In some cases, terminology can be self-explanatory. In others in can be obfuscating. In the case of the Online Learning Community, we might assume the former. It’s obvious right? A community forms online, via a web site, for the purpose of learning from one another. I would argue that even this seemingly pedestrian phrase deserves unpacking.
Now I don’t mean to be pedantic, or to obsess over minutiae when there is important work to be done. But I fear, that when new methods of communication and collaboration are introduced by an organization—at the institutional level—there is a serious risk for rejection by the community. It is possible that this rejection could could stem from the fact that those of us who have deployed the new system do not have a clear understanding of how and why the Online Learning Community should be used.
This misunderstanding may be a result of a presumption on our part of the obvious utility of the Online Learning Community. Learning is good. We all should be learning. Community indicates that we understand that communication and collaboration cannot and should not be a centralized or top-down process. And Online means that it’s convenient, easy, accessible and ubiquitous. So it should be a slam-dunk.
The problem with this assumption is that each of these concepts is much more complicated than this simple explanation. When we think of an Online Learning Community, we should really be thinking about a Virtual Community of Practice. Let me explain.
The Community of Practice is a living, growing and adapting thing. It is characterized by it’s members’ collective effort in doing something—its practice. Through its act of doing something (e.g. teaching young children, developing policy, etc.), the community is both being and becoming. In other words, the actions it takes defines it, and as the actions change so does the community.
Thus, learning is a requirement of both newcomers to the community who must learn its ways, and the old-timers who adapt their established practices to changing times. Practice is doing and doing is learning. Community members must constantly learn from each other, both formally and informally. Teaching and learning are pre-requisites for the existence of a Community of Practice. Thus a Community of Practice is, by definition, a Learning Community.
Now comes the Online aspect of our community. The Information and Communications Technology that allows for Communities of Practice to form without the physical co-presence of practitioners can be both liberating and intimidating. If the community is not engaged in technologically mediated practice as the activity that defines it, then the technology itself may create a barrier to learning rather than facilitate it. That is, the members must first learn the technology before they can engage one another in their collective practice.
This barrier does not make it impossible to form a Virtual Communities around practices that do by definition require Information and Communications Technology to function. But the complications therein must be considered, and every attempt should be made to lower the cognitive load of technology adoption. Furthermore, the practitioners should see immediate and practical benefits to participating in an Online Learning Community that make the additional effort worth the time.
In a nutshell, an Online Learning Community should be relatively easy to engage in with immediate practical results that improve outcomes—a Virtual Community of Practice that generates new knowledge and adapts to a changing world.
I think this is helpful to talk about, especially for those of us, like you said, that take this sort of online environment for granted.
I think I'm about to obsess on something possibly fluffy or sentimental here for a second: One of the things that makes up a community is a commonality of beliefs and attitudes - basically a community has a culture. I think that's one of the things that UF and COE both have, but it's hard to put into words.
Where this relates in terms of our Online Community is that it might not be easy to engage in because we haven't voiced what our culture for the COE is. Once that was a little more expressed, it might make it easier to engage in the community online.
Again, I know this is a pretty lofty idea, but I think the mark we might be able to shoot for is to poll our members of the COE Community - students, colleagues, prospective students, faculty, and staff - and find out what they think.
I don't have anything more than that idea as of right now. I'm not sure how we'd implement it, but I think it's an important piece of the puzzle. How do we define the culture at the COE?
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