Learning Communities and Distance Education
A learning community can be described as a group of individuals with a common educational objective who work individually, in small groups, and as a whole to meet their common scholastic goals. Often, learning communities revolve around a single course; however, they may also encompass a group of courses designed to “teach across the curriculum” a method that combines the heart of several disciplines with real-world strategies (V. Ochoa, personal communication, September 25, 2006).
Developing a learning community in a distance education setting can be accomplished by paying attention to the unique needs of distance learners while remaining true to the basic tenets of a learning community. When asked, participants in one learning community defined the atmosphere as “involve[ing] more action on the part of participants [who felt that] they were responsible in part not just for their own learning but for others’ learning too [, and] they pointed to interaction as a potential core category because it was through interaction that similarities were found and that thoughts and feelings were exchanged” (Brown, 2001, p. 22). Keeping this in mind, learning tasks must be designed to promote the building of community and an environment in which mutual reliance is possible. Brown’s study describes building a learning community as a “three-stage phenomenon” that includes “making friends,” “acceptance,” and “camaraderie”; she goes on to point out that “each of these stages involved a greater degree of engagement in both the class and the dialogue” (18).
A productive learning community that is designed to function in a distance education environment will include such activities as discussion boards where students and the instructor can ask and answer questions about a variety of course elements. This will promote the making of friends within the online community, and the more time spent discussing, the more each student is likely to feel acceptance and camaraderie. Online discussion boards also facilitate the need of members of a learning community to participate in the educational process of their peers. As in any classroom setting, group work will encourage interaction among students, and in the case of a distance learning environment, group exercises and activities offer the opportunity for individuals to bond more closely with some of their community members. Friendships that might naturally develop in an in-person classroom setting obviously will not develop at a distance; however, implementing group work will recreate a similar, if virtual, experience.
Finally, because much of what occurs in any classroom is based on the input of students, another strategy that can be employed is allowing each student to create mini-assignments based on the rubric of the course. Just as a student sitting in a classroom might ask a question that leads to a spontaneous activity, students in a distance learning environment can then have input in the ebb and flow of the experience. The fact that the classroom is virtual creates the unique opportunity for a student to have an epiphany at any time and “speak up” in the virtual environment.
Brown, R. (2001). The process of community-building in distance learning classes. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (2). pp. 18-35. Retrieved September 25, 2006 from http://sloan-c.org/publications/jaln/v5n2/pdf/v5n2_brown.pdf.