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Building Online Learning Communities

First published: October 04, 2000

Community building on the Net is not an easy task. We are not talking of the difficulty in creating community-based products (the software), but of the difficulty in fostering and maintaining online relationships . Communities is about the people, and not about the tools that enable communication. In the following sections, we will guide you through resources on the Net that you can explore to learn about building online communities, be it for business or learning.

Hopefully, in the near future, we will not have to read research reports like this one that recently appeared on First Monday, a peer-reviewed online journal, which concluded:

In a series of four studies, student postings on newsgroups created for their courses at Carleton University were monitored, and opinions were gathered from samples of students and instructors regarding their newsgroup activities. Results show that an overwhelming majority of students never posted messages on newsgroups, nor did their instructors. In addition, a large majority of students rarely read what others had posted…. The results clearly indicate that course newsgroups have limited educational value until students and instructors find more time and motivation to make more and better use of the medium.

1. The context

To get an idea of what levels an online community can attain, it would be useful to take a look at some successful online communities. The May 1997 issue of Wired Magazine bought out The Epic Saga of The Well: The World's Most Influential Online Community.This article describes a story around The Well, considered by many to be the most successful online community. We bring out a quote from this article to describe the intensity of some online relationships:

When Phil Catalfo's 7-year-old son Gabe was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, members sat vigil with (philcat) and posted reams of support. When Isaac, a much-loved teenager, couldn't afford to attend the private school of his choice, people chipped in to help his mother come up with tuition. When Mike Godwin, an outspoken member who was not universally liked, lost his worldly possessions in a moving-van fire, friends and foes sent him books from their own libraries to replace his lost volumes. It began to dawn on people that this was the sort of thing that happened in a small town. The response to need in this community, at once inseparable and separated by worlds, became extraordinary. When one member developed a liver disorder in New Delhi and fell into a coma, a group was organized, within days, to line up the blood-filtering equipment needed to save her life, then to have her flown back to a hospital in the US.

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2. Some Strategies

There have been scores of articles written on building and sustaining communities for online learning, but one book stands above the rest--Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education (1989). Although this book was written in 1989, the issues it tackles are still relevant today. Btw, the book is out of print, but the *entire* book is available online! Some chapters we particularly like are on the moderation of online communities.

Feenberg writes on the need of the moderator/instructor to be able to weave rich communications; to provide new perspectives and insights:

Many conferences lack weaving because no one has the time or the talent to perform the function for the group. This is unfortunate since, as a written medium, conferencing offers a unique opportunity to reflect upon the agenda of the group. The conference moderator or another participant can review printouts, harkening back to earlier discussions, clarifying confused expressions, identifying the themes, making connections, 'indexing' the material mentally.

Davie writes on the facilitating role of on online instructor/moderator in setting the climate for the discussions, managing group discussions, and fostering learning activities like joint writing of projects.

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3. Our White Paper

Have no time to go through all these resources? Well don't worry--we have an irresistible white paper that synthesizes all the above factors and provides you with a clear perspective for building and sustaining online learning communities for e-learning solutions. Download the pdf file (12 pages, 62Kb). You will need the Acrobat Reader to read the file.

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