From the veteran teacher to the novice student, anyone can easily spot the huge disparity between a traditional classroom and an online course. There's no face to face interaction! One of the biggest challenges facing the online instructor is how to bridge this gap and make learners feel like they are part of a larger academic community, not just isolated individuals in front of a screen.
During Monday's webinar "Teaching Online: Lessons from the Pros" from the Special Interest Group for Online Learning (SIGOL), three presenters covered a broad array of topics related to online learning, but one theme struck a common chord among all of them. In sharing their experiences, presenters Amy Michalowski (Virtual High School), Kirsten Peterson (Educational Technology Leaders Online), and Matt Huston (Peer-Ed) all mentioned community building strategies as integral to their work. Rather than provide a superficial overview of each presentation, this blog will focus specifically on the best community building practices discussed during the webinar.
From the Virtual High School, a 15 year old non-profit consortium of nearly 700 schools, Amy Michalowski focused on community-building through the lenses of collaboration, cooperation, communication and community in online learning. Michalowski stressed that online learning is best done as a "co-synchronous" process that includes both asynchronous and real-time interactions. Learners should participate in different kinds of collaborations like project-based assignments, cooperative exercises, and open-ended discussions. If these learning activities can reinforce community in the classroom and in global sense, then learners will be more likely to see themselves as connected to a team accomplishing a larger purpose relevant to more than just the knowledge being transferred.
Consider VHS's online professional development courses for instructor training as an example of co-synchronous learning. The five course series is designed to guide a cohort of learners first to the role of being online students themselves, then to integrating technology tools into their teaching and finally to becoming a fully online teacher. Different communication methods work throughout this process such as a one hour synchronous webinar, an asynchronous online classroom, opportunities for facilitated discussions, and online office hours with the instructor. By building in these interactions with the larger community, learners will feel more supported and should be able to train others by the end of the PD. This train-the-trainer model can extend the learning community beyond the original set of learners.
Rather than just directly relate examples from his expertise in online learning, Matt Huston of Peer-Ed used his portion of the webinar to actually demonstrate some good instructional strategies for community building. Huston asked webinar participants to respond to his questions in real-time in the chat window. As everyone shared their thoughts on topics like common core standards, online community, and assessment, Huston repeated some of the better answers outloud and then provided additional resources based on the real-time feedback of the webinar participants. This technique helped build community because learners were engaged in conversing with each other and their input became increasingly relevant as it shaped the knowledge being delivered by the presenter.
The final presenter Kirsten Peterson of Educational Technology Leaders Online stressed the importance of a human infrastructure for learning of any kind. Noting that solely focusing on just delivering content knowledge is a common mistake in online learning, Peterson talked about how learners need to make connections with other people in order for information to really be internalized. In other words, the best approach is a community approach that is cohort-based, interactive, and applicable to the real world. For example, learners should be asked to model course facilitation with each other in cross-functional roles. Different students will take turns modeling tasks like leading meaningful discussions, designing formative assessments, and even finding guest facilitators. By making education heavily dependent on the people involved, there will be ongoing connections made during many discussions throughout the course. This type of social, community-based learning will be just as valuable as any textbook reading assignment on online learning.
After reflecting on this webinar, I gained a lot more insight into online learning than I initially thought. Hopefully these examples of community building can help us with our current initiatives and service requests at ISC. Working in education, we should remember that these community building strategies are not only for use in the products we create, but also helpful improvements to our own work styles and professional development.