Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Learning in Communities

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 04, 2004

This Magazine Column published as Learning in Communities in LearnScope Mar 04, 2004. Australian Flexible Learning Framework [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

With the discussion and - dare I say it - hype surrounding online courses, learning objects, and other forms of online content, people have to a large degree stopped talking about the idea of the learning community.

But they shouldn't. Learning - even online learning - still occurs for the most part in communities. Students take part in online classes and seminars, they exchange thoughts and ideas in mailing lists and on discussion boards, they work in project teams and work groups. The concepts of learning and community are almost inseparable, even for the self-study student.

Why the emphasis on community?

First, because a community supports improved learning. Collaboration and discussion expose people to new ideas and outlooks. The collaboration that occurs in environments such as classrooms and communities, as Wienicki says, is necessary for the process of shared cognition', the idea that a group of people can create a more complete understanding than a single person working on his or her own.

Second, a community generates a sense of commitment not created merely by an individual working on their own with the content. As Rheingold notes, "People everywhere seem more interested in communicating with each other than with databases." ( People working in communities have a deeper sense of commitment to the process and the product, whether in learning or any other endeavor.

Third, learning in communities promotes what may be called learning beyond the content. In particular, learning in communities teaches a person how the content may be applied in a wide variety of situations, and communities provide these examples. The community becomes what Wegner called a 'community of practice', and the student learns "the practices of a field, its social organization, and its mores". (Gordin,, )

And fourth, learning communities help reduce the workload of those providing instruction by allowing students to help each other and by allowing an instructor to help many students at once. Russ Albery writes, asking students to participate in communities, "you're giving more people the chance to help you (and) you're helping all the people who come after you that may have the same question." ( )

What makes a community successful?

First, a community has to be about something. I remarked in this in a recent paper when, as a critique of Orkut ( I said, "there is no 'there' there." ( A community must be centered around some topic or activity, or as Hegel and Armstrong (Net.Gain) say, they need a "distinct focus".

Second, there must be, as Figallo (Hosting Web Communities) says, a creation of the sense of the whole. Members need to feel that they belong to something larger than themselves, that there is a web of relationships between the members. This requires an ongoing exchange - of messages, of thoughts - between the members, and the fostering of relations that alst through time.

Third, content and communication must form a seamless whole, that is, the two must be integrated. On discussion lists, people complain when members go off topic or "hijack a thread". In successful communities, such as Slashdot ( , the conversation is regularly 'seeded' with content and activities proposed by moderators. Communities such as IFETS ( or ITForum ( typically centre conversation around a discussion paper.

Fourth, there must be an appreciation of participant contributions. One of my major criticisms of the Poynter online community ( is that contributions submitted to the discussion board seem to languish, never being read, not even by site organizers. A person needs to feel like a somebody on an online community, to have a persistent and unique identity, to see themselves reflected in the whole.

Fifth, a community is sustained only through ongoing communications. It must be remembered that communication and interaction are the primary objectives of a community, not an adjunct or secondary activity.

Sixth, a successful community empowers its members. This is especially important in learning, where a community enables student to build their own learning. But to make this happen, community organizers must provide access to resources and information. As Gordin,, write, "when students are engaged in school-based learning communities they must do more than be passive collectors of previously digested information." They must be encouraged and supported in the creation of something new. ". (Gordin,, )

Seventh, a learning community in particular must have an educational orientation. As activities, resources and support are added to the community environment, they need to be structured with a pedagogical purpose. In a community with static membership, this means a gradual progression toward more complexity and deeper discussion. In a dynamic community, where members come and go, this means providing from time to time introductory materials along with the more advanced (this is why you see communities like WWWEDU regularly redistribute their FAQ).

And finally, eighth, a successful community will have a sense of history. Such a community does not begin and end with the classroom. It is something that members have a reasonable expectation will endure beyond a particular course or class, and that the contributions and connections made will have a lasting impact. A community should have an archive, created by earlier students, that later students can build on.

Thanks to its long history, we know quite a lot about online communities. As part of their tremendously useful Moderators HomePage ( , for example, Collins and Berge link to documents like Howard Rheingold's 'Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online' ( ) containing not just good advice ("both civility and nastiness are contagious") but thoughts on the nature of such environments (the idea, for example, that a discussion area is grown, not built).

Yet for all that, it seems to me that there remains a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the role and implementation of online discussion and online communities in online learning.

Probably the greatest misapplication of online community lies in the idea that it is an adjunct to, or following from, the creation and design of an online course. This is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the existence in itself of course discussions. In more institutions that I can count, when a course is offered online, the discussion community is created with the first class and disbanded with the last. The community owes its existence to the course, and ends when the course does.

This relation of dependence is reflected in the design of learning management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT. In these environments, the course structure provides the primary means of navigation, and as the students (in a group) traverse the material from topic to topic, they are sent to a discussion area to answer (usually) predefined questions. Even authors with a good perspective on the importance of community ask questions like, "What are the educational advantages of supplementing a course with on-line discussion tools?" (

The design of these learning management systems also reinforces the idea that discussion is not central to the course, that it is something tacked on. One 'leaves' the course material (usually via the main menu) to go to the 'discussion area' (imagine, by analogy, if once a professor finished his lecture the entire class got up and walked across the hall to the 'discussion room').

If there is a single point that I would like to make in this article, it is that the relation ought to be the other way around: that the course content (much less its organization and structure) ought to be subservient to the discussion, that the community is the primary unit of learning, and that the instruction and the learning resources are secondary, arising out of, and only because of, the community.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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