of relationship (trust); community of place (based on locale ) community of passion (committment to common goal; interest) community of memory (been through a common event). 

Great to hear some ideas about how to begin a community – this should belong in my section on Warm ups!! (or ice-breakers??) Hot or cold at the beginning – I am sure that there is an essay ini all of that!  The idea that there needs to be an incentive to get people motivated to sign up is important; the idea of an inspiring lecture from someone of note; facilitating a conversation about the central topic – begin with questions that are safe ie. people can respond on the basis of their own experiences.; could begin with simple ideas like introducing yourself – however, if there’s a big group that can become tedious…. I quite like the idea of posting your holiday snapshots (thanks Leigh for that idea!) or something similar so that the group gets a better visual idea of the life of other participants. Is a community of practice equal to a course or is it really only appropriate when people join up because of common interest?  Response was the if the community keeps on after the course, then it is may become a sharing community  – for its own sake rather than having to pass assignments. Of interest, there seems to be a big jump from the slide that talks about the various types of communites (see above) to the next one which refers to communites of learning (not mentioned on the slide about types of communities.) In fact, Sheryl suggested that learning environments were not true ‘communites’ Is this because  the ultimate purpose is to pass an assignment (an external motivator) and learn how to use the technology so that students have the skills to join an e-community? This would compare to being part of a community so that you can make connection with people for your own purposes – eg. professional issues, interest in crabs, cartoons or crafts …….. etc…

As with any learning community, the getting started and inspiring everyone right from the start is important. I am still waiting to get the feel of how to do this but am sure that others will have tried and tested ideas. Have now had some ideas about this following Sheryl’s discussion – I keep coming back to the idea that developing a virtual community is actually no different in principle than developing any sort of community. This feel like a SGO! (Stunning Glimpse of the Obvious).

Following the teleconference tonight (Aug 9th) with Oriel and others, I discussed my general feeling of being ‘out of control’ and wondering where the course was going. I was reassured that this is normal at this stage. Well, I don’t know about this – educationally it does not seem to be very sound and while I don’t expect to be proficient in the various e-learning strategies I would like to feel that I am making progress. I believe that clear parameters are the hallmark of any educational programme. Perhaps the clarity will evolve and I will be surprised. I hope so! Watch this space!

Just come across a resource that looks useful. ENO the ELearn Magazine. More about it later once I get a chance to review it properly.

A very good resource from Konrad Glogowski who spoke to the class using Elluminate. This is about instructional scaffolding in developing elearning communities. His talk was titled “Classrooms as 3rd Places”.  This explained well the need to develop a learner centered environment as the hallmark of such a community. He used the same arguments as those who promote student centred teaching in classrooms but it was interesting hearing some of the reality of this – how to get started, developing trust and confidence in being a elearner and the role of the teacher in all this. Clearly he was speaking from experience.

I happened to look up information about being client centered from another perspective and came across a list of characteristics of student centered teaching based on Carl Rogers work. This was in the Wikipedia – where else! I particularly like this quote:  “Students will collaborate on meaningful, authentic problems which serve to further their understandings of the subject matter and themselves”. It’s a reminder that this concept has been around for a long time. I wonder if its any easier to implement in ebased learning when compared to classroom teaching?

Learning communities that have face to face meetings versus those that are entirely distance based.

There have been various learning resources lately that re-enforce the impact of meeting face to face as an important component of developing an on line e community. For instance, in the article by Ubon and Kimble, they provide evidence for a social presence developing in the online learning community. However, they also state that the workshops accompanying the course were important as a foundation for later on-line learning. In Konrads article and his Elluminate session (see above) he also makes reference to face-to face opportunities. This made me think about my own on-line teaching as this is entirely via elearning without the added benefits of actually knowing the students through actual contact (although there are teleconferences).

Several things occur to me. In some instances the students know one another – because they trained together or work in similar areas of practice or the same region of the country. I would have to say that they spark off one another and bring a greater depth to discussions simply because they know one another personally.There are also some students that I happen to know – because they have graduated from a course that I teach on. It is easy for me to make direct reference to learning experiences I know that they have had which can assist in gaining a perspective that they might not think to share. All of which might mean that those who have no direct contact with anyone in the course may find the process more difficult.

On another course that I have set up with a Canadian colleague to bring together students across 2 courses, it was very noticable that the language used by the Canadian students (who knew one another as they had completed 1 1/2 years as campus based students) was very friendly, personal and made frequent use of first names – often in shortened form. They clearly knew who the ‘stirrers’ were in the class! So knowing other students personally certainly adds another dimension to e learning and to the development of a social network that could be hard to duplicate when it is entirely a virtual classroom.

Which brings me to my question. What are the best methods of creating an elearning community where the members can experience a social presence in the abscence of any ‘real’ social contact? I notice that my NZ group of distance based students are hungry for real contact and recently some made the point that it would have been good to have been ‘pushed’ to network early on with others – especially with those they are likely to have something in common. They seemed to need permission to make phone or email contact – or perhaps a specific task to ensure that it happens. If anyone has ideas I would be pleased to hear from you.

An article found on this web site: Scrib. is a very good resource on social learning (thanks Graeme!) It relates this type of learning to constructivism. Some interesting thoughts about social knowledge being the reason for the existance of the course. The approach used is ‘situated learning’ to explain how the learning community develops its  own knowledge as people work through the relevence of material for their own situation and share this knowledge.

I have been investigating the issue of how best to facilitate a class so that there is a sense of social presence. I came across this article by Rena Pallof & Keith Pratt that I thought had some very good ideas .. the ‘what to do’ stuff.  I like the quote “Technology cannot transform the pedagogy”.  Among the suggestions are:   

An “About Me” threaded discussion or personal Web Page (if a simple web tool is available) Students need to login to the course site at least twice per week for the duration of the class, read what has been posted by the instructor, as well as by other participants and post a thoughtful response. (this is clearly set as an expectation) At the end of the course, each student must post a ‘reflective piece’ in the “Electronic Reflections” discussion section. It should be a couple paragraphs describing what you’ve learned and what an online learning experience was like for you. This sounds a bit like a course evaluation.

Student buy-in is essential

  • Design activities to really pull them in
  • Relate the subject matter to their life experiences and being encouraged to seek out and share real-life examples will enhance the learning outcome and increase the buy-in factor.
  • Create a clear syllabus and course structure that is easy to follow but allows for flexibility
  • Create a course site that is welcoming, easy to navigate, and easy to post messages
  • Be a good role model by being visible on a daily basis
  • Be willing to make phone calls to people who are not participating to ask why and draw them back
  • Most important, strive to create community through interesting group discussions, sharing of resources and projects, peer evaluation, etc.
  • Create a discussion (threaded) where all students must post an introduction about themselves, and respond to at least two other participants posts (maybe looking for others who have common interests
  • Begin the course with introductions. Students should be able to introduce themselves and begin to know each other. Also include a leading question like “what do you expect to gain from taking this course?”, or “what type of background or related experiencesare you bringing into this course?”
  • Design lessons/activities around ‘real life’ or ‘high interest’ situations, then encourage peer-peer collaboration via discussion groups and ‘shared folders’. (NB. I have tried the use of shared folders and with all these things it worked for some and not for others. I do think that ‘high interest’ is essential to provide the motivation).

Community of practice:

I came across one of Eteinne Wenger’s articles on ‘supporting life-long communities’. He is highly influential on this topic so I thought I would have a look to see what he had to say. Love this quote: ‘they [communities of practice] are the cradles of the human spirit, but they can also be its cages’…. with reference to witch hunts also being community practices! Well now that we know they are not the be all and end all of good practice – what elements are considered to be important for the advancement of a community? Wenger identifies 3 dimensions of progress:

  1. Enterprise ie. the level of learning energy by those who take the initiative in setting it up. The spirit of inquiry must be kept alive.
  2. Mutuality ie. the depth of social capital whereby the members trust one another sufficiently to feel comfortable enough to address real problems.
  3. Repertoire ie. the degree of self awareness about who it is and its own state of development. This knowledge is used to move forwards.

He says that the community should consider the following elements: events, leadership, connectivity, membership, projects, artefacts. I thought the the leadership was a particularly interesting issue – especially as I struggle with coming to terms with this. He talks about not only needing a ‘community co-ordinator’ who deals with the day to day running of the group but also multiple forms of leadership which he refers to as ‘thought leaders, networkers, people who document the practice, pioneers etc.’ I guess this is a bit like any group where people take on one of a variety of roles but it is interesting that this is directed towards leadership status.Wengers blog is worth locating to look at what he says about ‘Communities of Practice’. He also advertises a workshop on this topic in Jan 2008 – at a cost.

Facilitating elearning communities:

Having heard so much about Gillies 5 stages of facilitation I have finally got around to seriously looking at this.  I had a look at the jazzy little interactive diagram (see link in the diagramme fo the 5 stages). I notice that it said for stage 5 that: “participants begin to challenge the system and conference” – well folks, we were obviously too quick to challenge it as this is not supposed to be achieved until the final stage! I wonder what was meant by that statement? I would have thought that I was about level 3 according to description of  the 5 stages. I tend to be a bit suspicious of stage models as invariably there is more ebbing and flowing than such a model might suggest. However, I do think it is helpful as a guide when planning a course as it does describe the different skill levels with technology. As the author of the above link says, at stage 5 the participants may well move out from the groups and pursue their own interests. I guess the group has served as a medium to provide the learner with skills and knowledge to do this; once achieved, the group becomes redundant. Will the day come?? I wonder! Somehow I think I would always need a ‘technology mentor’ to answer the many questions that seem to arise. Mind you, that means that it may no longer be a group / community of learners.

More on facilitation:

In an interesting article written by Phil Clegg & John Heap titled:  Facing the Challenge of e-Learning: Reflections on Teaching Evidence-Based Practice through Online Discussion Groups (August/September 2006)  They identify 3 levels of abstraction – relating to others; relating new concepts to practice and finally relating new concepts to challenging academic material. They then go on to describe the implications of each level for the role of the facilitator. They seem to be a very sensible approach and provide a way of thinkinig about the type of facilitation that  you provide.

Another interesting read is an article by Holmberg called “On the potential of distance education in the age of information”. I like the way this article considers very practical matters such as the presentation of teaching matter – demonstrates a sound understanding of education principles and how to get studetns beyond the point of learning the material to engaging with it and developing arguments. Towards the end of the article he makes 2 points about distance learning. The first is that students learn different things and because of this its important to keep the course flexible with resources available as students are ready for this. (Rather like the lecturer as a curator idea as discussed earlier?) The second point is that those involved with the course should take an empathic approach. This is achieved through what he calls simulated didactic conversation which concept he says has been tested.

I have just had a look at Cheryls contribution on her blog which is very useful – thanks Cheryl!


August 9, 2007 - Posted by | E learning communities | ,


  1. 🙂 I’m sorry you feel bemused Linda, but I hope you can see that we are attempting to treat you as an expert learner, and a researcher. With this blog and the suggested time frame of around 4 – 5 hours per week, I hope it is you that will take the lead and me and others that will respond to you. So when you post to your blog that you liked this and that link, I hope you will go further and summarise what it is that interested you, show an interpretation or idea you developed from it, and indicate where you intend to go from there. I and others can respond to this self direction with more links and connections, arranging for guest lectures (Sheryl – the author of the article you appreciated, will be talking with us on 3 Sept TBC) as well as this, we assist you with specific technical challenges – if we know you need help, suggest using the email forum to let us know.

    If you were a novice learner and without research skills then of course we would approach this differently and provide clear structure. If you are feeling novice and insecure with the self directing nature of blogged learning etc, then the Blackboard course offers a structured step through.

    Hope you’ll keep up the blogging.

    Comment by leighblackall | August 11, 2007 | Reply

  2. this is an excellent posting Linda. The range of technology options for you to explore and the explosion of discussion around the early activities and topics e.g. icebreakers may have been a bit unnerving….but this is the nature of communities. People of diverse backgrounds, wide-ranging skills and experience come together and are given choices….we very soon get off track as everyone’s different opinions and interests surface. This is not a bad thing in a class of “teachers” – as leigh says the structure is there if you want it or you can go off exploring and expounding as you desire.

    You have been doing a lot of reading I can see and thinking. Regarding your question I wonder if its any easier to implement in ebased learning when compared to classroom teaching? i.e. ”Students will collaborate on meaningful, authentic problems which serve to further their understandings of the subject matter and themselves”.

    I wouldn’t say it is easier just different and it comes down to the design of the resources you provide and the mechanisms for working on the problems. Case-based and scenario-based learning seems to work well online where practitioners come together to discuss their clinical experiences…sometimes easier as you know to write in-depth and articulate ideas online rather than having to express oneself with people watching.

    Re your other Q “What are the best methods of creating an elearning community where the members can experience a social presence in the abscence of any ‘real’ social contact?” No doubt you have developed some ideas on this already since reading the material on social presence and attending Konrad’s session.
    In my experience, regular synchronous meetings online worked well with Registered nurses to provide socialisation – we only had text chat – so with the use of something like Elluminate, providing everyone comes with a microphone, people will get to know each other. It is like a tutorial and to encourage attendance, if you need to, you could invite speakers like we are doing who speak for a short time and then field Qs and vary the times to everyone gets a chance to come.

    In this course, we are trying to model different facilitation methods for you to try and “chew on” and decide if they are relevant for your teaching situation. Don’t expect to get all the answers at once – they will come.

    Comment by bronwyn hegarty | August 26, 2007 | Reply

  3. Hi Linda

    You know your question “What are the best methods of creating an elearning community where the members can experience a social presence in the absence of any ‘real’ social contact?” is so important. I facilitate our aquaculture program for remote students, and it is so hard.

    I do fortnightly elluminate session (at night), which is optional, for exactly this reason to increase social interaction and I encourage them to log in early so that they can talk freely with one another. I also freely encourage them to interact with me via Skype and Google Talk. Unfortunately most of my students are not tech savvy, so it does feel like a struggle. Several times a year I run practical workshops which they attend to gain their practical skills – that definitely does help.

    If you are faciliating using a virtual classroom – Check out Ruth Clark’s book The New Virtual Classroom.


    Comment by Sue Waters | August 26, 2007 | Reply

  4. Thanks for your comments Sue and the reference. Do all your students have microphones so they can engage in the elluminate sessions? I agree that talking together without a lecturer is a good thing and I sometimes come in late deliberately to teleconferences so that this can happen. I notice that the conversation can change when I am on-line! The cost of a teleconference is always hanging over the use of this medium so other aspects as you mention are probably cheaper – perhaps its cheaper to provide equipment for elluminate than to pay for teleconferences. Now there’s a possibility!
    I thought that maybe our students had a particularly high need for the social aspects so its interesting to see that this probably occurs across courses.

    Comment by Linda Robertson | August 27, 2007 | Reply

  5. Unfortunately not all my students have microphones. There seems to be two barriers – probably the fear of the unknown with Elluminate (one more bit of technology they have to use, and for a person that is a reluctant user just the thought of being asked to download Java can be scary) and choosing a headset. Yes, I think perhaps headsets should be supplied however considering with my units they are not paying a lot economically it may not be a good idea. Probably I should send them a list, when I send the email for the session, letting them know the costs of some headsets and where they can purchase them from.

    Normally what I do is log in early and then set it to away. So I will monitor the situation just in case a new student needs assistance. This way they can chat freely.

    You know that if you don’t currently have access to Elluminate you can get yourself an Elluminate vRoom for free, and can use it for up to 4 people 24/7, 365 days per year. Some lecturers use it as a drop in area where students can catch up with their lecturers informally.

    PS Ask Leigh to find the link for Ruth Clark’s elluminate session for the E-learning community networks – really worth watching to.


    Comment by Sue Waters | August 27, 2007 | Reply

  6. I have not heard of the Elluminate vRoom – is the limit of 4 people related to how many can use it an any one time? (rather than 4 students in total). Will get on to Leigh re Ruth’s book.

    Comment by Linda Robertson | August 30, 2007 | Reply

  7. It is related to a total of 4 people at anytime. So you can use it to connect with students, but max of 4 people can enter. Maybe Leigh has a copy?


    Comment by Sue Waters | August 31, 2007 | Reply

  8. Hi Linda,

    A comment on your method of repeatedly editing your posts.

    I understand that you’re doing this to keep all of your reflections on each subject in one place. FYI – my experience of trying to keep up with your blog through RSS is that each time I get an alert that there’s a new post, I have a look and most of the content is the same. It’s too much of an effort to read through the post to determine what is new & what I’ve already read, so while I did this at first, now my tendency is to just skip to the next feed.

    It’s a pity, because I often enjoy reading your posts.

    A way to keep the content together without repeatedly editing would be to use tags which relate to the subject areas that you are interested in writing about. Then if you want to view all of the posts about “e-learning communities” you can easily do it.

    Comment by David McQuillan | September 13, 2007 | Reply

  9. Thanks for the comment Dave – tags sound like a good idea, but I don’t know how to do this. I am aware that I have a bit of a mix of info on the Blog – it often confuses me! Part of this is learning how to set it up. I am learning – honestly!

    Comment by Linda Robertson | September 19, 2007 | Reply

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