In developing a new set of framework courses at the Institute of Educational Cybernetics (IEC), University of Bolton, we have the challenging prospect of identifying a way froward for technology provision for online learners. Currently, Bolton runs on a mixed economy of WebCT and Moodle, but there is a debate to be had about what, if any, services the University itself needs to offer to students in the future.
Underpinning the courses that will be developed is the notion of an online ‘community of inquiry’, informed by work on the Ultraversity project at Anglia Ruskin University. The idea of ‘community building’ is regularly deployed in discussions about learning. It is, however, often ill defined and therefore of little value as an informing principle in course design and technology choices.
Wenger (2002) offers a definition of community which is a good starting point for our purpose:
“A strong community fosters interactions and relationships based on mutual respect and trust. It encourages a willingness to share ideas, expose one’s ignorance, ask difficult questions, and listen carefully? Community is an important element because learning is a matter of belonging as well as an intellectual process, involving the heart a well a the head.”
In his work on Communities of Practice (CoP), Wenger expands upon this in some detail. However, for this purpose it is sufficient to say that for Wenger knowing is essentially a social act embodied through a process of negotiation and meaning making.
The above describes much of what was intended in our Ultraversity work in developing online communities of learning, in short encompassing learning ‘from each other with each other’.
However, in identifying the characteristics of online communities of inquiry, we broadened the CoP definition to include a motivational strand around members commitment to sustaining others towards their chosen goal.
In practical terms, this manifests itself in the creation of collaborative products, celebration of team achievement, consensus and accommodation of dissent. Importantly, the community isn’t turned on and off in response to module start and finish dates, but is a long term commitment by community members over the duration of a programme and beyond.
Also important is the ongoing facilitation of the community by its members including students and university staff. Critical to the online world, is the visibility of community membership and audience; important for the development of trust which is a pre-requisite for disclosure.
Allied to this are issues of discourse framing and presentation of asynchronous communications; how are conversations displayed and navigated in such a way to offer richer learning opportunities including accessing archival material?
Richard Millwood proposes that online actions can be categorised into those which are:
- personal; for audience of self
- interpersonal; broadcast to a mass audience, hoping for feedback
- community focussed; ongoing communication with a known and trusted audience
The plotting of web2.0 technologies illustrates this argument.
It follows that if we want to promote community learning, some of the technology used must enable this. As much as the technology is important, it is also a matter of intent; how do the learners and facilitators of learning use the technology.
The purpose of this post was to consider the question where is the community on web2.0 and from this perspective, I would argue that many web2.0 technologies are found wanting as they:
1.predominantly support personal and interpersonal learning
2.are largely the preserve of self-reliant and confident learners
3.have little or no explicit community element, being instead designed to support personal and interpersonal interactions
4.have poorly developed representations of audience and privacy
Web2.0 technologies have an emphasis on empowering learners to collaborate with few if any role hierarchies; symmetry of use with tools and functionality. This is a shift from most users being largely passive consumers to knowledge creators, but with few exceptions they are less good at supporting the development of community learning.
However, the practical question that we will need to answer is are web2.0 technologies sufficiently developed on their own to run a community of inquiry, or do we still need to make an institutional offering to to support this requirement.
From an institutional perspective, these are important issues. The question asked by Ormond Simpson (2006) may be pertinent here. Do we favour a survivalist approach where student progress is ultimately about the survival of the fittest or should we be supportist and help students overcome issues they face?