It's nearly Christmas and New Year, and an opportunity to look back at the Facilitating eLearning Communities course that I have just completed. This represents my (still developing) understanding about online learning communities.

(photo: merry flickrmas,

Community and learning

A learning community is a group of people who share a common purpose and are engaged in a shared learning experience over time.

A sense of community is important because it provides the social environment that supports learning. Belonging to a learning community has the potential to promote deeper learning, support, cooperation, increase retention, and provide a greater sense of individual satisfaction and well-being (Rovai, 2002). Within the community, members can explore their ideas and understanding with others; and it is in these connections and interactions that their understanding is influenced, challenged and ultimately transformed. Rovai (2002) describes the social connections as

“… members of [online] classroom communities will have feelings of belonging and trust. They will believe that they matter to one another and to the group; that they have duties and obligations to each other and to the school; and that they possess a shared faith that members’ educational needs will be met through their commitment to shared goals.”

Communities do not automatically develop but have an increased chance of emerging with the provision of the right mix of ingredients. These ingredients centre around the members of the group (students and teacher/facilitator) and their actions and interactions with the content and each other. Both Konrad Glagowski and Derek Chirnside in the 10-minute presentations described how they structured their learning environments to support the development of a learning community. They identified the following characteristics: building up confidence in using the technology, developing social presence and an online identity, co-participation of the teacher and student, using personally-relevant learning tasks (authentic learning experiences), providing collaborative participatory learning activities, timely and constructive peer and teacher feedback, opportunities for reflection, extending beyond the online classroom, and the importance of the process as well as the end-product. This supports a constructivist view of learning, with the learner at the centre constructing their own knowledge from their individual and shared learning experiences.

Communities need some rules and guidelines, for example, about member’s roles and expected behaviours around participation, netiquette, and respect for people’s views and identity. These shouldn’t stifle the group and put people off from participating; clear, simple, relevant to the group and open for discussion and negotiation. Building up trust within a community is crucial for establishing relationships and connection among members so they feel safe to share themselves and reveal their weaknesses. Without trust, Rovai (2002) says the community

“does not engender the open and caring environment needed to promote diverse and constructive interactions that empower learners to negotiate common understandings in their quest for learning new perspectives and ideas”.

To what extent did our group form a community?

Most participants who continued to the end agreed that a learning community had formed and that their learning and understanding had been significant. I agree with this although I personally don’t feel a strong sense of connection and support, unlike others in the group. The confusion in the beginning over the multiple communication channels, privacy concerns, disagreement, and who made-up the group may have contributed to this. As we progressed on to when participants were starting to share their thoughts more openly and make connections, I was overwhelmed by the technology tools. At this time, just following the conversations, postings, and resources took up so much time there was little left for contributions or responses, as expressed in this blog post. So I guess I chose to step back and try and take it all in, from a safe place on the periphery of the group. Several people have since commented that pre-requisite knowledge of the tools would help avoid this situation, allowing participants to focus more on the topic of facilitating communities.

Social presence

Social presence is one of the important factors contributing to interaction, collaboration and creating a sense of community. It refers to the ability of learners and facilitator/s to project themselves as “real people” and their reciprocal awareness of others in an online environment (Cutler, 1995; Rovai, 2002). We exhibit social presence through expressing personal values, emotion and feelings, using salutation and closure in messages, acknowledging the messages of others and giving feedback, and making inquiries (eg requesting clarification, information or advice). The social presence of facilitators is also linked to providing learning support and assistance, and encouraging active participation (Na Ubon & Kimble, 2004).

It is not surprising that a positive cycle can develop as students begin establishing social connections: the more a participant projects their identity and shares something of themselves then the more that others will reciprocate, and the more trust and support is developed (Cutler, 1995). This effect was definitely evident in the more active participants of our course, who generally posted more frequently and received more feedback. It has also been found that having more experience of online courses contributes positively to social presence, perhaps because students have developed specialized learning skills for the online environment and have a better understanding of how they can project their identity (Hostetter & Busch, 2006). In our course those that were more experienced online communicators and more comfortable with the technology were able to develop their social presence more quickly.

Participation and interaction

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach in The Art of Building Virtual Communities summarized two models that represent the varying levels of participation found in online communities – from visiting to contributing to leading. In David Lee’s model Leaders contribute frequently and are central to “building the fire” that draws others in to participate. Members of the community who contribute regularly are described as Learners. Lurkers are generally invisible, mostly following the activities of the group and participating occasionally. People who visit from time to time to see whether it’s worthwhile joining are considered as Linkers. A similar model of participation presented by Derek Wenmoth describes Consumers as the lurkers gaining knowledge and understanding from reading and exploring others contributions. Commentors make responses to others posts, while contributors are more confident and start new threads of discussion. Commentators provide leadership, evaluating and drawing conclusions from the contributions of others to see the “bigger picture”.

While all of these members are valuable to the well-being of a community, it is clear that its survival is dependent on those who make regular contributions and provide leadership. In our course there were a core group of active participants, which I thank for their openness, curiosity, and determination, as we went on this journey of discovery. They appeared to quickly become comfortable with the technology and communicating their ideas. As they established their social presence, a positive cycle of feedback and support developed around them. There were also less active participants and Sarah provided her insights into why members may find it difficult to participate,

“I feel I have nothing to add or what I wanted to say has already been said. I may feel intimidated or lack confidence – I do not want to take a risk or expose myself. I may also be concerned with privacy issues eg I do not want my thoughts or comments to get back to colleagues or my boss … It may be that I do not know how to contribute - what buttons to press or where to put my comment … [lurkers] may learn in different ways to the people who are at the hub of the group”.

I recognize much of Sarah’s comments in myself. I also feel that my tendancy to mull things over, often left postings and comments partially completed and then abandoned as I moved onto to something else.

The role of the teacher / facilitator

In the group forum there was an energized conversation about teaching vs facilitating, with Leigh suggesting that you can’t be both a teacher with all the power and a facilitator who is more neutral with a passive presence. Many in the group expressed their beliefs that a good teacher could move between the two roles dependent on the needs of individuals or group, stepping back as a ‘guide on the side’ who encouraged and supported the learner to make their own discoveries, and stepping forward to provide expert knowledge and direction when needed. After all this time I’m still thinking about this. I teach foundation level students many of whom begin as dependent learners with little background knowledge about bioscience. To start with I am usually the teacher, who provides the knowledge and helps direct and organise their learning but as they gain some expertise I can step back and become more of a facilitator.

Online teachers/facilitators have multiple roles to fulfil, as described by Ed Hootstein’s (2002) wearing four pairs of shoes. These include being a/an:

Instructor: guiding self-directed learning, providing resources and creating relevant learning experiences
Social director: stimulating learner participation and interaction in collaborative environments
Programme manager: meeting organizational, procedural and administrative responsibilities
Technical assistant: helping learners feel comfortable with the technology

Salmon (2002) has developed a useful 5-stage model that outlines the roles (moderating and technical) that online teachers play to support interaction and learning in an online course, progressing through access and motivation, online socialization, information exchange, knowledge construction, and development.

Putting this into practice:
- be aware of barriers to getting set up with the technology, and provide support and resources to aid access
- provide an explanation as to why active participation is important along with guidelines for participating. Set realistic expectations for what participants can manage. Be open about how uncomfortable and difficult it may be.
- begin with simple and interesting activities (ice-breakers and introductions) to build up confidence and
become comfortable with the learning environment, technology and interaction.

These points focus on the first two stages of Salmon’s (2002) 5-stage model which addresses the technical or social issues that may inhibit participation, and provides motivation to join in and share some information about themselves (eg their understanding, culture, issues or concerns). It’s critical to follow-up early with support and guidance if participants are struggling. For those who are already experienced, they could act as buddies at this time.

- design relevant small group interactive learning activities like these outlined here. Group activities encourage interaction with course content and each other. Working collaboratively can contribute to deeper learning and building a sense of community.
This is working through stages 3 and 4 of Salmon’s (2002) model.

Last but not least, online facilitators need to be positive, proactive, patient and persistent (these four P’s are essential qualities according to Hywel Thomas here):
positive: to build rapport, generate enthusiasm, maintain interest and help when the going gets tough;
proactive: to make things happen, be a catalyst (if necessary) to help learners get going on a course, to recognise when action needs to be taken and take it
patient: to understand the needs of each learner as well as the group and to adapt to their timeframes as far as possible
persistent: to keep at things, stop learners from drifting away, and deal with any technical or other problems

Online communication tools

“High quality interaction, full participation and reflection do not happen simply by providing the technology. Hence the need to design online activities carefully, to reduce barriers and enhance the potential of the technology” (Salmon, 2002).

Online technology provides the communication framework of the learning environment. The tools must fit the purpose, that is, to enable and support the desired learning experiences, and be relatively simple and user-friendly. For any of these tools you have to be aware of possible glitches and providing time and support for participants to become familiar and comfortable with using them. Those I see as particularly useful for teaching bioscience include a course blog, wiki for group work (eg projects and case studies), and ElluminateLive for tutorials and group work (eg brainstorming, problems, discussion). I’d like to continue my exploration of SecondLife because I think it may offer some interesting opportunities to actually get inside the body.

Blogs provide an opportunity for students to share information, reveal their understanding, and reflect on experiences. Receiving feedback from others contributes to their growing understanding and a network of interactions can form through reading and commenting on each others blogs. While I would encourage colleagues and students to consider using these I don’t think that it is necessary for bioscience students to have individual blogs, but I see the value of a course blog that they could contribute to.

I think wikis have a lot to offer in providing a space for students to work together. As part of our course I developed two wikis: my wiki project called Group Activities in Bioscience and a wikispace called BiosciTeach wiki for Facilitating a Discussion assessment. Once I finally got under way they were both relatively easy to set up and add information to. I’ve invited colleagues to collaborate on these but they need a bit more encouragement, so that’s a focus for next year. I confess to not really following what others had completed in their wikis (and hence not offering any contributions) so I might have a look back through them.

I really like the opportunities provided by the computer conferencing tool Elluminate, which provides real time communication with voice and IM options, as well as a whiteboard and web links. With the ability to use powerpoint presentations, real-time discussion and small group work, I think this would be very useful for bioscience tutorials and encouraging social interaction. Apart from the odd time went it went down, it was used very effectively for the 10-minute presentations and subsequent discussions. And here’s a post on how I used it with colleagues for a discussion on Encouraging Social Interactions.

Phew, that’s my review for now. I'm going to go back through and catch up on some of the other material from this course that I overlooked along the way. A big thank you to Bronwyn and Leigh and all the other participants who have given so much. It was a hard road but well worth it!


Cutler, R. H. (1995). Distributed presence and community in cyberspace, Interpersonal Communication and Technology: A Journal for the 21st Century, 1 (2). Available at:
Hostetter, C. & Busch, M. (2006). Measuring Up Online: The Relationship between
Social Presence and Student Learning Satisfaction, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6 (2), pp. 1 – 12. Available at:
Na Ubon, A. & Kimble, C. (2004). Exploring Social Presence in Asynchronous Text-Based Online Learning Communities. In Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Information Communication Technologies in Education 2004, Samos Island, Greece, July 2004, pp.292-297. Available at:
Rovai, A.P. (2002). Building Sense of Community at a Distance. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3 (1). Available at:
Salmon, G. (2002). Five-step model of teaching and learning online.
Available at:


  1. Leigh Blackall said...

    nice post Veronique. Well done including all the links to various places in the course. That is valuable.

    One thing that troubles me, not so much in your post, but in the general discussion of this topic is the importance of developing trust.

    You wrote:
    "Communities need some rules and guidelines, for example, about member’s roles and expected behaviours around participation, netiquette, and respect for people’s views and identity. These shouldn’t stifle the group and put people off from participating; clear, simple, relevant to the group and open for discussion and negotiation."

    And while I read similar things by others in the education sector, it doesn't seem to reflect my own experiences with online learning communities. Admittedly, all my experiences with online learning communities go on outside the education sector (all accept this one we share), so I wonder about this explicit need.

    I agree that these things are present in some way, but they are almost never expressed or made explicit. They are largely modeled and sometimes discussed by established members of the community, but I don't think I have ever been pointed to a place where they are expressed...

    I note the difference in the education sector though, where they typically aim to set up and close learning communities based on a time frame, enrolment process and restriction on learning (learning objectives). These things almost demand a significant amount of control in a 'community' and so I think that is why I see expressions like yours so often from people in the education sector.

    I especially think this because later in your post you go to some effort to describe how trust developed through gradual disclosure, and that a sense of community developed over time in the group. I don't think this can developed any other way actually. It takes time, perhaps the sort of time that the education sector is not accustomed to...

    I wonder, given that this course exists within the confines of education, having a beginning and an end, a set of learning objectives, an assessment process and everything else.. I wonder with the small sense of community we have built if learning within it will continue. Or will the educational process prevail and we will disband to where we came from.. this would be ok of course.. it was a course after all, and we all learnt something from it.. but I wonder, how much more could be learnt still? Perhaps we can explore this together when the course starts anew, with a fresh batch of 'students'. Hopefully we will still have a few from the 'old' batch around and willing to play that important role of confident and experienced members of the community to help the new members feel welcomed and supported.

  2. TV de LCD said...
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