A tension in online learning communities is that around role. This is the case in any social ëlearningí experience of which there are many different examples. Indeed, a taxonomy could include many characteristics such as is the purpose for learning formal/non-formal, what is the learning philosophy of the institution, espoused and actual pedagogy, student age, individual personalities (yes even room for the Myers Briggs or Kolb devotees to get a look in here), etc., there are more characteristics that could be added to this list.
However, I think there particular issues around online learning and the adoption of role. Firstly, it is very easy to adopt a new persona online. We are released from the shackles of expectations built around face-to-face interactions by the ëopaquenessí of community software in hiding information about us. Unless I chose to divulge the information, my appearance, age, interests, confidence in speaking publicly, quick wittedness, etc, can all be hidden ñ baggage can be left behind and skills that serve the individual well f2f may not carry over into the online context.
Secondly, the democratising effect of the software reduces the power and control that the ëauthoritiesí can exert. Clearly in formal communities this is not absolute, but the increasing ubiquity of the technology to support communities means that users will increasingly have the ability to vote with their feet. Indeed, this is a strength of BLOG technology in that it empowers just about anybody to start an online conversation that may grow into a community/social network. This is in contrast with f2f learning where the power rests with the ëkey holdersí or those charged and delegated to ëprovideí the learning.
So what roles might we adopt and why? I would suggest that consciously choosing is a powerful online skill to possess, for both student and ëteacherí alike. Am I going to act as a co-learner, facilitator, coach, mentor, tutor, devils advocate, friend, figure of authority, expert, etc. I would argue that understanding the position from which individuals are participating benefits both those contributing and others reading (both being forms of participation). Potentially it leads to individuals becoming more valued members of the community, less likely to behave inappropriately and more likely to maximise their value to the community of learners.