Online Community Building: The Unseen Cornucopia

J.-D. Cogmon is a community service advocate and lifelong learning who happens to be an administrator for a small charter school. In addition to working in leadership, he teaches and learns from students grades 6-12 each day. J.-D. has worked in universities, as a drop-out prevention specialist for Pupil Services with San Francisco and is intent on improving equity in primary education in his community and around the world.

The gratifying experience of building an online community can induce the euphoria of reading a childhood fairy tale. The contrast of frustration and triumph in navigating the many challenges of building an online community must be met by today’s educator in order to develop the minds of tomorrow. Facebook, Myspace, Linkedin, Twitter, Blogspot, and Google wave are just a few examples of Social Media tools that are fueling the notable growth of online communities built around the simplicity of communication. Meanwhile Moodle, Blackboard, Dokeos, Sakai, Atutor and countless other Learning Management Systems (LMS) are expanding access in education while contributing to the growth of online communities around the world. It is clear that the next iteration of dedicated educator will now need to use social capital to influence friends and colleagues to join their continual quest of building online communities. The educator is expected to fulfill a minimum of four roles: instructor, social director, program manager, and technical assistant (Hootstein, 2002). Building online communities help to obtain buy-in from stakeholders: students, parents and schools, while providing a safe learning environment to master the web-based editors and computer mediated communications that are essential for raising the bar in education. This article will discuss how online communities are the engines that are compelling educators to take a step towards more learner centered approaches that potentially meet the needs of more of the various learning styles that have been identified.

Why is it important to build online communities?
Educators are faced with the challenge of teaching and satisfying their students, pleasing parents, board members, employers and colleagues all with limited resources, a minimal budget and very little professional development. So it is not a surprise that educators have to wear so many proverbial hats to reach their objectives. All of the different stakeholders place a different value on the multitude of often competing priorities. While administrators seek to reduce the bottom line in the fiscal year budget, teachers may be concerned with materials, support, salary and class size. Meanwhile students may not always know what they want, but they can be quite gifted at identifying that which does not work. Online communities are a great place to dialogue about the various priorities and give examples of work to accompany suggestions. The more understanding and context that is shared between the different stakeholders, the less resistance there is between them. This organically produces a collaborative effort where the emphasis is on successfully reaching the educational goals that all stakeholders share; producing educated students that can think critically autonomously on their own and in groups. In the class that I instruct feedback and assessment is woven into the structure of the class. Students play “hot seat” with each other to discuss how their work can impact the classroom in positive and negative aspects. In addition, part of the final essay is to discuss the things that they like about the course and the components that they would like to see changed. This feedback loop (Beaubien, J. 2002) gives the most important stakeholders, the students, the opportunity to shape the course in a way that gives them input and ownership in the process. A process that has created a high sense of fellowship and cohesion that will sustain the online community that we have built together.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to building online communities in education is offering more opportunities for the students to assimilate the information that is more pleasing for their learning style. In the Handbook of online learning: Innovations in higher education and corporate training, the authors discuss how education is now “demand driven” because it meets the individual needs of students and community members by allowing them to “pull” information at a speed that is more conducive to their learning, schedule preference and overall convenience. Online communities are accessed according to the demand of the student or consumer they are like “drinking from a fire hose…to directing a fine water fountain stream.” In essence participants can choose how they educate themselves and when (Doucette, 1998 p. 26).

Relating My Experience
In order to leap across the digital divide it was very important to slowly get the students on board gradually. This was done through countless icebreakers and group building exercises that were aimed at developing trust between the students and with the instructor. The class started in the classroom with a WordPress blog where homework was posted. As the students got familiar with the blog, I was able to address technical support issues such as pop-up blockers, learning how to retrieve passwords, and making assignments clear and concise. Students were able to vote on the overall theme as part of the assignment and they chose a facebook theme called “facebooky” This was the perfect opportunity to use social media to propel the development of the web-blog by adding a plug-in for the kids to connect to our classroom blog using Facebook. Using social media added another layer of fun and interactivity to the project while using the social capital of the students who already had Facebook accounts to encourage the students who did not even have email accounts. This was the perfect opportunity to call parents and share what was happening in the class in anticipation of a “back to school” night where a presentation was made to address any concerns or anxiety.

As the weeks and months progressed, the students were required to produce commercials about one classmate to present to the class. When the assignments were completed they were placed online for the school community to view. This created an amazing amount of buy-in from all stakeholders and produced the opportunity to begin doing student recognition online each week for all to see. Since constructivism is an idea that is openly shared with the students, we began to allow the students in the class to elect an outstanding leader once a month. It was clear that the students had bonded and now trusted each other and were ready to begin using an open source Learning Management System called Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, known by most people as “Moodle.”
As time passed, all students began to enjoy Moodle because the assignment were “pull” technology and thy had more control over when to complete assignments. The class now has a thriving online community that the students enjoy and learn from.

Online Communities are grown with feedback
The experience has demonstrated that “online community” has different definitions for different people. Therefore, it is very important that when building an online community that you keep all stakeholders feedback and criticisms in mind. This allows you to tailor the community to address the anxieties and desires and adds the option to assess all components with honest open feedback. It is essential to reiterate Hootstein’s 2002 assertion that you be willing to wear different hats to reach your goals and not be afraid to seek out other online communities for support. Online communities allow you to seek support from people who may be more acustomed to wearing the proverbial hat of expertise that you need to step up your professional game. In essence, online communities help you to grow and develop whatever you are developing on through self-development and coordinating with others. The feedback that you get from the experts in online communities will allow you to push past the boundaries of your comfort zone with a greater sense of confidence.

Outcome and Recommendations
Now that the rate of unemployment has surpassed 10% nationally in the United States of America, many people are returning to school for a diploma, a degree or vocational training that will help them attain and sustain the coveted “american dream.” Distance learning universities are tangible examples that demonstrates the trend that many people in America and around the world are following: attaining an education online. Obtaining an education online is linked to becoming part on an online community. Online students have to learn through individual and group assignments that over time build a sense of community in their online environment. Online students often have to keep journals of their progress, collaborate on wikis and often use Course Management Systems (CMS) like Blackboard. Although there are various challenges to be met in online education there are various online communities to help the student navigate the challenges. An excellent example is At this site students can rate professors and get advise from previous students about how to best meet the challenges that a particular teacher may hold. Students can easily opt to ignore the information if they suspect that the review was written in an effort to avenge themselves and focus on the quality feedback that is not personalized.

Any student may learn through the online community that the instructor facilitates through discussion boards and group assignments while participating in other online communities. There are many forums and wikis on the internet that facilitate learning by providing information and support. Wikis usually are a dynamic collaborative tool for people with a common interest or goal to develop their idea into a deliverable while forums and blogs tend to be topic driven forums for reflection and information. Blogs and wikis can be linked to many networks (see that are like in terms of interest or objectives, however, they all qualify as components of an online community.

What’s Important to an educator?
There are many things to consider when building an online community: Is there a need? Identifying your audience. The objective of the project. Is it a long-term or short-term project? As an educator and administrator who works with charter schools and k-12 schools, I found that my biggest challenges to meet included: (a) stakeholders (b) resources/budget (c) pedagogy theory and practice.
Resistance to technology proved to be a big obstacle because it often encompasses converting face-to-face classroom course materials into an online web-based curriculum. Teachers who understand why it is important to use the tactics of constructivism and Bloom’s Taxonomy may not know necessarily know how to facilitate reaching their learning objectives using computer mediated communications tools, or “Web 2.0” materials. Conversely, individuals whom are technology experts may lack the pedagogical underpinnings to be effective when using the dynamic, collaborative, communicative and interactive qualities that are now referred to as web 2.0 materials. Online communities such as blogs, wikis and forums provide the opportunities to share and discuss the latest innovations in real time or with static text. With an online community the needs of the stakeholders, the resources/budget along with theory and practice can be discussed in quantitative and quantitative ways.
A perfect example of the unifying synergy that online communities, web tools and pedagogy can produce is the tech virtual site. In their own words,

The Tech Virtual is a not only a museum in Second Life, it is also a collaborative design platform for science and technology museums worldwide. The purpose of this platform is to generate concepts and content for use in museum exhibits.”

The tech virtual exhibit exist inside of a perpetual virtual world know as “Second Life.” Second Life is free to download and login provided that you don’t buy land. Second Life has the adult life and teen life separated to keep students safe. The main idea is that instead of using video cameras or microphones, each person signs into a virtual world as an avatar that you design to specifications. The experience allows for game playing or for simple classroom or workshop learning using a variety of backgrounds and locations. Although the Tech Virtual option allows for science enthusiast to participate in building their experience virtually, there is no limit to the types of learning and interaction that can take place using Second Life or similar technology. It does not take much imagination to consider how education will change when you combine the database of google earth with a comprehensive geography or history database. Perhaps the best application would be to study abroad virtually. There are numerous language study courses that are benefiting from this technology such as, “MyChinavillage,” or “Instituto Espanol Second Life,” that show how universities and other institutions combine pedagogy and cutting edge technology to rally people around education using video game like fun and community development.
Many of the aforementioned topics can stand on their own in an article, but collectively they all substantiate and validate the power and momentum that building online communities have attained. Such tools provide a crystal ball like glimpse of what’s in store for the future of education technology, pedagogy and online communities role in developing these resources to the apex of their potential.

The simplicity of using online communities to balance the strengths and weaknesses of everyone in education can be best harnessed through collaboration. With the use of collaborative tools such as blogs, wikis, youtube and Second Life, the learning curve can be greatly reduced. In online communities people are recognized for the tasks that they tend to be strong at and the internet provides the diversity necessary for people to participate in online communities using a variety of mediums. When particpants can choose a blog or a wiki, or Second Life, Adobe connect or Google wave it is quite clear that online community building is here to stay, you need only decide your method to interact with others.The use of various tools can easily be seen by educators as an effective form of differentiation in learning and educational scaffolding.This approach allows for the many different learning styles and teacing styles to support each other through interaction. An example would be that the people with the strong technical skills could do much of the set-up and configuration of LMS such as Moodle and Chamilo and the teachers would construct the courses using the pedagogy to make the technology more efficient. The more often the two types of subject experts learn from each other the stronger their secondary skills become.

In the age where No Child Left Behind has reduced resources in public schools it has been necessary to use differentiation in learning and educational scaffolding when working with students to create a blended environment. The students who have strong math skills are often partnered with those who have strong language skills and it produces a “teacher paradox.” The students reinforce their learning each time they have to explain it to their peers. In essence, everyone wins from these forms of collaborations. People naturally support one another to develop in online communities provided that there are guidelines, expectations, supports, and healthy feedback. The measurable outcomes that students can demonstrate at the end of any course is a bonus for us educators. There is an added advantage of convenience in online communities because people can retrieve the information whenever they want at the speed they want to receive it. Participating in online communities is the best sustainable, feasible and most effective way to please stakeholders, increase capacity in students and meet budget deficits. Open source software such as, Moodle, and Chamilo are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of what awaits the pioneering educator or life-long learner who decides to build or contribute to an online community.


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