The Future of Online Learning

Learning Communities

Humans to a large degree are social animals, and consequently, the most important of our needs are served by communities. This is why, even when travel is difficult, we tend to cluster in cities, towns and villages. It is why, when you look at children playing in the schoolyard, they are not dispersed, but clustered. Why bars, clubs and recreational facilities attract us. And so too with learning. Education is not merely the acquisition of new information and skills, but a social activity, where knowledge and skills are demonstrated, criticized, or merged.

Education is a social activity, and that is why the picture of distance learning wherein each person studies from their own home, supported by a personal computer and desk videophone, is wrong. To be sure, there is room for home study, but people, and especially children, need community as well. It is because of this that online learning in the future will emphasise community much more than is perhaps imagined today.

Two major types of community will rise to prominence over the next decade or so: the topic or interest based community, and the physical or peer based community.

Interest based communities are collections of people who, although they may be geographically dispersed, share a common location on the internet. We see these emerging already. Gardeners hang out at gardenweb. Computer geeks hang out at Wired. Distance educators have found a home at the Node. Across the internet, thousands of topic-specific communities have begun to emerge.

The existence of online communities has drawn a lot of commentary over the last year or so. This is in part because of their proliferation, but also because the dynamics of an online topic based community are singular. From time to time we read about the close and intense relationships developed by members of online communities, about the openness of communication in an online environment, about the degree to which people commit themselves to their online homes. All of this is well documented.

Online educators will find themselves building interest based communities whether they intend to do this or not, because the mechanics necessary for the creation of an online topic based community are present in the structure of almost any online course. In order to create a topic based community, one only needs a topic, a group of geographically dispersed people interested in that topic, and a means of shared communication, such as a discussion list or online chat.

What will change in the future is that online educators will better learn how to foster and nourish online communities. They will want to do this because, the greater the dedication to the community, the greater the dedication to learning, since learning is the shared experience which defines this community.

The factors which contribute to a successful online community are to some degree known, though that said much more empirical data needs to be collected. But in general, one of the keys is ownership. By that, what I mean is that the members of the community play a key role in shaping the community. For a community is not a broadcast medium. It is not a place where the organizer provides material and the members consume it. It is a shared and constructed environment, where the members along with the organizers play roughly equal roles in content creation.

In an educational context, what this means is that a lot of the learning - and learning materials - will be those constructed by the students themselves. We begin to see this with the use of discussion lists in online courses, but also in the creation of topic-based web pages (and other resources). Students online also tend to be very vocal in their criticism of the interface, of the instructor's tone, of the usefulness of resource materials, and of the colour of the background. As much as possible, these comments should be incorporated into educational materials; in the future, students will define these themselves (and criticize each others').

We have already entered the era in which lifelong friendships are formed between people on opposite sides of the planet. Online learning will inevitably tap into this trend, and because of the deep nature of the learning experience, will accelerate it.

Peer based learning communities by contrast almost by definition cannot be formed over the internet. They will exist because online friendships lack fundamental qualities that humans are unwilling to go without. People need a pat on the back, a (physical) shoulder to lean on, a drinking buddy, an opponent for squash, somebody whose physical presence, for one reason or another, matters.

Peer based learning communities are in fact the polar opposite of online communities. While online communities depend on a topic or area of interest to exist, peer based communities are topic neutral; one person may be a scientist while another may be an artist. While online communities consist of geographically dispersed members, peer based learning communities exist in some particular geographical location.

A peer based learning community will be that group of people attending a particular school or learning centre (as discussed above). People become members of the community because of a shared location, workplace, cultural background, religion, or language, and because of shared experiences in online learning. While people in a topic based community, for example, will discuss this or that monograph or expert in the topic, people in a peer based learning community will discuss this or that institution, interface software, or community events.

Peer based learning communities are vital to learning because they provide a safe environment in which to learn. A person does not feel cast adrift on the sea of the internet when working in a community of people facing similar needs and challenges. Though each may be pursing a different educational goal, their overall objective and means of travel is the same, and thus they offer mutual support, encouragement, and reassurance.

As with online communities, we are beginning to see peer based learning communities emerge in all manner of locations. From personal experience, I can cite the learning centre in Fort St. Jean, in northern British Columbia, shown to me by the people at Open Learning Agency, or the fishers' retraining centre, a block away from the urban aboriginal training centre, fostered by the New Westminster School Division. Or the South West Indian Training centres in Sioux Valley and Waywayseecappo, in rural Manitoba. Or even the group of people in Brandon and area studying instructional design from Athabasca, who one after the other all seemed to show up in my office.

The existence of, and need for, both interest based and peer based learning communities will have a significant impact on the design and delivery of online instruction in the future. Much of what follows is based on the assumptions stated in this section.

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Copyright 2004 Stephen Downes
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.