Building a Learning Community Online

2/1/2004 By: Chris Waters

I have come to believe, as a high school math teacher, that the terms "learning" and "community" are both necessary to successfully guide students to the knowledge that they need. With online learning, I think that one might seek to establish too much of one without enough of the other. Yet, as instructors, we should have our students connect both with what they are learning and with each other. Here are some guidelines to do just that.

Know Your Students

There are several factors that influence a class and make it successful. In any effective online course, there needs to be a specific outcome or skill-based focus. The instructor and/or course designer must come to know and understand the students and their needs. Finally, the instructor needs to pay close attention to his or her role as the one who guides the way while providing the necessary structure for a student to be successful.

As with any course, online or traditional, there must be a clearly defined focus that centers on what a student is to learn. In a math class, students must learn concepts that build upon one another. The goal of such a class is attaining such knowledge and being able to apply it to various problems or situations. Student-student and student-instructor communication(s) are both essential for optimal concept development and relevant application of learned concepts.

However, some online classes see community building as a more central focus than the content of the course. While it may benefit those who connect with others, it can detract from the process of learning new material. Students who take courses online or in a classroom are not always looking for interpersonal connections with their classmates. There are some who enjoy the community to be had in online classes or chat rooms. However, if this is the driving motivation for a course, many students may quit the class prematurely. Some courses deal with topics where this may be a more suitable approach. In those cases, developing tight online communities can create vital connections between participants.

Understand Your Students' Needs

Understanding the needs and abilities of the learner is another important requirement for any teacher. While every student is a unique individual, they also have a plethora of learning needs and/or styles. Dr. Howard Gardener (1983) theorized that every person has gifts in a variety of what he calls "multiple intelligences." An effective course must focus on these varying gifts and enable students to tap into the wealth of their gifts. Also, in any online class, an instructor may encounter students who are shy, eager (possibly "over-eager"), or are coming to the course from various levels of knowledge or experience. Communication is the key to guiding these students to success.

Through discourse, students may be challenged, supported, and given the opportunity to share with others. Differentiation in pedagogy is ideal as it pushes every student to the extent of his/her abilities. Online classes should be equipped to do just this. Assignments should be structured to allow a student to design the path of learning that they will follow. The facilitator should provide direction and ask open-ended questions to empower the student to go deeper into the area of study. This will give the students an intrinsic ownership of their learning.

Lecture material can be supplied for the content of the course, utilizing a range of technological tools like Shockwave or other audio/visual components. Intellectual discourse through the use of discussion boards can effectively give students the opportunity to show that they have truly learned a concept by sharing with others their ideas. Also, these discussions can give students a structure by which they can ask either the instructor or other students for help or by which they can explore new, relevant uses for newly learned concepts. Clear communication between an instructor and his/her students can defuse potentially frustrating situations before they escalate.

In some poorly mediated online classes, the instructor does not give the feedback or guidance that students desire. An instructor should collaborate with any student who feels that his/her educational needs are not being met to try to design the learning plan best suited to achieving the course goals in a way that enables the student. This may mean that requiring nothing but collaborative projects may not always empower a student towards success. While team-building skills are very necessary outside of the online "classroom," they are not the only skills needing to be developed. Thus, an online class should not solely rely on such assignments.

Dual Role of a Facilitator

Finally, the role of the instructor must be flexible. It can be neither just "guide on the side" nor is it "sage on the stage." Either of these approaches can leave a student wanting more from their learning experience. But different students require different approaches. The "guide" is helpful at encouraging students to explore for themselves or with other students. Important connections can happen that make learning more relevant. However, this approach can also lead students to unfamiliar and frustrating experiences. Some students need more structure than others, making this option sometimes scattered and marginally effective. The "sage," on the other hand, shares his/her expertise and knowledge. The student is given a fairly rigid structure in which they are to learn. Expectations are clearer, but the learning can be seen as less relevant to some individual students.

The role of an online facilitator should combine these versions of the traditional or nontraditional teacher. The facilitator must guide students through the content, but realizing that he/she is the expert in many cases that needs to share knowledge. This instructor must also provide students with a clear idea of what they are to learn and also what is expected of them in dealing with grades. The best way for an instructor to clarify his/her expectations is to construct working rubrics that show what is required of a student. Students also need timely feedback to fuel their learning.

Building a LEARNING community involves a lot of work at developing content mastery as well as interaction that provides a network for students to learn and share. As a facilitator/instructor, one should not only invest a lot of energy in covering material but should also seek to understand the individuals taking the class and their own personal learning styles and needs. Variety in methodology inspires success, as students will encounter the full spectrum of learning paths.

Email: Chris Waters

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