Recently, I attended a party which included other graduate students who were in traditional programs at brick and mortar institutions. In part of the discussion, they alluded to some online universities as being substandard and that the graduates from those kinds of institutions were not adequately educated. Both parties professed that learning online lacked classroom discussion and, therefore, missed a major component to the learning experience. While I acknowledge there are some for-profit universities that have come under fire recently in the news, such as Ashford University and Phoenix University, (“Accreditation news,” 2014), but I think some of the misperception has to do with a common misunderstanding about distance education: that online education is a shortcut and therefore degrees earned are questionable products from a “PO Box University”. Having completed the main coursework for my master’s degree in Instructional Design, my experience has been anything but a “short-cut” or mass-produced degree. On the contrary, my experience has be rewarding and challenging, and I believe I have completed each class with a deep understanding of the content and a strong connection to the teacher and students I have learned with. I discovered that when attention has been paid to creating strong online learning communities, the experience is rich and contributes to the success of the course.
Online learning communities are essential to the success of a distance learning program. An online course, by its nature is solitary in that the learner does not meet in a classroom of fellow students, but rather accesses the information online, and connects via computer to the course. That is why, the development of the learning community is critical, not only to break the isolation, but to expand the learning opportunities. Palloff and Pratt, describe the learning community as a “People, purpose, and process: a community of students and faculty who explore content together to construct meaning and knowledge about that content” (Laureate Education, 2010). The community works together to construct meaning, challenge each other, and share insights into the content material. With a strong community, online learners can learn successfully and develop a sense of pride and satisfaction at achieving success through a team effort. Conrad and Donaldson, (2011) point out that a successful online program is based on an Engaged Learning Model: one rooted in constructivist learning principles with problem-based learning outcomes.
I thought Dr. Palloff’s comment that the creation of the learning community starts even before the class begins was important. With an understanding of how essential the learning community is to a successful distance program, the foundation needs to be established from the outset. Palloff recommends that the exteriors of the learning management system (LMS) and the diction used in the communication sent to the students communicate a feeling that is warm and inviting for the learners. She also states that the instructor’s presence be strong and accessible (Laureate Education, 2010). While both presenters discuss the benefits of student biographies and class icebreakers to facilitate connections among all members of the course, they also encourage instructors to respond to the initial postings quickly in order to model proper discussions responses and to communicate how important everyone’s presence is.
As the course progresses, the continued participation of the members is the lifeblood of the community. The instructor supports the process, but the students are the center; their questions, their input, and their contributions maintain the growth of the community. I have found it comforting that as I progressed from class to class that most of the students who were in my previous classes were in the subsequent ones. I have made friends, enjoyed comments and ideas from my peers just as much as I would have had I been in a physical classroom. I felt comfortable learning with people whom I was familiar with. In addition to learning with an established community, Pratt and Palloff also noted that students stay with a program when they perceive they are learning, they have a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment and feel they are not isolated but a part of something larger (Laureate Education, 2010).
Constructivism is rooted in the belief that learning is a community process and distance learning often uses constructivist theory at the foundation of the design (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). Therefore, building a strong community is paramount to designing a course that students want to attend and can succeed in. Whether working as a designer, or as an instructor, I learned that being present, being human, and connecting with students through an easy-to-use interface, and communicating what the expectations for the course are upfront, will help build the community that is so critical for not just a successful experience, but an experience rich in learning and discovery. As Dr. Pratt stated, building a safe environment for dynamic interaction and a strong learning community is key to creating a successful online learning course. (Laureate Education, 2010).
Accreditation news. (2014). Higher education press. [Web Page]. Retrieved from http://www.hepinc.com/accreditation_news
Boettcher, J., & Conrad, R.-M. (2010). Teaching online: The big picture. In The Online Teaching Survival Guide (pp. 3–17). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Conrad, R.-M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Learning in an online environment. In Engaging the Online Learner (pp. 1–14). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Laureate Education (Producer). (2010). Online learning communities. Retrieved from https://class.walden.edu