Pursuing the elusive metaphor of community in virtual learning environments

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Social networking software sites are often mistakenly called learning communities, betraying a significant lack of agreement or concern for what actually constitutes a community. However, social networking sites are being used by teachers to engage students in dynamic ways, and by learners as vehicles for constructing their own, very personal learning environments and communities. This paper draws on lessons we have learned about building personal learning environments and virtual communities from our research and experience in formal and non-formal learning environments. It addresses the key questions of how can we construct, maintain and usher out communities, who joins communities, and what characteristics of communities seem to be shared across learning environments. The paper also questions whether the label community is actually a failed metaphor for something that seems to be much too dynamic and elusive to capture with a single construct.

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PursuingtheElusiveMetaphorofCommunity inVirtualLearningEnvironmentsRichardA.Schwier UniversityofSaskatchewan Saskatoon,SaskatchewanCanada email:richard.schwier@usask.ca Pleaseciteas:Schwier,R.A.(2009,June).Pursuingtheelusivemetaphorofcommunityinvirtuallearning environments.ProceedingsofEDMEDIA2009,AssociationfortheAdvancementofComputersinEducation, Honolulu,Hawaii.Abstract Socialnetworkingsoftwaresitesareoftenmistakenlycalledlearningcommunities,betrayingasignificantlackofagreementorconcernfor whatactuallyconstitutesacommunity.However,socialnetworkingsitesarebeingusedbyteacherstoengagestudentsindynamicways, andbylearnersasvehiclesforconstructingtheirown,verypersonallearningenvironmentsandcommunities.Thispaperdrawsonlessons wehavelearnedaboutbuildingpersonallearningenvironmentsandvirtualcommunitiesfromourresearchandexperienceinformaland nonformallearningenvironments.Itaddressesthekeyquestionsofhowcanweconstruct,maintainandusheroutcommunities,whojoins communities,andwhatcharacteristicsofcommunitiesseemtobesharedacrosslearningenvironments.Thepaperalsoquestionswhether thelabelcommunityisactuallyafailedmetaphorforsomethingthatseemstobemuchtoodynamicandelusivetocapturewithasingle construct.IntheVirtualLearningCommunitiesResearchLaboratoryattheUniversityofSaskatchewan,wehavespentthepast severalyearstryingtounderstandwhatmakesonlinelearningcommunitiesemerge,growanddieaway.Itsongoing researchprogramhasprofferedandrefinedamodelofvirtuallearningcommunity(VLC)catalysts,elementsand emphasesthatseemstocapturesomesignificantfeaturesofVLCsinformallearningenvironments.Recently,our researchhasturneditsattentiontononformalandinformallearningenvironments,callingintoquestionwhetherthe formalmodelholdsanyvalidityforbroaderdefinitionsoflearning,andwhetherinfact,communityisafailed metaphorfordescribingtheshapeofactivitythatoccurswhenlearnersholdswayoverthelearning. Inthispaper,Iwillattempttoextractsomeofthekeythingswehavelearned,andofferaperspectiveonwhich characteristicsappeartoberobustinformallearningenvironments,whichofcharacteristicsseemtostandoutin nonformallearningenvironments,andwhichseemtotranscendenvironments,andalsospeculateaboutthe challengesofbuildingonlinecommunitieswhenwemovefromformal,tononformal,toinformallearning environments.Becauseofthereflectivenatureofthispaper,severaloftheideasparticularlythoseabout characteristicsofformalVLCswilldrawonmaterialpreviouslypublishedelsewheretoprovidecontext,butIwant toavoidbeingtooselfreferential.Foramorethoroughtreatmentoftheseideas,Idirectthereadertoa comprehensivelistofourpublicationsathttp://www.vlcresearch.ca.DistinguishingandMeasuringCommunitiesThemetaphorofcommunityhasbeenusedtodescribeawiderangeofsocialnetworks,bothterrestrialandvirtual, andinfact,thereseemstobeaninclinationforanyoneusingasocialnetworkingsiteformostanypurposetoreferto itasacommunity.Generallyspeaking,communitiesarecollectionsofpeoplewhoareboundtogetherforsome reason,andthereasondefinestheboundaryofthecommunity.Alearningcommunityemergeswhenpeopleare drawntogethertolearn,soalearningcommunityisagroupofindividualsengagedintentionallyandcollectivelyin thetransactionortransformationofknowledge.Althoughlearningcommunitiesemphasizeoutcomesineducation, theirpowerresidesintheirabilitytotakeadvantageof,andinsomecasesinvent,aprocessforexchangingideasand learningcollectively.Virtuallearningcommunitieshappenwhentheprocessoflearningtakesplaceoutsidethe boundariesoffacetofacecontact,typicallyelectronically. Allofthissoundssoniceandcozyonthesurface.Communitiesareidealized;theyconjureupmemoriesofwarm summerevenings,thedanceoffireflies,andhappygreetingsexchangedbyneighbors.Ofcourseeachofusconjures upsomewhatdifferentvisionsofcommunity,butthepointisthatallofourconjuringsarefictional.Fewofus actuallyexperiencedthecommunitywedreamabout,yetwehavelittletroubleextendingourimperfectvisionsto virtuallearningcommunities.Weassumethatlearnerswillwanttocometogether,thattheywillbemutually supportive,andtheywillbedriventolearn.Butitisimportanttorealizethatcommunities,andparticularlyvirtual learningcommunities,arenotinherentlygood,desirableorideal.Forexample,terroristgroupsandorganizedcrime exhibitsmanyofthecharacteristicsofastrongcommunity,butfewpeopleoutsideofthosegroupswouldconsider themtobedesirable.Ratherthandescribinganidealizedstate,communityisalabelfordescribingatemporarystate ofaffairs;acontextwithinwhichpeopleencounteroneanotherandnegotiatetheinterplayoftheiruniqueyetrelated agendas. Whentechnologymediatesacommunity,thenatureofinteractionwithinthecommunityinevitablychanges.Yet, weunderstandlittleabouthowpeopleinvirtualenvironmentsareinfluencedbythoseenvironments.Does participationinonlineenvironmentspromotehighlevelsofsocialengagementandsupportsignificantrelationships amongparticipants,ordoesitleadtoacutesocialisolation(Kraut,Paterson,Lundmark,Kiesler,Mukophadhyay,& Scherlia,1998)?ThereisrecentevidenceoutofCanadathatonlinenetworkingcanactuallyincreaseparticipationin thecommunityandinsocialorganizations;onlineconnectionsservetosupportexistingrelationships(Veenhof, Wellman,Quell,&Hogan,2009).Butitalsocancreatenewtypesofrelationships,deepandshallow,thatwerenot previouslyavailable.Dependingonthecharacteristicsofthecommunityandtheintentionsoftheparticipants, communitiesmayinfactbeengagingandisolatingatthesametime.Perhapsitisamatterofunderstandingthat mediatedcommunicationisfundamentallydifferentfromothertypesofinterpersonalcommunication,and acknowledgingthatelectroniccommunication,withallofitsadvantagesanddisadvantages,willinfluencethe developmentofavirtuallearningcommunity. Ultimatelywecametotheconclusionthatweneededamethodwecouldusetoprovideatrustworthymeasureof whetherweactuallyhadacommunity.Communityisanelusiveconcept,butweneededtodeterminewhetherornot whatwewerelookingatmetsomekindofcriteria.Wedevelopedanelaboratemethodologyforexaminingthe questionandreportedthemasasetofapproachesthatcouldbeusedtomeasureandunderstandthecharacteristics ofcommunity(Schwier&Daniel,2007).Thecategoriesofanalysisincludedidentifyingasenseofcommunity, isolatingcharacteristicsofcommunity,comparingcharacteristicsofcommunity,andmodelingcommunity,andwe mappedthemethodsofanalysisweemployedontothecategoriesofanalysisweintendedtoconduct(seeTable1). Theflowofanalysismovedfromfirstmeasuringtheperceivedexistenceofcommunitybyparticipantsinthe community.Thenweattemptedtoisolatecharacteristicsofcommunityanddeterminetherelativeimportanceofthe variouscharacteristics.Finally,webuiltadynamicmodelfromthedatathatrepresentstheinterrelationshipsamong variables,andthatcanalsobeusedtoprojecttheeffectonthecommunitywhentheconstituentelementsarechanged.Intentionofanalysis Identifyingasenseofcommunity: Didparticipantsdevelopasenseofcommunity? Didthegrouppatternsofinteractionsuggestthata communitymightexist? Isolatingcharacteristicsofcommunity: Whatcharacteristicsoftheonlinelearningcommunities weremanifestinthegroups? Comparingcharacteristicsofcommunity: Whatwastherelativeimportanceofeachcommunity characteristic? Modelingcommunity: Howcantheobservedcommunitycharacteristicsbe usedtomodeltherelationshipsamongandinfluenceof significantelementsoncommunity?Methodofanalysis Senseofcommunityindices DensityandintensityofperipheralparticipationTranscriptanalysisofonlinediscussions,chatsessions andemail Frequencycountofcharacteristics Interviewswithparticipants ThurstonepairedcomparisonanalysisBayesianbeliefnetworkTable1.QuestionsandAssociatedMethodsofAnalysisforExaminingCharacteristicsofCommunityinOnline LearningEnvironments.ModelofaVirtualLearningCommunityUsingtheseanalyses,wedevelopedandtestedamodelofvirtuallearningcommunities,primarilydrawnfrom researchonpostsecondarylevelcoursesofferedasblendedenvironmentsthatwereprimarilyonline(seeFigure1). Inthisdescription,Iwillnotelaboratethemodelindepth,butIwillcallattentiontotwothings:itsthreeconcentric circles,andtheelementsidentifiedintheouterringofthemodel. Thethreeconcentriccirclesofthemodelsuggestthatcommunitiesexhibitanumberofelements(inthiscase13we haveisolatedinourresearchtodate)thatinteractwithinagroupthatemphasizesaprincipalintentionorsetof intensions.Theinterplayofelementswilldiffer,wesuggest,astheemphasisofthecommunitydiffers.For example,acommunityofideasmayexhibitadifferentconstellationofelementsthanacommunitythatemphasizes relationships,butthisisonlyspeculationatthispoint,aswehavenotsystematicallystudiedinteractionsamong elementsandemphases.Theinnercircle,catalysts,identifiesthecentralimportanceofcommunicationina community.Itactstoinitiatecommunity,andplaysoutprogressivelyascommunitydevelopsandparticipants experienceawareness,interaction,engagementandalignmentwitheachother.Figure 1. Model of virtual learning communities In our research, we focused on communities that emphasized ideas, and used the following definitions for our coding (see Table 2). Catalysts Awareness Socialawareness Taskawareness Conceptawareness Workspaceawareness Interaction Engagement Knowledgeofpeople,tasksenvironmentorsomecombination ofthese. Awarenessthatpeoplehaveaboutthesocialconnectionswithin thegroup Awarenessofhowasharedtaskwillbecompleted Awarenessofhowaparticularactivityorpieceofknowledgefits intoanindividualsexistingknowledge Sensitivitytothecontext,andwhatisappropriateor inappropriateinaparticularworksetting Interplayoractivitywithotherswithoutdeepengagement Confrontingorexploringideas,peopleandprocessesfirst presentedbysomeoneelseinthegroupElementsSocialProtocols Historicity Identity Mutuality PluralityRulesofengagement,acceptableandunacceptablewaysof behavinginacommunity. Communitiesdeveloptheirowncommunityandculture. Theboundariesofthecommunityitsidentityorrecognized focus. Interdependenceandreciprocity.Participantsconstructpurposes, intentionsandthetypesofinteraction. "Intermediateassociations"suchasfamilies,churches,andother peripheralgroupsothercommunitiesthatindividualsuseto enrichthenewcommunity.Inthecaseofvirtualenvironments, thismayincludephysical/geographicalcommunities. Individualshavethecapacityandauthoritytoconductdiscourse freely,orwithdrawfromdiscoursewithoutpenalty. Socialparticipationinthecommunity,especiallyparticipation thatsustainsthecommunity. Thelevelofcertaintyorconfidencethatonecommunitymember usestoassesstheactionofanothermemberofthecommunity. Thesensethatthecommunityismovinginadirection,typically towardthefuture. Theroleplayedbytechnologytofacilitateorinhibitthegrowth ofcommunity. Formalorinformal,yetpurposeful,learninginthecommunity. Learningrelatedtocentralpurposeforbeinginthecommunity. Learningrelatedtothingsotherthanthecentralpurposeforbeing inthegroup Situatingpreviousexperiences,postingsincurrentdiscussions,or groundingcurrentdiscussionsinpreviousevents. Activeengagement,opendiscourse,andasenseofimportanceor urgencyindiscussion,critiqueandargumentation. IndividualsshiftingpositionsoropinionstocloseragreementAutonomy Participation Trust Trajectory Technology/Technical LearningProcess Intentional Incidental Reflection Intensity AlignmentTable 2. Codebook Definitions for Catalysts and Elements of CommunitiesAgain,thesearenotdiscreteitemsthatindividualscancheckofftobuildacommunity.Rather,theyareundulating andvaryingfeaturesofcommunitieswehaveobserved.Wefoundthatdifferentcommunitiesfeaturesubsetsofthese characteristicsorevendefysomeofthem,butitdoesseemthatsomecombinationsoftheseelementscarry influenceinthestructureandsuccessofcommunities.Forexamplewhenwecomparetherelativerankingsofthe elementsofcommunitywefoundinformallearningenvironments(courses)totherankingsofthesameelementsin anonformalenvironment,thereweresimilarities,butalsoconsiderabledifferences(seeTable3).Inthelongrun, wecantbuildacommunity;wecanonlyhelpputinplacetheconditionsunderwhichacommunitymayarise.Thereismuchwecandobyattendingtothesefeaturestopromotethebirthandgrowthofcommunity,butwecannot forceacommunitytohappen.Asanaside,thereadershouldnotethattheproceduresforassigningrelativerankings weredifferentforformalandnonformalenvironments,duetochangesintheresearchprotocolsforthetwo programsofresearch.InthestudiesofformalVLCsweusedaforcedchoicepairedcomparisonapproach,andin thenonformalinvestigationweusedfrequencycountsforcodesinthedata.Also,therehasbeenonlyonestudyof anonformalgrouptodateintheresearchprogram,sothesenumbersshouldbeviewedwithaconsiderableamount ofskepticism. Characteristic Trust Learning Participation Mutuality Intensity SocialProtocols Reflection Autonomy Identity Trajectory Technology Historicity Plurality RankinginFormalVLC 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 11 12 13 14 RankinginNonFormalVLC 6* 3 5 9* 6* 9* 1 9* 4 13* 2 13* 6*Table3.RankingsofVLCElementsinFormalandNonFormalLearningEnvironments(tierankingsaremarked withanasterisk*)SomeConclusionsandSpeculationsaboutVLCsTodate,thisresearchprogramhasgeneratedasmuchspeculationandtheoryasithassolidconclusions.Thisisthe natureofgroundedtheoryinvestigationsgenerally,andwedonotwanttofallintothetrapofgeneralizingour findingsbroadlytoothersettings.WhatwehavelearnedoverallisthatVLCsareindeedelusive,andthisisprobably becausetheyaresodifferentandrobust.Ifthereisafailing,wethinkitistheuseofonemetaphorinthefirstplace toattempttodescribeahostofdifferentlearningenvironmentsthatengagepeopledynamicallyinwidelyvarying ways. Wehaverepeatedlyobservedthatawiderangeoffeaturescontributetoturningavirtualgatheringplaceforpeople intoavirtuallearningcommunity.First,wehavelearnedthatbuildingacommunityisnotanorganizational engineeringtaskrather,thechallengeisoneofmotivatingparticipantstocreateacommunityandgivingtheman opportunitytodoit.Clark(1998)usedtheapttermgrowingacommunityinplaceofbuildingorconstructing acommunitytoemphasizetheorganicnatureofdoingthiskindofwork.Ultimately,communitiesarebuiltor dismantledbythoseinthecommunities,notbythepeopleorganizingormanagingthem.Itisthereforeamatterof providinganappropriatestructureandsufficientsupporttheconditionsforacommunitytodevelop.The developmentoftheseconditionsmayemploysomeofthetraditionalprocessesofinstructionaldesignsuchas analysis,assessment,designanddevelopment,butitisimportanttorecognizethattheseproceduresprovideonlya startingpoint,notaprescriptionfordevelopingacommunityoflearners.Theamountofemphasisplacedoncommunityinalearningenvironmentmaybelargelyafunctionoftheoverall coursedesign.Prescribedcontentisoftenseentobewhatcoursesareaboutinformallearningenvironments,but responsibilityandboundariesforcontentshiftdramaticallyinnonformallearningenvironments.Learningmight manifestitselfdifferentlydependingonthecontextofthecommunityinwhichitiscreated,suchaswhether communitiesareboundedorunbounded.Boundedlearningcommunitiesaredeliberatelycreatedincoursesandthey emergeindirectresponsetoguidanceprovidedbyaninstructorwhoactsasasubjectmatterexpert.Instructional designersbroughtupinthetraditionsofcognitivepsychologyandmodelsofIDoftenfavorcontrolledandbounded environmentsoverlesscontrolled,lesspredictable,andunboundedlearningenvironments(Kenny,Zhang,Schwier &Campbell,2004;Wilson,LudwigHardman,Thornam,&Dunlap2004). Butmorerecently,wehaveseenboldopenlearninginitiativesthatprovidetransparent,layeredlearning opportunitiesandexhibitfeaturesofbothboundedandunboundedVLCs.Forexample,Couros(2009)describeda coursehecreatedthatofferedlayersofparticipationtothinthewallsofthetraditionaluniversityclassroom. Studentscouldregisterandparticipateinrelativelyconventionalwaysusingvideoconferencingtechnologies,buta wideraudiencecouldobserveandparticipateinabackchannelsimultaneously,andengagewitheachotherandwith theregisteredparticipantsandinstructor.Similarly,andonawiderscale,GeorgeSiemensandStephenDownes offeredanonlinecourseonconnectivismtheoryasacreditcourseforasmallnumberofstudents,butasanon formallearningplatformfornearly2000studentsworldwide.Thecoursefeatureddailyupdates,networksof bloggersdiscussingtopicinthecourse,videoconferencingsessions,acoursewikianddiscussiongroupsusinga varietyoftechnologiessuchasSecondLifetoparticipateinthecourse.DownescoinedthetermMOOC,for massiveopenonlinecourse,todescribetheintentionofthecourse(Downes,2009).Thesecourses,andothersthat willinevitablyfollow,signalimportantshiftsinthedesignoflearningspaces,butalsopointtoaphilosophicalshift fromclosedandboundedlearningsystemstoopen,transparentandegalitarianbeliefsaboutlearning. Aleaderorleadersheadsthelistofthestructuralandsupportsystemsneededforanycommunitytogrow.These peoplemayactasfacilitators,hosts,educators,managers,coachesorelectronicgurus,buthowevernamed,theyare essentialtothesuccessofavirtuallearningcommunity.Theleadersetstheagendaandthetoneforthevirtual learningcommunity,andisthepersonknowntoallofthemembersofthecommunityasthetouchstoneforprotocol andadministrativeissues.Forexample,onsocialnetworkingsitestheleadercouldbethepersonwhommembers contactforinformationaboutuploadingaprofilephotoorcommentingonblogposts.Thispersonmightalso interveneifadisagreementbetweenmembersismonopolizingthelistandsuggestthatthediscussantsmovetoa privateareatoargue.Inahealthyandwellestablishedvirtualcommunity,membersofthecommunityhandlemost "policing"ofthecommunitythemselves,butthejudiciousinterventionofacommunityleadercanbeinvaluable. Itisalsocriticallyimportantthatsupporttechnologiesbecometransparentandallowparticipantstoconcentrateon thetasks,relationshipsandideasathand,andcreatingabalancebetweencontentandcommunity(Couros,2009; Schwier&Dykes,2004;2007).Theimportantdistinctionhereisthatinvirtualcommunitiesparticipantsarenotjust connectingwithtechnology,theyareconnectingthroughtechnology.Usingtechnologyforinterpersonal communicationisforeignandunnaturalforsomeparticipants,andaslongastheyareconcentratingprimarilyonthe technology,theirlikelihoodofconductingnormaldiscourseanddevelopingdeepconnectionswithpeopleis reduced.Anythinginthesystemthatemphasizestechnologyormakestechnologyahurdleinthesystemisless likelytosucceed. Asafeandopenprotocolofinterpersonalcontact(eitherin'cyberspace'orinperson)isessentialtobuildingtrustin acommunityoflearners.Sharingandlearningcanpromotedialogueonlywhenthereisgroupconsensusabouthowmemberswillbetreatedwithinthecommunity.Peopleneedtofeelcomfortabletoparticipate,andunlessthe invitationtoparticipateisexplicit,andtheboundariesofacceptablebehavioraresharedandunderstood,peoplewill notbeaslikelytotakerisksintheircommunicationwithothermembersofthecommunity.Itisreasonableto publishwrittencodesofconducttokeepcommunitiesontrack(Bruckman,1996).Inanycommunity,andnoticeably invirtuallearningcommunities,relativelyfewmembersconductmostcommunication.Quiteanumberofpeople lurkonthefringesofconversations.Eavesdroppingisareasonableactivityformanycommunitymembers.Even thoughtheycanbeencouragedtocontributetothelearningcommunity,itisreasonabletoexpectthattheywilldo soonlywhentheyarereadyandfeeltheneed. Whobelongstovirtuallearningcommunities?Certainly,membershipinformallearningcommunities,suchas universitycourses,isdeterminedtoalargeextentbyprogramrequirementsandcoursedesigns,andthesegroups willdiffersignificantlyfromthosefoundinnonformalandinformal(voluntary)learningcommunities.Avirtual learningcommunityusuallydependsontheparticipationofrelativelyautonomous,independentindividuals.Insome nonformalandmostinformalonlinecommunitiesparticipantscannotonlyleavethecommunity,theycan sometimesparticipateinthecommunitywithoutrevealingwhotheyaretotheotherparticipants.Autonomyand independencepresentdifficultchallengesforeducatorswhowanttogrowandmaintainalearningcommunity.At thesametime,communitiesdependontheinterdependenceoftheirparticipantsfortheirsurvival."Thechallenge foreducatorsistolearnhowtocreateasysteminwhichpeoplecanenterintorelationsthataredeterminedby problemsorsharedambitions,andthatarenotoverburdenedbyrulesorstructure"(Heckscher&Donnellson,1994, p.24). Itisalsoessentialforeducatorstoacknowledgethatmuchofthelearningthattakesplaceinonlineenvironmentsis actuallyembeddedintheconnectionsamongpeople;withoutsignificantandunfetteredcommunicationamong learners,mostoftheavailablelearningwillnothappen.Theurgetocontrolandshapethelearningenvironmenthas togivewaytoastrongerurgetoencouragelearnerstoexplore,connect,shareandfindtheirownlearningpaths. Enoughstructureisnecessarytogiveshapeandfacilitatecommunicationinthecommunity,butthemembersofthe communityshouldnotfeelconstrainedbythestructure.Itisimportanttocontrolthegrowthofanonlinelearning communityinsomesettings,butequallyimportantnottocontrolthegroupifanauthenticcommunityistobe allowedtodevelop,andforlearningtobemaximized. Anotherthingwehavelearnedisthatpeopleconnectindramaticallydifferentwaystolearningcommunities.Their participationisnotuniform,forindividualsovertime,orforallmembersofthegroupatanyparticulartime.Wesee thatlearnersmayinteractagreatdeal,buttolittleeffect.Somemayengagedeeply,butnotovertly.Somemay engageovertly,butnotdeeply.Inotherwords,participationdoesnotequalengagementforlearners,andwhile interactionisvisible,engagementishidden.HudsonandBruckman(2004)identifiedsimilaritiesinhowpeople participateonlinewithasocialphenomenoncalledthebystandereffect.Essentially,thebystandereffectpositsthat peoplearelesslikelytoofferassistanceinanemergencywhentheyareinagroupofpeoplethatthepresenceofa groupactivelyinhibitsanindividualfromactinginanemergency.HudsonandBruckman(2004)offerfour mechanismsthatseemtocontributeandthatmayhavecorollariesinonlinelearningenvironments: selfawarenessthepresenceofanaudienceinhibitsindividuals,whodon'twanttoappearfoolishfor inappropriate. socialcuesindividualsactivelylooktooneanotherforcuesabouthowtobehave.Inactionbreeds inaction. blockingactionbreedsinaction.Whenonebystandertakesaction,itblocksothersfromtakingaction.diffuseresponsibilityinagroup,eachindividualfeelsonlylimitedresponsibilitiesforthenegative consequencesofinaction.Thesemechanismsmayplayoutdifferentlyorsimilarlyinonlinelearningenvironments,buttheyprovideauseful frameworkforexaminingtheparticipationofonlinelearners.Oneexplanationforalackofparticipationissocial loafingorfreeriding,aphenomenonnotuniquetoonlinelearningcommunities,butonethathasbeenrepeatedly identifiedasaproblemintheonlinelearningliterature(Piezon&Donaldson,2005).Butsocialloafingandfree ridingareassociatedprimarilywithformallearningenvironments,wherethemotivationtolearnandtheactivities directingthatlearningareprescribedexternally.Asselfdirectedlearningincreases,theopportunitiesandneedfor socialloafingdecrease,andwhatwasoncelabeledasfreeridingcanbeseenasadifferentandmorenegativeview ofsharing. Ineverycourseweobserved,therewereperiodswhenstudentparticipationinonlinediscussionsweresohighand studentfeedbackontheprocessofonlinediscussionswassopositivethatstandardtermssuchasmotivatedand engagedseemedtame.Ourlabelfortheseincidentsofactive,dynamic,focusedlevelofengagementledustocoin theprincipleofintensity.Learnerswanttobedoingsomethingimportantorsaturatedinacontextthatismoving themforward.Intensitycantaketheformofsocialadvocacy,joyfullearning,emotionalconnectionandevenhaving anassociationwithsomeonewhoisconsideredimportant.Butinonlinelearning,contentandcommunityarealso keyingredientsforintensity.Whenindividuallearning,grouplearning,andinputfromtheinstructorarepresent, intensitycanformanditcanappearinbothsynchronousandasynchronousdiscussions. Trustappearstobethemostsignificantsingleprerequisitefactorinenablingvibrantcommunitiestoemerge.At least,withouttrustthereisverylittlelikelihoodthatanauthenticcommunitywillhappen.Ifparticipantssharehigh levelsoftrust,theyaremorelikelytoengagedeeplyandtakelearningrisks.Butweseethattrusttakestimetobuild, andthatsomeindividualsaremorewillingtotrustthanothers,soitisanelusivequalitythatcanbepromoted,but notimposedonalearningenvironment. Associatedwithtrustistheideaofintimacy,andintimacyisnecessaryforthedevelopmentofdeeprelationships andcommitmenttoothersandthecommunityatlarge.Oneofthefactorsthatcaninfluenceintimacyisthenumber andtransparencyofparticipantsinanyparticulargroup.Allen(2004)identifiedDunbarsNumber,whichidentifies themaximumnumberofpeoplewithwhomwecanmaintainstablerelationships.WhileDunbarsnumberis147.6 forhumanbeings(itisassociatedwiththesizeofourneocortex),theactualnumberwhocanworktogether intimatelyandefficientlyondiscretetasksinonlineenvironmentsismarkedlysmaller,typicallybetweenfiveand eightindividuals.Allen(2004)describedhissenseofoptimalgroupsizesinapostonhisblog: Inmyopinionitisat5thatthefeelingof"team"reallystarts.At5to8people,youcanhavea meetingwhereeveryonecanspeakoutaboutwhattheentiregroupisdoing,andeveryonefeels highlyempowered.However,at9to12peoplethisbeginstobreakdownnotenough"attention" isgiventoeveryoneandmeetingsriskbecomingeithertoonoisy,tooboring,toolong,orsome combinationthereof. ButDunbarsNumberhasinterestingimplicationsforinformalgroupsthatgatherinonlineenvironments,wherewe seelearnerswhohavemuchlargersocialnetworksandseemtonavigatethemsuccessfully.Thefunctionalsizeofa groupseemstodependontheintentionsofthoseinvolvedforconnectingwitheachother,andbecausegroupsare madeupfewerpeoplewhoarecloseandintimate,yetconnectedtoawiderarrayofpeoplecasuallyand intermittently. Howmembersofagrouptreateachotherisimportanttotheirsenseofcommunity.Anethicofforgivenessseemstopermeatesuccessfulvirtuallearningcommunities.Wethinkthisispartofbuildingacontextthatencouragesrisk takingandultimately,learning.Thiswasmostoftenevidencedbyindividualswhowouldexpressconcernthatthey hadoffendedsomeonebyattackinganideathathadbeenposted.Learnersoftenrepliedbyreassuringtheperson thatnooffensehadbeensuffered,andthatthecriticismswerevaluableinsomewaytothatpersonslearning.This observationhasledmeinmyownclassestodiscusstheideaofforgivenessasadeliberatevalueweshouldadoptin ouronlineconversationswitheachother. Anotherserendipitousfindingfromourresearchprogramhasbeenthatcommunitiesareresilientandtheyseemto haveanaturalinclinationtospringfromtheoozeoflearning.Infact,itappearsthatinsomecaseswehavetodo somethingtokeepthemfromforming,andthatsomethingseemstobeimposingtoomuchcontrolonthelearning andlearningactivities.Asocialconstructivistviewoflearning,inordertobesuccessful,needstoemphasizea profoundrespectforthelearnerandtrustthemtomakegooddecisionsforthemselvesabouttheirlearning.Social networkingascenterpiecereducesemphasisonprescribedcontentandencouragesstudentstomakedecisionsabout content.Wetalkaboutdoingthis,andithasbecomecommonplacerhetoricineducation,butittakescourageto actuallyimplementthesevaluesinlearningenvironments.. Ultimately,wehaveconcludedthatvirtuallearningenvironmentsareeverybitasrealasanyterrestriallearning environment.Theycanhavethesameimpactonlearning,butevenmoresignificantly,theycanhavethesame emotionalcloutasfacetofacelearningenvironments.Aswehavepursuedtheseresearchquestionsoveranumber ofyears,wehavebeenimpressedbyhowtransparenttechnologieshavebecomeformanylearners.Technology mediatedlearningenvironmentsarenotconsideredasspecialorunusualbyamajorityoflearnersinhigher education.Manyseetheirmediaasnaturalextensionsofthemselves,andappeartoconfirmwhatReevesandNass (1996)observedadecadeandahalfagoandlabeledTheMediaEquation.Peopletreattheirtechnologieslikethey treatotherpeople;weareinanagewheretechnologicalengagementandhumanengagementarevirtuallythesame inqualityandeffect. Wehavealsolearnedthatlearningcommunitieshavealifecycle,andthatitisremarkablyorganic.Asgroupscome togetherandbecometoshiftintosomethingmoreintimatewetypicallyseelearnersmovethroughdiscussionto cooperationandcollaborationasthelearningcommunityemerges.Thisformativestageinthelifeofavirtual learningcommunityischaracterizedbytheattractionofnewmembers,andthesemembersshapeandreshapethe personalityofthecommunity.TheVLCmaymorphfromwhatitscreatorsfirstimaginedintosomethingaltogether different.Thepurposemaychange,expandorcontract,andweseeincreasingamountsofsocialinterchangeamong participantsastheygrowincomfortandastrustincreases.Ifrequiredtobemembersofaformalcommunity, participantswillbedecidinghowsignificantthecommunitywillbetothem,howmuchofthemselvestheywill investinit,orhowtheycanturnitintosomethingtheycanuse.Inall,VLCsgothroughaperiodoftesting, negotiating,andshaping,andthematchbetweenthepurposeofthecommunityandtheimportanceofthatpurpose tomemberswilldeterminetheinvestmentsmadebyparticipants,andwhetherthegroupactuallyturnsinto somethingmoreintimateandpowerfulthanamerecohort. Butultimately,mostcommunitieswillend.Informallearningenvironmentstheendoftencomessuddenlyand predictablywhenacourseends.Andthisgivesanunusual,andsomewhathypocriticalmessagetoparticipantsifwe takeacynicalviewofformallearningenvironments.Ontheonehand,weencouragelearnerstocometogether,to discussimportantmatters,tolearncollaboratively,andtoshareopenlywitheachother.Then,ataprescribed moment,weturnoutthelights,suggestingthattheneedforengagementandthelearningthathasbeenpromoted vigorouslyendswhenthecoursedoes.InthesecaseVLCsdonotdieanaturaldeath;theyarekilled.AnotherpossibilityisthattheVLCentersaperiodofnaturaldecline,asituationthatismorelikelytooccurinnon formalandinformallearningenvironments.Ultimately,thedeathofavirtuallearningcommunity,orothersimilar organizations,maybegoodthingforeveryoneinvolved.Itcanalloworganizersandmemberstomoveonto somethingelse.Theremaybetherarevirtualcommunitythatbecomessoentrenchedthatitwillsurvivewithout significantchange,butmostvirtualcommunitiesfacegreatervolatility. ButeverythingwelearnedaboutVLCsfromformallearningenvironmentsseemedtobeputintoquestionwhenwe shiftedourattentiontononformallearningenvironments.Muchofwhatweunderstandaboutonlinelearning communitiesandhowtheydevelop,growanddieawayisbasedonexaminationsofformalonlinelearning environmentsprimarilyonpostsecondarycoursesmanagedbyinstitutionsofhigherlearning.Formal environmentstypicallyrequirelearnerstoengageeachotheronlineinprescribed,externallydefinedways.As effectiveasformalenvironmentsmaybe,payingexclusiveattentiontothemlimitsourunderstandingofthenatureof learningcommunities.Nonformallearningenvironments,bycontrast,imposefewercontrolsonlearneractivities andcollaborationamongparticipantsisnotrequired.Thereisaneedtoextendbasictheoryonvirtuallearning communities(VLCs)toelaborateourunderstandingoflearningandpedagogicalpracticesinnonformalonline learningenvironments.Thispaperconsiderswhatwehavelearnedaboutlearningcommunitiesinformalandnon formalonlineenvironmentsandspeculatesabouthowlearnersmakeuseofsocialinteractiontoenhancelearning. Thisresearchcausesustowonderwhethercommunityisanoverused,overextendedmetaphorforunderstanding dynamiclearningphenomenaandsocialinteraction,andalsoconsidersthepedagogicalandresearchchallenges nonformallearningenvironmentspresent.Wehavebeguntomoveourresearchprograminthisdirection,andour preliminaryfindingssuggestthatnonformalenvironmentsmayrequireintensiveinterventiontostimulatethe growthofcommunities.ConclusionIfeducatorschoosetopromotethedevelopmentofvirtuallearningcommunities,anumberofissuesemerge.Some issuesarefinancialandlogistichowdoesoneassemblethetechnological,organizational,andpersonalsystems necessarytoconstructandmaintainacommunicationsystem?Butthemoreimportantquestionscenteronthe design,implementation,pedagogyandeffectsofvirtuallearningcommunities,thesocioeducationalaspectsof learningthroughthismeansofcommunication. Thispaperdoesnotsuggestthatusingtechnologytosupportthedevelopmentofvirtuallearningcommunitieswill addressthemanychallengesfacedbyschoolsandotherinstitutionalizedlearningcommunities.Infact,itisquite possiblethatvirtuallearningcommunitieswillremainlargelyirrelevanttoformal,institutionbasededucationorat leastmarginalizedbyschoolsystems.Butmanypeoplearealreadytechnologicallyliterate,andmanyalready participateininformalvirtuallearningcommunitiesoutsideinstitutionalizededucationalsystems.Usingtheideas inherentincommunitywhenweconstructlearningenvironmentsoffersawayofusingtechnologythatisconsistent withsocialconstructivistapproachesineducation,andsuggeststhatvirtuallearningcommunitiescancontributeto thewaywerespondtothechallengeofbuildingdynamic,engagingandauthenticonlinelearningenvironments.ReferencesAllen,C.(2004).TheDunbarNumberasalimittogroupsizes.RetrievedonApril27,2009from http://www.lifewithalacrity.com/2004/03/the_dunbar_numb.html.Reeves,B.,&Nass,C.(2003).Themediaequation:Howpeopletreatcomputers,television,andnewmedialike realpeopleandplaces.PaloAlto,CA:CenterfortheStudyofLanguageandInformation.. 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Wilson,B.G.,LudwigHardHardman,S.Thorman,C.L.,&Dunlap,J.C.(2004).Boundedcommunity:Designing andfacilitatinglearningcommunitiesinformalcourses.InternationalReviewofResearchinOpenand DistanceLearning,5(3).RetrievedApril1,2005fromhttp://cade.athabascau.ca/vo5.3/wilsonAcknowledgementsThe author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of research team members in the Virtual Learning Communities Research Laboratory at the College of Education, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon to the research and ideas expressed in this paper, including Ben Kei Daniel, Heather Ross, Jaymie Koroluk, Kirk Kezema, Xing Xu, and Dirk Morrison. This research is supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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