Learning communities

Definitions

There are many definitions of what makes a community. But if we consider a physical community such as a village, most would agree that it is not the collection of buildings that makes a village but the people who live there and the relationships between them.

We can imagine in this small French village the types of interactions that the inhabitants would have with each other and how a sense of community might arise.

But what makes it a community, and how is this different from an online community?

George Siemens states that:

A community is the clustering of similar areas of interest that allows for interaction, sharing, dialoguing, and thinking together.

Most definitions share at least this concept of communicating around shared common interests or purpose.

Check out Nancy White’s How Some Folks Have Tried to Describe Community which brings together some useful definitions. She also includes the concept of a ‘bounded’ community in a recent vieo clip: Communities, networks and what sits in between.

Some excellent readings covering key concepts are available on the website of Etienne Wenger (one of the key figures in the field) and Beverly Trayner: http://wenger-trayner.com/map-of-resources/

Online and physical communities

Siemens describes how online and physical communities share similar characteristics:

  • A gathering place for diverse people to meet
  • A nurturing place for learning and developing
  • A growing place – allowing members to try new ideas and concepts in a safe environment
  • Integrated. As an ecology, activities ripple across the domain. Knowledge in one area filters to another. Courses as a stand alone unit often do not have this transference.
  • Connected. People, resources, and ideas are connected and accessible across the community.
  • Symbiotic. A connection that is beneficial to all members of the community…needed in order for the community to survive.

Note: Some writers use the term ‘virtual community’ rather than ‘online community’. For the sake of simplicity, we use the term ‘online community’ here.

Types of online communities

Communities of interest

These are based around a shared professional or other interest.

Examples:

  • Moodle.org: A support community for teachers (and others) using Moodle.
  • LBC Support Services: Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand (LBC)’s community for patients and families living with a blood cancer or condition.
  • Technology & Innovation in Education/: A community for the intersection of research and practice relating to innovation in teaching and learning.
  • Google communities: Explore a wide range of communities of interest.

Social community platforms

These generally have no obvious shared interest other than meeting social needs, but may incorporate sub-groups based around specific interests.

Examples:

  • Gaia: an online social community with appeal to a mainly younger audience.
  • Facebook: the largest social network.

Communities of practice

These are based around sharing good practice and professional matters within a specific professional or occupation. A key reading is by Etienne Wenger, one of the primary thinkers in this area.

Examples:

  • Edmodo: a community for teachers, students, administrators, parents, and publishers.
  • allnurses.com: a community for nurses and nursing students.
  • etwinning.net: a community for schools in the European Union.

Learning communities

Although any community can be seen as have a learning aspect, the term learning community usually refers to the incorporation of community approaches by an educational organisation into its courses and programmes.

Recent developments in technology such as Web 2.0 have given rise to some differentiation between communities and networks. The concept of a community being bounded or closed to outsiders is now being contrasted with more open networks, where the emphasis is more on connected individuals than on a community as a closed group. Chatti’s LaaN vs. Situated Learning provides a useful summary of this distinction. However, when applying learning community approaches in a course setting, we can incorporate elements of both communities and networks.

Although the principles of online communities tend to be consistent across the types, here we are primarily concerned with Learning communities and, in particular, how educators can incorporate these principles into the courses they develop and teach.

Learning communities and collaboration

Palloff and Pratt (2004) suggest that a sense of community is an essential component of collaboration, and that collaboration in turn supports the development of a community.

In other words, community and collaboration are interdependent and reinforce each other cyclically. In other words, the communication within a learning community is not just about interacting socially but about working together for some shared purpose.

Palloff and Pratt (2004) also point out that while the social interaction within a community increases student satisfaction, the collaboration provides a real opportunity to ‘extend and deepen learning experiences, test out new ideas… and receive critical and constructive feedback.’


Images

Village photo: Yvan Tisseyre / OT Vallée d’Aulps

Community-collaboration cycle: Paul Left after Palloff & Pratt (2004)

 

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The NKK Learning Design Model

In 2005 I worked on the Nga Kiwai Kete design model as part of a collaborative professional development process with members of Te Runanganui o Te Arawa:

The Nga Kiwai Kete Design Model

The Nga Kiwai Kete Design Model
Translation by Tutu Kautai

The model is intended to specify both the components of an effective learning design as well as an approximate sequence for the design process.

The model was intended to build on work such as the ARIA Model with which I was involved in 1999.

Note: The model is reproduced here as the original Nga Kiwai Kete site is unfortunately no longer available online. Released under a Creative Commons licence by Ako Aotearoa.

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Blogging in the classroom: a professional development scenario

Classroom photoProfessional development of teachers, especially in relation to integrating learning technology into the curriculum, is problematic. This scenario is intended to initiate discussion of some key issues and principles involved – what can go wrong? How do we ensure that professional development is effective?

Q: Mary, tell us about your school’s learning technology project…

Mary: Well, we’re meant to be using blogs in the classroom as part of our learning units. So if we’re doing a unit on families and communities, say, there’s a blog where what we find out is recorded on the blog with words and pictures, maybe even some videos of interviews. I guess the purpose is to make sure students develop some skills in using the technology…

Q: You say you are ‘meant to be using blogs’ – how is it working for you?

Mary: To be honest, I haven’t got started with it. I know some of the other teachers are probably doing great things – they’re very confident with using the technology but I’m a bit out of my depth. Sometimes I think the kids know a lot more than I do – scary! And I’m not sure how I’d manage the whole process, whether I’d need to upload everything into the blog or just let the kids do it.

Q: What professional development have you had?

Mary: We had a training session at the end of last year. Someone came in and did a demo of what you can do with a blog – I think it was a high school they had worked with, amazing stuff. They were obviously a real expert but some of it went over my head a bit, and I couldn’t really see how it would work in my classroom.

Since then I haven’t had a chance to get started with using blogs – the start of the year is very busy and stressful. But now the term is underway I’ll give it a go – maybe this weekend if I can remember what she showed us. It’s just a matter of sitting down and putting in some serious time – maybe I could check out the public library to see if they have any books on blogging. It’s all a bit daunting but I need to get started before my performance review at the end of term!

Professional development for teaching with technology

Photo: U.S. Census Bureau

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MOOCs, sustainability and the business model

A MOOC is more than just a free sample!

Anyone with a Moodle site can offer a MOOC: two fundamental questions we need to ask are How do we make it effective for learners? and How do we make it a meaningful and worthwhile activity for the organiser / provider? This post focuses on the second question, which relates to the need for educational offerings to be sustainable for the provider.

If the provider is a large institution such as a university, sustainability is ‘cushioned’ by the existing staff and other resources. That is, the costs of developing and delivering it can be subsidised by the university’s other income-generating activities. A MOOC can be justified in rather the same way that a business may offer free stuff online as a way of gaining other benefits such as raising their profile. It’s similar to handing out free samples of new products in the supermarket. But taking the same approach for an educational institution is risky, because its core activity cannot be reduced to such a simplistic model.

Of course, a MOOC may be justified not in business terms but in philosophical or ethical terms such as a commitment to open learning and overcoming barriers to education. But as Jeff Haywood points out in No such thing as a free MOOC, there are always costs associated. These may be direct or indirect, such as taking teaching staff away from other activities.

So it’s essential to ask, as Hayward does, How will we sustain it? He goes on to state that his institution plans to impose a ‘modest charge for the ‘certificates of completion’, and we will use that income to pay for our support for learners, offered in the light-touch form that these types of MOOC use.‘ Since he does not mention the cost of assessment, I assume that these ‘certificates of completion’ are similar to what used to be called in face to face courses ‘certificates of attendance’. That is, they confirm only that the participants took part in the MOOC, not that they necessarily learned or achieved anything. Indeed, ‘light-touch support’ is perhaps only going to be appropriate where assessment is not rigorous!

Hayward also acknowledges that there is a lot that still needs to be learned about delivering MOOCs, including ‘Is the experience helpful to learners, and do they get value from their certificates of completion?‘ In my experience, a certificate of participation is often seen as having little relevance since it is not based on any rigorous assessment of achievement. Professional development activities in institutions many years ago often used to incorporate such as certificates but over time there was a move away from them as they provided little real value.

I fully support MOOCs as a worthwhile professional development activity. But because they are unlikely to incorporate a high level of learner support and rigorous assessment, they will not be appropriate for all students in all contexts. They may used to provide a ‘taster’ as a marketing exercise, but this involves applying a business model which may not be appropriate. It’s essential to find a model of resourcing their development and delivery which is sustainable and which enhances rather than undermines the institution’s existing programmes.

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Professional development for teaching with technology

Teacher workshop

Teacher workshop

Integrating technology into learning and teaching is a complex and demanding process.

Teachers and lecturers need effective professional development in order to transform learning and teaching with technology. Ineffective professional development is a waste of resources and may even have a negative effect by de-motivating and discouraging teachers. This narrative illustrates some of the issues and problems experienced by teachers.

What is good practice in this area? Professional development for teaching with learning technologies should be sustained, collaborative, experiential, relevant, situated, and evaluated.

Sustained

  • Professional development  should be sustained over time – one-off work shops may provide for training in technical skills but do not allow teachers to effectively change their practice.
  • It should be incremental, allowing teachers to build on their skills and experience over time.
  • It should incorporate long-term strategies in addition to workshops – for example mentoring, coaching and other forms of support over time to allow teachers to incrementally develop skills and expertise in incorporating the technology into teaching and learning.

Collaborative

  • Professional development should be closely integrated with collaborative planning of how technology is incorporated into teaching and learning. It should also involve collaborative planning of the professional development process itself: this will help ensure its relevance for the range of needs.
  • It should involve sharing of good practice in the organisation or teaching team to allow those who are advanced in incorporating technology into learning to share their expertise with the rest of the team.
  • Many schools around the world have made very effective use of expert students as technical support providers to teachers . This allows the teachers to focus on the educational use of technology.

Experiential

  • Professional development should be experiential and provide direct hands-on experience in using the technology.
  • Experiential professional development also depends on reflection: teachers need to reflect on the their hands-on experience and their developing skills and expertise.

Relevant

  • Professional development  should be curriculum focused, with strong links to the curriculum and how teachers can incorporate the technology in meeting the needs of students
  • It should be focused on outcomes – ie focused on what specifically the teachers will be able to do achieve in terms of enhancing learning and supporting the needs of learners.
  • it should be targeted and allow for the diverse range of skills and expertise amongst the teaching staff. For example, there will be teachers who are early adopters as well as teachers who are resistors or technophobes.
  • It should be realistic and avoid hype: it needs to acknowledge limitations and potential issues as well as the benefits.

Situated

  • Professional development  should be located within the organisation rather than externally. External people can be engaged as consultants and advisors but as collaborators rather than ‘outside experts’.
  • External organisations can be useful as exemplars, but need to be understood from inside and at ‘ground level’, not just as a high-level or impressionistic aspirational model.

Evaluated

  • Professional development  should be evaluated effectively. While it’s useful to get feedback from workshop participants on their immediate impressions, it’s essential to also evaluate the overall effectiveness of the professional development in transforming practice. Evaluation at levels 3 and 4 of Kirkpatrick’s evaluation model should be considered.

References

Kolvoord, R (no date). What Happens After the Professional Development: Case Studies on Implementing GIS in the Classroom. Retrieved from http://spatiallearning.org/publications_pdfs/kolvoord_GISbook.pdf

Left, P (2011). PD Scenario. Retrieved from http://www.verso.co.nz/mw/index.php?title=Stories/5

Unknown authors (no date). Donald Kirkpatrick. Retireved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Kirkpatrick

Vrasidas, C (2010). Why Don’t Teachers Adopt Technology? Retrieved from http://elearnmag.acm.org/featured.cfm?aid=1785590

Image: Jasonspera

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