I’ve been looking into online learning communities, as I’ve reflected on my use of Twitter and begin delving into the support mechanisms of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL). What has caught my attention is the types of online learning communities which exist, and how they come about. I’m concentrating on two types here – online Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and bounded learning communities (BLCs).
Learning in communities is not a new idea. There have been a number of learning theories, in particular those espoused by Dewey and Vygotsky (Brook and Oliver, 2003), which highlight the role of communities in knowledge construction. Brook and Oliver (2003) also cited contemporary research which found that collaborative learning (which occurs in communities) contribute to increased motivation, promotes learning achievement and perception of skill development. Therefore, there is plenty of research which supports learning in communities.
But what happens when learning communities transfer online? How does it come about? Why does it come about? What drives the formation? How is different to learning in in-situ communities?
Online learning communities are made quite possible with the advent of web 2.0 technologies. One of the reasons is the ability to have a two way exchange in a variety of modes, paving the way for true collaboration, without being constrained by geographical or time boundaries. These communities may form as individuals come together organically to pursue a shared interest, or shared goal. An example of the latter is the formation of online PLCs, a growing trend. PLCs are common approaches to foster effective professional development among teachers (Beach, 2012). It is typically made up of teachers from a school working together to support each other in their professional development (Beach, 2012). It may also include a community of stakeholders focused on achieving the best learning outcomes for students (Gruenbaum, 2010) and/or in-school reforms (Cranston, 2009).
The transfer from in-situ or face-to-face communities is likely prompted by time constraints. Beach (2012) explored the value of online PLCs, and reasoned that extensive collaboration takes time. Teachers are time-poor. Therefore, Beach (2012) argues for the use of online tools to plan, problem solve, collaborate and reflect. I imagine he argues this because collaboration conducted this way can be done anytime, anywhere, rather than being tied to regular meetings.
Alternatively, online learning communities may be what Wilson, Ludwig-Hardman, Thornam and Dunlap (2004) referred to as ‘bounded’ learning communities (BLCs), created expressly for the completion of online, blended or distance learning courses. Unlike PLCs, BLCs do not do not form ‘spontaneously’ and it exists in direct response to course requirements, for the duration of the course (Wilson et al, 2004). Given these characteristics, one may question the validity or indeed the sustainability of such learning communities. Why create learning communities if there is a high likelihood that that learning community will disband at the conclusion of the course? Moreover, given that a course is generally for a short period, is it reasonable to assume that a community will emerge and achieve some form of maturity quick enough to realise the affordances it provide?
PLCs are perhaps more likely better able to achieve the outcomes learning in communities (for example, deep learning) promises as there is usually a long term goal attached to the formation of the learning community. Generally, there is no end date for when a PLC comes to an end or if it is fixed duration, it is likely to be a long one. There is an assumption that a PLC continues to exist (especially if it has been formed to foster effective professional development) even though members of the PLC may change because at its core, the PLC has been created to achieve a shared, long term goal which contributes to the overall good of the learning organisation.
BLCs do have shared goals in common, but it is usually tied to short time frames and has a somewhat carrot/stick approach as it is quite often tied to assessment. Despite my reservations for BLCs (in its ability to create a community in a short time frame), the benefits of learning in communities for students in online, blended or distance learning courses cannot be denied. As Wilson et al (2004) explains, learning communities provide context for the course content and serve as a bridge between school and work environments. Importantly, it also provides students – particularly for students in an online, blended or distance learning course – a sense of connected-ness which in turn, contributes to student retention (Wilson et al, 2004). Therefore, while one may argue that BLCs are generally short-lived, the existence of a learning community helps overcome the sense of isolation which many students feel with online, blended or distance learning courses.
Online PLCs are what Bruckman (2006) would categorise as communities of practice, while BLCs are knowledge building communities. As an aside, there’s a sense of novice vs expert learners at play here in the membership of these types of learning communities, as well, which I’m finding quite intriguing.
Beach, R. (2012). Can Online Learning Communities Foster Professional Development? Language Arts, 89(4), 256-262.
Brook, C., & Oliver, R. (2003). Online learning communities: Investigating a design framework. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(2), 139-160.
Bruckman, A. (2006). Learning in online communities. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences (pp. 461-472). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Cranston, J. (2009). Holding the reins of the professional learning community: Eight themes from research on principals’ perceptions of professional learning communities. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 90(2), 1-22.
Gruenbaum, E. A. (2010). Creating Online Professional Learning Communities: And How to Translate Practices to the Virtual Classroom. eLearn, 2010(5). doi: 10.1145/1795374.1806336
Wilson, B., Ludwig-Hardman, S., Thornam, C., & Dunlap, J. (2004). Bounded Community: Designing and Facilitating Learning Communities in Formal Courses. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 5(3). Retrieved 25 April 2013 from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/204/286