Posted by: Ellie Kutz | March 26, 2012

Shaping the Learning Communities of Online Courses

John Seely  Brown  focused on the knowledge-sharing communities that were being created on the Web outside of classroom contexts.  Participants in non-academic online settings–games, fan sites, interest groups–typically seek communities that offer both knowledge-sharing in an area of interest and personal/social social gains–belonging, self-esteem, and a sense of identity (Wellman and Gulia 1997).  They find these in communities where there is reciprocity, trust, a willingness to share, and a sense of cooperation/collaboration.   Participants typically enter such communities very gradually, typically watching, lurking, or serving a kind of apprenticeship.

In contrast to such voluntary communities, academic online communities are typically involuntary, requiring participation, and the fast pace of the academic semester doesn’t leave much time for gradual entry.  Students can’t just lurk and figure out how to participate effectively and how to really belong, and since all students will start the course at one time, they won’t be entering a community where there are already expert insiders. In this context, we need to provide effective structures that can guide students’ entry and participation.

In a recent CIT/EdTech Forum, Amy Todd (Anthropology), Amani El Jack (Women’s Studies), and Tara Ashok (Biology and Anthropology) shared what they had learned from teaching courses both online and face-to-face, as they tried to create comparable learning experiences for their students in both environments. Several themes emerged about what they’d discovered about online teaching that are relevant to our consideration of how to build knowledge-sharing communities online.

Whether in fully online or web-enhanced courses, inviting students into virtual communities involves:

  • Providing a clear structure.  Students’ success in online courses depends on their knowing what to expect and when.  Amy, Amani, and Tara all pointed to the careful organization required for online courses—creating carefully planned sequences of activities and materials within a structure that would be easy for students to navigate—and they found that they had carried much of that organization back to their face-to-face courses.
  • Being explicit about the course process as well as the content.  As well as offering explicit online introductions about how to navigate the course, most online faculty provide a discussion space for students’ questions about course processes. And they find that students online tend to help each other navigate the course environment.
  • Offering content in multiple formats.  Online courses typically include lectures with PowerPoint slides plus narration in Adobe Presenter, and faculty are increasingly making those lectures—or in-class lectures recorded with Camtasia—available online for in web-enhanced classes.  Tara calls audio lectures that students can listen to any time “talking into the ear of the students,” and she’s now also using Camtasia to capture textbook pages and guide students in how to read them effectively.
  • Integrating a wide variety of Web resources to connect students to a wider world of knowledge.  Because the larger online environment is resource-rich and these resources are easy to incorporate into Blackboard course sites or wikis, the presenters found themselves drawing more heavily on such resources, to the point of no longer using textbooks and/ or creating ebook alternatives. Amy has started using open access genetics tutorials from Rutgers for students in both her online and Web-enhanced classes. Amani is able to quickly integrate material related to current events, such as adding the film Kony 2012, part of a campaign to bring attention to the Ugandan war criminal (and made available on March 5) to the materials for her course on Women in African Cultures.
  • Encouraging student collaboration in developing course content. All three faculty have discovered that students across courses find it easy to contribute relevant issues to explore and additional resources that they discover to a course’s online site–providing links to news items and other media.
  • Being responsive to students’ need for courses to be accessible and affordable.  For Amani, this includes providing course materials through ebooks and e-reserves, but also being sensitive to the fact that not all students will have adequate internet access at home and will need time for alternative access.
  • Building community.  Teachers of online courses are particularly attentive to this concern.  Amy has students write a substantial introduction of themselves to the class in the first week and Amani asks students to write about why they are taking this online class.  To overcome isolation online, Amani holds a number of synchronous class sessions using Wimba, so that students can talk and present their work online.  Tara finds that group work helps to build community, as students increasingly support each other.

Amy, Amani, and Tara addressed a number of other topics—the flexibility that an online course offers to students, the possibilities of self-pacing, the role of assessments and rubrics, and you can see their full presentations on UMass Boston YouTube shortly.  Online discussions play a significant role in all of their courses, and we’ll turn to that topic next.


Wellman, B. and Gulia, M.  (2001). Netsurfers don’t ride alone: Virtual communities as communities. In Smith, M.and Kollock,P. , Communities in Cyberspace, London: Routledge Press.


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