Online Learning Communities

Richard Dockery (HUBS, University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, UK)

Multicultural Education & Technology Journal

ISSN: 1750-497X

Article publication date: 11 April 2008




Dockery, R. (2008), "Online Learning Communities", Multicultural Education & Technology Journal, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 60-64.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Lupicini's foreword highlights the aims of “volume in perspectives in instructional technology and distance education” by stressing the importance and age of the concept of community in human society but noting that the learning community is a relatively new concept. Whilst relatively new the learning community is not unstudied with a number of perspectives being available regarding the subject with some seeing it as a solution within itself whilst others point to the contribution it can offer.

Online Learning Communities draws together current trends and issues examining them within the context of modern society and current challenges faced. Online Learning Communities uses a number of authors with differing specialities offering their own take on the issues at hand and examines their research largely within a North American perspective however some international research into distance learning is offered to give a multicultural edge to the volume.

The volume is a mixture of positional papers, wide ranging research and case studies and is a platform for the examination and discussion of “specific current trends and issues faced by the distance learning community” (xiv).

The volume is organised into 5 separate but interconnected themes. Part 1: Perspectives on Online Learning Communities offers four articles comprising conceptual pieces and case studies that begin with the exploration of what communities are and how they may be used to facilitate learning and concluding with a chapter arguing for an entirely new system of teaching. Beginning with a chapter from Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt “Online learning communities in perspective” discusses the development of online learning environments and the way they can be utilised to effect positive learning and successful outcomes. Focusing on the social ties that contribute to effective learning Palloff and Pratt review issues of self and humanity and discuss how these concepts may be utilised to further online learning. They conclude that the online community is the most effective tool for furthering education noting the potential for learning in a social environment and that social ties increase the propensity for following a course to completion. Their final quote from Brook and Oliver (2003); “There is strong support for the supposition that the social phenomenon of community may be put to good use in the support of online learning.”

“This is well supported by theories of learning that highlight the role of social interaction in the construction of knowledge.” (p. 150); summarises their argument that has been drawn together from a review of international research.

Chapter 2 “A typology of catalysts, emphases and elements of virtual learning communities” by Richard Schwier continues the focus on community, albeit, in a slightly more practical vein showing the ways in which information technology may be used to increase communication and examining the ways in which communication amongst learners can increase positive learning outcomes. Beginning by defining what a community consists of and the way in which interaction within communities occurs in relation to set boundaries Schwier then presents two models, the first being a simple model of the aspects of the virtual community which comprise of elements, emphases and catalysts. The second model elaborates upon these aspects providing categories for the analysis of interaction within the virtual community. This analysis is initially compared to the process of face to face communication with the benefits and negative aspects of each type of communication being explored. The end products of the chapter are a series of recommendations for the successful creation of virtual communities and suggestions for further research concerning virtual communities.

Chapter 3 “Online learning communities with online mentors[OLCOM]” (Shujen Chang) presents a case study showing the performance of a programme entitled OLCOM which is a virtual community comprised of students and mentors, the presence of the latter being what distinguishes OLCOM from other online communities. The results of the study show positive results providing a model of how online learning communities may be successfully implemented.

Chapter 4 “Foundations and practice for web‐enhanced scientific enquiry” (Minchi Kim and Michaell Hannafin) advocates a need to progress from traditional teaching methods towards a post‐modern system of learning the natural sciences. The authors suggest that knowledge needs to be constructed in a practical manner thus encouraging free thinking and facilitating the use of cross disciplinary tools within scientific enquiry. They offer a computer system entitled “Web‐based inquiry science environment” as an example of how these ideas may be implemented using today's technology and argue for the need to develop other learning systems thus moving the discussion around web based learning to the area of scientific research design.

Part 2 “Design and instruction for online communities” is a discussion based around the tools utilised in delivering learning objectives online. As a set the authors within this part advocate the need to think outside the box of traditional class based learning environments and suggest a number of ways in which online learning may be facilitated and achieved.

Chapter 5, “Designing effective online instruction” (Morrison and Ross) highlights the disparity between institutional and distance learning showing that various factors including the lack of immediate feedback creating difficulties in assessing students reactions to materials require course design for distance learning to be considered in a different way to that of institutional course design. It is argued that an internal conversation must be generated aiding the learning process and techniques for inducing a more interactive learning system regardless of the distance nature of the course and the fact that teachers may not be available at the same time as learning takes place are recommended. Chapter 6 expands upon this theme and as the title “The use of discussion forums in learning communities” suggests it focuses upon the need for interaction amongst learners and highlights two tools which facilitate such interaction. The first being a tool for evaluating contributions and the second, a student centred forum for discussion and debate arguing such tools enhance the learning experience and may prevent feelings of isolation amongst learners.

Part 3 “Research on online learning communities” shows the results of four research projects including a case study examining community building and best practice for doing so, a qualitative study also on learning communities, a study into motivational aspects of distance learning and a study on the use of video conferencing in distance learning.. Whilst previous chapters have focussed on the need for and benefit of communities within web based learning environments Chapter 9 “Connections in web‐based learning environments” (Hill, et al.) looks at how the construction of such communities may be achieved arguing that links to other participants must be embedded into the course at the design stage. The particular problem addressed is that of retention which is shown to be an important issue in web based learning programmes largely resulting from feelings of isolation amongst learners. Various data collection techniques were employed including online discussions, surveys and focus groups. A strategy for community building is presented focussing on increasing interaction between students and importantly, interaction between student and teacher relating back to the study on mentoring earlier in the book.

Chapter 11 “Examining the use of learning communities to increase motivation” (Huett et al.) asks if learning communities increase motivation amongst learners and furthermore, whether or not such a motivational change results in an attitudinal change. The authors begin by offering a definition of motivation and pointing the reader to the existing wealth of literature that exists upon this concept whilst highlighting the focus of their argument that motivation depends both upon environmental and individual variables. Following this a discussion of the role of communities in distance learning programmes highlights the benefits of linkages between members of the same course and leads to the framing question of the study, i.e. does a sense of community increase motivation amongst learners? Interestingly, it is found that on the utilised scale, a significant motivational effect was found, however, that was not coupled with a change in attitude as measured by this project.

A measured discussion of the results incorporating the results of similarly focussed studies leads to a number of insightful recommendations for future research.

Chapter 12 “Linking community partners” (Havice et al.) examines the use of video conferencing in distance learning and is well juxtaposed in this chapter which addresses the barriers created by distance learning. In many ways, two way video conferencing addresses the feelings of isolation from group and teacher which is highlighted in the previous chapters and addresses the lack of feedback previously listed as a barrier to distance learning. The study explores attitudes and perceptions towards the use of video conferencing with interesting results showing that as a vehicle video conferencing may be a useful aid in the array of tools available for the distance educator.

Part 4 “International perspectives on online learning communities” provides contributions form Australia, Africa, The Anglophone Commonwealth and Turkey, exploring issues concerning community building in Australia the use of information communications technology within the developing world, personal experience from the commonwealth and ethics thus giving a multicultural perspective to a book dominated largely by contributions from North America. Chapter 13 “Exploring elements for creating an online community of learners within a distance education course at the University of Southern Queensland” (Danaher et al.) begin by highlighting the role of community in the post‐modern setting. Noting the application of the term in a number of settings stating “Within education, community has been deployed as both a theory and a set of strategies to strengthen the bonds between learners and educators and among learners” (p. 220). Utilising Anderson's (2004, p. 220) conceptual framework of “cognitive, social and teacher presence” the authors begin by presenting a quick literature review relating to this framework setting the tone for their study which centres around the said three aspects of presence and the effects on interaction they exhibit. Following this, they describe the structure of the course used in the study giving the aims, objectives and assessments of the course before returning to Anderson's aspects of presence and the way the authors felt they were exhibited within the context of the course and the way these concepts were applied during delivery. From the case study, four key needs were found that the authors believe are necessary for the successful delivery of distance learning thus the chapter is prescriptive but as the authors themselves note, by no means exhaustive.

Chapter 16 “Orchestrating ethics for distance education and online learning” (Ugur Demiray) explores the development of distance learning in Turkey giving a historical perspective before turning to the issue of ethics within the global arena. Demiray highlights the potential for plagiarism and cheating amongst students using distance learning. In particular, the debate centres on online assessment and the ability to access resources and collaborate during assessments and even the eventuality that the person taking the assessment may not be who they claim to be.

Some strategies for combating such behaviours are highlighted and the author emphasises the need for a high standard of ethics amongst teachers and students.

The final section of the book “Trends in online learning communities” seeks to assess the current state of affairs in online learning and to provide implications for the future of the field. Chapter 17 “Online self‐organizing social systems: four years later” (David Wiley) offers an interesting departure from the other articles in the book by looking at the potential for distance learning that is not centred on a centrally organised course. Rather, Wiley looks at the phenomenon of “the blog” on networks such as Myspace and his discussion revolves around the potential of such sites to become vehicles for learning. His argument is based around the principal that such networks are self organising networks of communication through which information is passed. In other words, they are communities of information exchange however rather than being instigated and controlled through a central system, for example, the university, these self‐organising systems are self maintained by interested participants and Wiley argues that such networks should be encouraged as centres of learning, a highly interesting read.

Concluding the book, Chapter 20 “Contrasting forces affecting the practice of distance education” (Wilson et al.) examines the disparity between conservative and progressive forces that shape and are shaped by technology and our use of it. Arguing that current practice shapes and is shaped by these opposing forces the authors identify a range of factors that both drive forward and limit our uses of technology within the educational setting. Placing these factors against the economic need to stay in business, the authors maintain that progression will be shaped by these forces in an interesting discussion of recent history and potential for the future.

This book contains sufficient social and intellectual issues to generate rich discussions in all areas related to media, technology, online communities, and multicultural education. Online Learning Communities is an accessible exploration of the role of technology in education giving examples of best practice and highlighting areas in need of further research. All this is placed within the context of a post‐modern society and the voice of the constructionist epistemological position is in evidence within the intuitive and interesting pages of this book. The editor has successfully brought together disparate case studies and provided potential areas for continued research. The strong research angle and practical experience contained within the book will help practitioners now and in the future.


Brook, C. and Oliver, R. (2003), “Online learning communities: investigating a design framework”, Australian Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 13960.

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