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A Little Too Much Community?
Katharine Cunningham -- August 20, 2003
You've registered for an online class. Great!

It's a three-week training, a two month college exam prep course, or just one segment of your degree. Whatever your circumstance, this is a triumph. You commute to your computer.


Katharine Cunningham

You don't wait on campus between lectures, you fold laundry. You reply to threaded posts during an office coffee break. You contribute to class discussions in your pajamas. You don't even go to the bookstore: your reading materials are online or delivered to your door. You have done something so remarkable in our present society, it feels too good to be true: you are getting a quality education and getting more discretionary time than your peers in classrooms.

But then you realize the hidden time costs: online education is still draining more of your time than if you'd like. These come in the form of threaded discussions, internet searches, and collaborative projects with people in different time zones. Often, e-students realize online class time is more time-consuming than on the ground.

Community-building is often a valuable part of online teaching and learning. Communities increase collaborative skills, offer opportunities to interact and negotiate meaning. But, they are not for every subject, or every age group. When designing classes, we must ask ourselves: do the benefits of online community justify the student's time commitment?

Key points:
  • Students may resent spending time and money earmarked for education on meeting new people; most of whom will not have a significant impact on their lives.
  • Shorter classes and a shifting student cohorts are becoming the norm.
  • Communities can be repressive, unsupportive, conservative, and alienating. Does anyone remember high school? You witnessed first-hand or second-hand the stifling effects of communities.
  • Online does not equal adults only. Primary- and secondary-level classes are online. Can facilitators overcome established social hierarchy?
  • In-group and out-group dynamics have the potential to drastically affect participants. Out-group members may make negative associations with education that last for years.

How important is community in a student's educational goals? Yes, some of us found lasting friendships or jobs from our classroom contacts. But what about the rest?

What about learners who prefer to work individually, or who don't "click" with their teammates?

Online learning gives facilitators and participants the chance to tailor education to suit student learning styles (visual, aural, kinesthetic, etc.) and preferences. We can work with these students, not against them.

Online class participation should not drastically outweigh what students would be required to do in a traditional class. Every student is expected to prepare for class and keep up with readings/assignments. However, if an on the ground class meets 2-3 times a week for an hour or two at a time, it doesn't make sense for a busy person to follow a virtual education if s/he has to log in for two hours every day to reply to discussion threads.

The least you should know about online learning communities:

  • Assume participants have outside obligations. They have limited time to master the subject or get qualified. Bottom line: "Enthusiastic community builder" does not go on a diploma.
  • Participants have too little time to form classic anthropological communities. Americans in particular are getting more skilled at functioning in instant communities. What about non-Americans? What about classes composed of people who speak different languages from one another? Community is culturally relevant.

Some students don't want community: the educational loner, the short-term class-taker. For others, community isn't "good" for them: people with the same native language cluster together and don't learn as much of the taught language as their peers. For the over-committed, community participation interferes with their own goals. In sum, community is an important learning tool; but it is just one at the disposal of educators. Use it where it works; use other methods where they work better.

Katharine Cunningham
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About the Author
Katharine is a MS Ed student in Online Teaching and Learning and holds a MA in Archaeology.   She has been teaching, studying Education, or working to finance her passions for Education and ancient cultural artifacts since 1996. 

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