Monday, February 16, 2009

Community in the (online) Classroom

sign of life

I've been taking an online class on the topic of ... well, online classes (specifically, instructional design) for the past few weeks, and I've come to what seems to be a glaring realization. Unless you are *highly* motivated (i.e., a graduate student or taking the class out of personal interest), online classes are no fun. But why is 'fun' a requirement of a class, you may ask? Well, it's not. But here's what I'm thinking:

One of the perks of going to class for many students is to see their friends. Yes, yes, they may learn something along the way (yawn), but what really gets students out of bed is to see what's happening with their peers. Now, current online classes are adept at providing all of the content of the class, but very little of the community. I can predict the type of people who do well in online classes: self-motivated, self-disciplined, self-directed learners who actually enjoy reading and writing and sitting quietly on the computer. Discounting yourself, how many students does this describe? What about all of the other students, who for whatever reason opt to take an online class and find the process so grueling that it turns out to be easier to take the class in person?

For online courses to reach their full potential, a course management system must provide options for students to customize their classes. This means students should be able to create an online identity, should be able to create forums for discussions, share files easily, and interact with other members of the class. A class is a community, and online classes are lacking in personal interaction and acceptance of user-generated content outside of text-based discussion posts and assignments.

Online classes are choosing to push course content to students and wash their hands of all other aspects of the traditional classroom. Online communities are flourishing on the web, while the atmosphere of most online classes is deadly. In the online classroom it's all business, and interactions are often cold and formal. The atmosphere is more like a 19th century schoolroom than a modern one. I'm surprised there haven't been riots. Instead, there has just been a widespread rejection of the notion that online classes are comparable to in-person ones. I hope this can change.


  1. I had a take a number of online courses as part of my Master's, and you can count me among those who dislike the format. I think my main problem was with synchronicity. Sure, it was a hassle to physically get to the classroom (I was a commuter), but once I was there I did enjoy getting to interact with my instructor and peers in real-time. Of course, since asynchronous learning is basically the entire draw of online courses, I guess I'm out of luck here.

    You bring up an interesting point comparing online classes to other online communities. Posting because you feel like you have something interesting to contribute and posting because you're required to make two posts per week does seem pretty different to me. Aside from that, though, accessing online course content is *difficult*! Online courses always require a log-in instead of using cookies (I assume for security reasons), and the ones I've seen require like 5 additional click-throughs and take a long time to load. It might seem minor, but it's a lot easier to check to see if someone responded to my post in an online community than my post in an online course. Plus, online courses rarely interact with existing content aggregators, like RSS or social networking tools.

    That said, it does seem like the actual course materials are improving, as more instructors are providing audio and video content instead of just a powerpoint with a message board. It does bug me that instructors rarely update these materials, though.

  2. For online courses to reach their full potential, a course management system must provide options for students to customize their classes. This means students should be able to create an online identity, should be able to create forums for discussions, share files easily, and interact with other members of the class.

    We should teach online classes over some social network that already exists... Like facebook or XBOX 360 :-).

    I think a lot of the stuff you mention is possible in CMSs like blackboard, except for the creation of a true identity. But why would a student make an identity for their online class when they already have an identity via facebook?

  3. Actually I was thinking on my way to work this morning about what a hassle our login/authentication process is, because our student ID and library card systems don't work together. So a student taking a class online who is logged into the course must log into the library resources separately to use them. Yuck. Greater interoperability would be one reason to go to an open source integrated library system.

    One small thing an instructor teaching an online course could do is use the PDFs from library databases & post them to the class...but then we get into copyright issues in terms of the instructor's right to distribute electronic copies.

  4. yeah, I've thought about what halfawake says, & at first was imagining something like students embedding their facebook profiles in their profiles for an online class...but then, that seems like TOO much information, and you're not always automatically going to want to be 'friends' with all of your classmates...more important is the ability to have control over how you represent yourself, I think.

    It could be that CMSs have just missed the boat on this one, but I'd hate to think so. Learning how to represent yourself online to an audience that doesn't just consist of your BFFs is important.

  5. Spectacular feather photo! Clicking on it opens up in remarkable detail.

    Maybe a juvenile downy feather? Or perhaps an adult feather that got 'ruffed' up, 'grousing' about something?

    Surely is a sign of life!

  6. Olivia - great post! I am currently pushing for our college to look at something like FaceBook Connect (via ConnectYard or other such service: as a way to create more of a seamless connection into existing online communities. Through a tool like this, I believe it's possible for an instructor (or student) to set up a class (or dept or even college-wide) communal area based around the existing Facebook profile.

  7. Our team at the Gilfus Education Group just released this white paper to provide critical insights to practitioners while clarifying "Social Learning" as a concept.

    Social Learning Buzz Masks Deeper Dimensions Mitigating the confusion surrounding “Social Learning” (Download Here)

    It is our hope that by leveraging socially based technologies the education industry can shape a new educational technology paradigm that realizes the promises of true “Social Learning”.

    By understanding its applications we can create a unique opportunity to improve student engagement, student retention, academic success and overall educational outcomes.

    – Stephen Gilfus, Gilfus Education Group (Founder Blackboard Inc. left the organization in 2007)

  8. Glad to read this white paper; I particularly like the call for action at the end: "Creating a well-crafted social learning platform would most likely require a deeply collaborative effort among a group of technology experts, educators, social learning theorists, psychologists, sociologists, and students." Maybe the participation of some librarians would be acceptable too?

    Meanwhile, in the New York Times today, "Study Finds that Online Education Beats the Classroom":