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Bring the Qualities of Online Communities in Your Real Life
Shangri-La Group:
Carmen Holotescu
Carmen De Sabata
Cosmina Ivan
Group project produced in the five-week online UMUC class
taught by Professor Richard Powers ( Spring 2001 ).

Short presentation of distance education

Online education represents the beginning of a new paradigm for learning and teaching, that solves some important aspects of today's society: 

  • necessity for continuous education of many categories of people 
  • necessity for allowing the participation to the same course of persons located far one from each other. 
  • Today, three main types of online learning environments exist: 
  • unintegrated ( the vast majority ) 
  • Web-integrated ( like WebTycho, Blackboard5
  • virtual world systems ( Multi-user Object Oriented Environments - MOOs ). 
  • In the web-based environment the instruction is much more student-oriented

    The teacher acts as a coach rather than a transmitter of information as usually happens in f2f classroom, and also acts as a guide, pointing students to the appropriate tools and resources for their own learning, for they become lifelong learners. 

    Since most communication takes place via written messages, writing skill and the ability to put thoughts into words are decisive. Also the asynchronous setting, where you do not need to respond immediately, gives you the chance to think more about responses.

    The importance of learners interaction and communities in DE

    Far from being impersonal, and standardized, online learning environments provide highly individualized and exciting educational experiences both for teachers and students, creating real online communities. 

    The online environment must be conceptualized as a more open partnership of instructor and self-directed learners, in which the learners decide, conduct, and control much of the learning process. 

    The community is built by using the features that permit the interactions between students and teacher. The teacher can use a lot of strategies to begin the creation of the community, to initiate the "atmosphere", based on his philosophical orientation, and his chosen moderator roles, but ALL the members must struggle for building it. 

    In fact the community exists only if all the members of online class feel it, after some common experiences , after all the members are somehow involved; usually this happens as the students are adults with serious life and professional experiences. 

    We don't have to push the things, we don't have to force the community assembling. We must allow the students to integrate following each one's rhythm. 

    A lot of talk can be done on the aspect that the community is formed by virtual personalities. 
    Are these better than the real ones or only parts of them? 
    Can we become someone else in online environment? 

    What to do for creating a community

    From the beginning, the teacher must use, even in lectures, a conversational tone, be enthusiastic, give the same attention to all, treat each student or student group as a distinct entity , provide help, encouragement, quick feedback.

    The features that permit interactions must be used as much as possible - online debates, group problem solving, creating communication groups via e-mail or chat; threaded, hierarchical tree structure of conferences gives participants a "sense of place". 

    The conferences must be integral part of the course. If students are to make the effort to learn the technology and be enthusiastic about its learning potential, it has to be important to the course the way they are evaluated.

    The students would be encouraged to do work for the conference off-line, for better and more profound results.

    When the students have questions, or need specific information, or have difficulties in their project, they must be encouraged to address their messages to the whole class rather than just to the instructor.

    The course must be designed so that any student irrespective of his computer, modem or bandwidth to be able to be in "classroom"; so the critical factor is THE TIME needed to "enter in" (not too many images, short and clear lectures -- so called netlectures, without redundancy; some articles talk about Feng Shui of online environments).

    Also the course must be designed in an attractive manner and the individual or group assignments, conferences created in such a way that every student to have to check often the newly posted information but to be eager to do this, too.

    Every week must bring something new - besides the information itself -, be it the assignments style and/or the presentation style, so that the students can hardly wait to enter the "classroom". It's a difficult task out there :-)

    Multiple conferences/subconferences must be created, each one focused on one purpose (e.g., one for socializing, one for assisting each other with technical advises, one for sharing online references, one for each group, one for the weekly discussion topics, etc.). 

    Using metaphors creates a sense of architecture for orientation in the various conferences; each conference environment should have its own standards of (verbal) behavior - formal or informal. 
    Maybe excessive usage of terms like "cyber" or "virtual" (even though they sound cool) could induce a feeling of artificial and cold environment. Choosing natural names for the discussion spaces can help diminish the strange feeling of talking to a wired box.

    What to avoid

    To give low priority to conferences participation or collaborative projects; 

    To think that all students learn and act the same; 

    To give from the beginning a very difficult assignment; 

    Not to encourage the students with poor start activity. 

    A comparison with f2f education communities

    If in F2F environment, the teacher can really interact with only a part of the students, in the online one peer can exist between every two individuals.  But in a f2f class it's easier to keep the students "plugged-in" than in a distance class. 

    The online education could be an alternative for people less skilled for prompt interactions required by the f2f classes. In an online conference one can expose his/her ideas without being interrupted. 

    We cannot consider either of the two education types as being better or worse. They are simply necessary, both of them.

    The technology must be used for improving the educational methods, but not in the sense of replacing one form with the other. 

    We don't have to encourage the tendency towards isolation manifested by some people who prefer the computer "friendship". This could become a social problem. The Web must be first of all an instrument for reducing the distance between humans and not a spider web collecting victims. 

    The online environment permits knowledge sharing and creation, but also social interactions, that can resist even after the course ends. 

    The experience of online learning is unique both for teacher and students, producing many changes in their views on life, communities, sharing, learning.


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